Industry sectors around the world have adjusted to pandemic-driven employment. For many in deep-tech industries, this has meant working from home: 18 months on, many are still working remotely.
With the widespread availability of Covid-19 vaccines in the U.S., tech giants have reached the stage where they are considering longer term plans for their remote workforce, whether that means a phased return to the office, sticking with a remote workforce or something in between.
Amazon has reportedly told office workers that remote status will be decided by individual teams (a change from previous policy requiring at least three days a week in the office from January 2022).
Twitter is moving to a permanent all-remote workforce, and Microsoft has postponed reopening its offices indefinitely.
What about electronics and semiconductor companies? Is remote working here to stay, and what are the implications for how we work? Is remote work now just a fact of life? What place does the office have for tech companies, and what will places like Silicon Valley look like going forward?
Groq, the data center AI accelerator startup, has expanded its team by almost 300 percent in the last year, adopting a “geo-agnostic” hiring policy, meaning employees can work remotely from anywhere in North America. This policy stems from the desire to hire the best people without geographical limitations, the company said.
“Of course we’re in the middle of a pandemic, everything had to change, and that was the driving force,” Tobi Crabtree, director of people and culture at Groq, told EE Times. “It’s really about where people can be their best, how do they balance what they need in their personal life or what their family needs… and working for a cool, challenging, exciting company.”
Groq employees are free to settle in parts of the country that work for themselves and their families. The company maintains offices so that employees who choose not to work from home. The offices also provide a focal point for occasional in-person get- togethers.
Mark Heaps, Groq’s vice president of brand and creative, said the old model just doesn’t work in today’s world where both adults in a family work outside the home. “Imagine you have two partners, and one is a top surgeon or a doctor at a hospital, and the other wants to be an AI engineer,” he said. “Historically, one of them had to give up their career, or move to take advantage of an opportunity for the other partner.”
Heaps cites various reasons Groq employees have chosen to move further from the office, including to be nearer to extended family or to allow children to attend a better school.
“The narrative you hear constantly in the media is people are exiting the Bay Area [and] Silicon Valley because it’s more affordable to live in other places, and there’s certainly some truth to that. But the reality is it’s about quality of life,” he said. “If you want to have a better retention model, you want happier employees. If you want happier employees… the best way we can do that is enable them to make the decisions that suit their lifestyle best.”
A largely remote workforce is of course not without its challenges. While hardware engineers have access to cloud-based toolchains, and modern communication and collaboration tools exist (Groq relies on Slack and Google Business Suite for day-to-day tasks and communication), these tools can’t fill the gap entirely.
“The bigger challenge is in creating collaborative spaces where you used to tap people on the shoulder, or grab somebody in the hallway, and say, Let’s hop into a conference room and let’s whiteboard this out,” said Crabtree. “We have a number of different technologies that folks are experimenting with and piloting to say what’s really working for the team.”
Groq is also careful to ensure employees have access to weekly virtual events where they can touch base, and each team has a budget for monthly in-person events. “We’re seeing the ability to elevate the culture alongside the challenges of being remote,” said Heaps. “Probably the number one concern I hear from candidates is: I’m really interested in joining this geo-agnostic thing, but how am I actually going to connect with the team?”
Heaps and Crabtree said other challenges faced by remote workforces include securing sensitive materials and the challenges posed by managing a remote workforce.
SiFive, a designer of RISC-V processor, accelerator and SoC IP, is currently looking to fill around 50 engineering positions. James Prior, head of global communications at SiFive, said most of the SiFive team works remotely.
“SiFive has had a global presence for many years, making remote work an extension of our worldwide collaboration,” Prior said. “The location has always been secondary to hiring the right people, with remote employees contributing to SiFive pre-pandemic. We try to hire along management and functional role divisions, to offer the best communication and experience for employees.”
Prior said SiFive has increased its use of video conferencing, a transition that went relatively smoothly. “We are still evaluating our return to the office plan, based on our latest needs and capabilities,” Prior said. “SiFive engineers who require specialized equipment hosted at our engineering and design centers collaborate on following local guidelines to ensure their safety.”
At National Instruments, the automated test equipment and virtual instrumentation vendor, software divisions were largely able to maintain productivity levels during the pandemic. Achieving those results for hardware teams took more thought. NI’s Chief People Officer Cate Prescott said the company had to find innovative ways to provide hardware engineers access to hardware, including shipping expensive equipment to engineers’ homes.
“Today, most of our engineers in the U.S. continue to work remotely. We have critical onsite employees going into the office regularly [but] this differs across regions,” Prescott said. Based on employee input and last year’s experiences, “we believe there are still benefits in having a physical location where engineers can come together to connect, celebrate and collaborate. However, we will be shifting from our traditional office-first culture to a hybrid environment.”
Similar to Groq, NI quickly realized its corporate culture would suffer without nurturing. “A big part of our culture is to have fun and to maintain the feeling of the ‘NI Family’,” she said. “When we were all pushed into the remote world, we initially found it difficult to keep those connections – at a time when our employees needed those connections the most.”
Prescott said some managers previously relied on “walk-arounds” or water-cooler conversations to keep tabs on projects. NI’s solutions include Microsoft Teams and the Mural whiteboard app designed for remote brainstorming.
What will remote working mean for salaries?
This past summer, Google announced employees should consider the option of working from home as a benefit, and those continuing to do so should expect a pay cut. Googlers who moved to areas further from their original office could also expect a pay cut due to anticipated cost-of-living reductions associated with their move. Indeed, the company has long based compensation on where employees live, a scale that varies on a city-by-city basis.
Groq’s said it will not make adjust pay for employees residing anywhere in the U.S. and Canada (though salaries may be adjusted for employees in other countries). Pay “is based on the candidate,” Groq’s Tobi Crabtree said.
Will policies like Google’s eventually drive down tech salaries? “In some of these specialized fields, we’re seeing salaries go up,” said Groq’s Mark Heaps. “It’s a mixture of demand, and qualified candidates being in a region…. Scarcity changes what competition means in the marketplace.”
According to James Prior, SiFive offers “highly competitive” compensation for all employees, regardless of whether they work remotely.
As for the Silicon Valley workforce, Prior said the reduction in time stuck in traffic and reduced risks associated with travel are benefits, but a commitment to work-life balance requires attention whether an employee works remotely or at the office.
NI’s Cate Prescott said the company will continue hiring fully remote workers, where appropriate, while fully remote work could potentially lead to a more diverse pool of candidates. “This is a key upside, [an] opportunity for us to leverage,” she said.
Meanwhile, Prescott is adamant that the company office is here to stay. “Hybrid and remote does not mean there is not a place for the office, it just means you must be more deterministic about its purpose,” she said. “That’s why we have declared that we will be a hybrid environment at the corporate level but are empowering our teams to come up with their own ‘team norms’ to enable them to stay connected and nurture a sense of belonging….”