The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends in retail and other industries that were already in place but moving at a slow clip. Online shopping as a primary means to buy groceries and other necessaries is a good example of this. Three months of lockdowns have made us all near-professional Instacart shoppers.
And now it seems that work-from-home employment is, after years of being dismissed (and even maligned) by major employers, finally going mainstream.
Walmart is the latest company to announce that thousands of its workers may not have to return to the office after the pandemic ends—or ever.
CNBC reported that Walmart’s global chief technology officer, Suresh Kumar, told the retailer’s technology team in an internal memo sent Thursday the company believes “the way of working in the future, particularly in tech, will be fundamentally different than it was before.” And, he added, “we believe it will be one in which working virtually will be the new normal, at least for most of the work we lead.”
The company’s offices, he said, “will be used primarily for collaboration, to sync up and strengthen camaraderie.… We’ll be together, at times, and for a purpose.”
Walmart, which employs around 10,000 tech employees, is the latest in a growing cadre of major corporations to announce plans to officially keep a hundreds of employees working from home permanently.
Twitter told employees last month that they can work from home “forever” if their role and situation is suited to it. And, according to The New York Times, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a May 21 staff meeting that the company would allow many of its employees to work from home permanently—though many salaries would be reduced to reflect the convenience of not commuting. He also said that within a decade as many as half of the roughly 48,000 employees would be working from home.
The focus on telecommuting is an about-face for both Walmart and Facebook, which have built their respective cultures around in-person collaboration, and have been vocal about the importance of daily face-to-face interaction.
Facebook, especially, has spent multimillions of dollars on its campus environments to make them both cutting-edge and comfortable. The tech giant’s offices were, once upon a time, viewed as major perks—the premium snack–packed, pingpong-friendly environments helped define Silicon Valley tech culture.
But since Facebook’s debut, Americans have increasingly come to prioritize work-life balance—and thus, for many, office foosball matches and free pretzels have lost their luster. And, on the corporate side, CEOs are watching a U.S. economy in free fall, and are presumably wondering if the pricey overhead and liability costs that come with maintaining huge, modern work environments are worth it.
Lastly, many managers are seeing that employees sitting at their own kitchen tables, aided by advanced meeting and file-sharing technologies, works just fine for their business. Kumar said Walmart’s tech team has been “thriving” during the pandemic.
“It’s clear that COVID has changed a lot about our lives, and that certainly includes the way that most of us work,” Zuckerberg said in the meeting. “Coming out of this period, I expect that remote work is going to be a growing trend as well.”
Walmart’s tech workers include software engineers, data scientists, and machine-learning engineers. They’re spread out between an office in Sunnyvale, Calif., the retailer’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, and the former Jet.com headquarters in Hoboken, N.J.
Photo courtesy of Walmart
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