Google's new London office is a $1bn mistake

Working From Home is what employees want, argues Callum Adamson, CEO of Distributed
Callum Adamson

Nearly two years after the first UK lockdown began, it is astonishing that some of the world’s leading companies are still trying to coax their employees back into the office. Google is the latest giant to make this mistake. After first “inviting” employees back last Autumn, with WFH only permitted for up to two weeks at a time, its recent $1bn investment in London real estate signals a firm intention to bet on the physical workplace.

To me, such a move is ill-founded and short-sighted. It marks another attempt by big business and big tech to justify in-person work, under the thinly veiled guise of ‘hybrid working’, disregarding the resistance demonstrated by many UK workers to return to the office. Since March 2020, concerns about productivity levels were rife as laptops were packed up and taken home by knowledge workers in what would prove to be a seismic juncture for the future of work. Since then, workers have consistently proven to their bosses that they can thrive remotely with the right tools – in fact, 58 per cent reportedly feel more productive when working remotely compared with an office environment.

Attempts to re-establish the office as the epicentre of work risk us losing the progress made over the last two years and reverting back to stereotypes of bosses not trusting employees to work from home efficiently and independently. This is a particularly dangerous game to play when businesses are falling victim to the ‘Great Resignation’, making the competition for talent fiercer than ever.

Keeping the talent pool broad

The pulling power of the world’s biggest brands is undeniable, with Google no exception. While full-time office attendance might not be mandatory for their staff, such a sizeable office investment surely means they will want to make good use of it. Could a tension between employee expectations and business investment have a negative impact?

For example, asking employees to work from a centralised location will ultimately limit the talent pool a business has access to. Rather than acting as a magnet for talent, a new office could prevent businesses like Google from attracting skilled workers. This is especially true given that close to half of employees would consider leaving their job if their employer did not offer flexible working, post-pandemic.

To be truly forward-thinking and globally competitive in both the job and service market, businesses need to eradicate proximity bias. London, for example, is considered a major global business centre – a national capital with an international presence – yet many of its workers live within a commutable distance. But it’s hard to believe that the perfect set of employees all live within the commuter belt. That’s why businesses must take inspiration from the city and the approach that has seen it thrive by viewing talent recruitment with the same international mindset.

Leaving the geographical restrictions that come with office space behind to facilitate remote working is key to building the best team for any job. Only time will tell whether Google’s bet will pay off. But why close yourself off from a global talent pool?

Delivering products effectively

Those that embrace remote-first models and build global teams will ensure they have the very best team to deliver the products and services they need to.

Crucial to doing so is understanding that a decentralised workforce does not just embody the “where” but also the “how” and “when”. A flexible approach to delivery, enabled by distributed teams, empowers staff to balance work and life, while opening up the potential for global workforces to collaborate asynchronously. If the business world never sleeps, why should it be restricted to certain hours in the day if they don’t suit those working them? Wherever and whenever the skills are available to deliver a project, businesses should not fear to use them.

Put your best foot forward

Businesses that back the return to the office with significant investment are not only shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to restricting their talent pool though, it could well backfire culturally too.

A dogmatic approach to working structures instantly undermines a company’s efforts to both be an outstanding employer and industry leader, as well as any attempt to create a level playing field for all employees.

The flexibility and work-life balance it offers is not limited to the ability to work wherever is most comfortable. The money saved from overheads or rent could even go towards new, improved employee perks that offer a more meaningful and tangible replacement for in-person interaction – a summer beach break or ski trip, for example.

Walking the walk

The influence of big business on the way we work cannot be underestimated. But when it comes to returning to the office, other firms should not see Google’s $1bn investment as a template for success. Those that do are pouring money into a pre-pandemic relic that, if anything, hinders employee experience and business success.

And try as some companies might, you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. Employees currently hold the trump card when it comes to demanding a more balanced working model in the fiercest of job markets and businesses must jump on opportunity to nurture one that is mutually beneficial.

True leaders will lean into the challenge, listen to their workforce and establish decentralised structures – or risk disillusioning staff whose expectations have evolved due to the influence of the pandemic. The moment is opportune to embrace a fully decentralised, global workforce and all it has to offer.

Written by
Callum Adamson
Written by
January 28, 2022