Google's Ex-HR Chief Says Hybrid Work Won't Last


Google's offices officially re-open on Monday, when the company starts requiring that employees come in three days a week.

Here’s an expert guess about what will happen next: That arrangement will last maybe three to five years — then Googlers will go back to five days a week, like before times. That's the prediction of Laszlo Bock, who was Google's human resources chief from 2006 to 2016.

Two years into the pandemic, the older generation of executives — even those inside Silicon Valley — aren’t accustomed to managing workforces remotely. “Leaders find it really hard to lead virtually,” Bock said.

Block now runs Humu Inc., an HR consultancy firm, where big companies constantly ask him for advice on the best strategy for returning to office life. He tells them the research suggests a mixture (three days in, two remote) tends to work best. Indeed, an entire think-influencing industry has sprung up around this “hybrid” future of office life. (Mostly from companies selling remote work tools.)

But Bock doesn't think this will last.

For one, he anticipates a lopsided system for employee evaluations. Under a hybrid model, workers who stay home will be at a disadvantage for nabbing promotions, better pay, and plum assignments. "There will be some gamesmanship driving them back to the office as well," he said.

Second — and maybe most important — the bosses want people back in. Executives at Google and other large companies are eager for a full return to office life, according to Bock. He imagines a slow, “boil the frog” transition. Here’s how one unnamed executive put it to him recently: “‘We’ll get everyone back into the office eventually. I just don't want to pick that fight now.’”

Google is one of the largest companies currently experimenting with a hybrid plan. Unlike Apple Inc. or Inc., Google doesn't primarily make gadgets or ship things, meaning it’s a natural candidate for a flexible workforce. Another mostly digital company, Meta Platforms Inc., has offered remote work to all its staff, perhaps to help make its case that the metaverse is really a thing. 

But rather than embracing work-from-home forever, Google has continued to invest heavily in offices and push ahead with its return, despite delays from Covid variants and some signs of productivity upticks from remote work. That's annoyed some staffers, particularly after a senior executive was able to move elsewhere when they couldn't. But the company has said that 85% of requests from people applying to move or work fully remote were approved. Some employees expect the company to be quite flexible with its in-person requirements.

"Remember this is an elite problem," Bock said. Most employees in manufacturing, retail, and the service sector — including many of the janitors and security guards inside Google offices — have been going to the office this entire time.

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