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Microsoft to let Seattle-area employees return to office

by Tribune News Service | March 24, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

For the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic more than a year ago, Microsoft is allowing its Seattle-area workforce back into the office.

Microsoft's roughly 57,000 employees in Seattle, Redmond and Bellevue in Washington state will have the option to return to the office Monday, the company announced in a blog post written by Microsoft Executive Vice President Kurt DelBene.

"We've been closely monitoring local health data for months and have determined that the campus can safely accommodate more employees on-site while staying aligned to Washington state capacity limits," DelBene said. Washington relaxed coronavirus restrictions Monday, allowing indoor spaces to increase capacity from 25% to 50%.

The Redmond-based technology giant has for months been allowing a limited number of employees to work from the office.

Redmond employees are still encouraged to work remotely, DelBene said, and the company has capped the number of people allowed in shared spaces at one time. Microsoft expects to stay well within Washington's capacity limits, but the company will monitor badge check-in data and prioritize essential workers if capacity becomes an issue, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

Starting next week, Microsoft employees will have the option to work from home, in the office, or some combination of both, DelBene said in his blog post. Data from the company's other offices worldwide, many of which have already reopened in a limited capacity, indicate that most employees are still choosing to spend less than 25% of their work time at the office.

Microsoft paired the announcement of its return to the workplace with the release of a report showing that for many, an end to full-bore remote work cannot come soon enough.

The report, which surveyed more than 30,000 office workers in 31 countries and analyzed "trillions of productivity and labor signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn," found that 65% of workers are craving in-person time with their teams. Remote employees also reported being overworked and exhausted -- though managers said their teams were more productive than ever.

Still, Microsoft's report indicated that 70% of workers want to have the option to work remotely, a future that Microsoft is not alone in dubbing a "hybrid workplace."

Microsoft and other Seattle-area tech employers say they don't foresee a broader return to the office until this summer, once the majority of employees are more likely to have been vaccinated. Even then, many will continue to give employees more flexibility about working from home.

Microsoft's blog post did not specify whether it will require workers returning to the office to be vaccinated, and a spokesperson did not immediately respond to the question.

Facebook, which employs roughly 5,000 people in the Seattle area, will reopen its local offices at 10% capacity next month for employees struggling to work effectively from home, spokesperson Tracy Clayton confirmed Monday. Amazon allows the 60,000 workers at its Seattle-area headquarters back into the office on a case-by-case basis. Both companies are planning a return to the office in early July.

Google, which employs nearly 6,000 Seattle-area workers, will allow employees to work remotely until September. Meanwhile, Seattle-based real estate tech firm Zillow announced last summer that it will give its roughly 5,400 employees nationwide the option to work remotely for good.

At Microsoft, workers have already begun trickling back into the office, said high-level software engineer Bob Goodwin, who's been back on campus for "a while" because a medical condition made it tough for him to work remotely.

As more people get vaccinated, Microsoft's parking lots are getting fuller, and Goodwin is more likely to see colleagues walking around his floor, he said. But the biggest change has been in people's more-relaxed attitudes about sharing the same space.

"Two or three weeks ago, people would have waited patiently to avoid getting in the same elevator," he said. "Now, people ride two at a time."

Still, Microsoft's research suggests many of its workers are likely unwilling to totally relinquish some of the benefits of working remotely.

Laurie Kriesel-Roth, a program manager in Microsoft's research division, said she does not miss spending up to three hours a day commuting between Redmond and her Rainier Beach home.

"My original plan was not to go back at all," she said.

Ultimately, she said, she'll likely be back in the office one or two days a week.

"There's some "FOMO," you know, fear of missing out," she said. "People getting together and going out for lunch. Birthday cakes. I think I'll be OK going in as needed."

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