In some of the surest steps so far toward a new, post-pandemic normal for the Seattle area, Microsoft and Expedia separately announced plans Monday to broadly reopen their Washington offices.
Microsoft is moving its Washington offices to the final stage of its phased reopening plan, effective Feb. 28, the company said Monday. The move opens the door for as many as 57,000 workers to return to offices in Bellevue, Seattle and at the company’s Redmond headquarters that have been largely vacant since the COVID-19 pandemic set in two years ago.
Expedia, the Seattle-based travel company that employs 3,000 people in the area, will reopen its Interbay headquarters on a hybrid basis starting April 4, a spokesperson said in a statement Monday less than an hour after Microsoft’s announcement.
News of Microsoft’s reopening in particular sent ripples through the Seattle area, where many employers and workers are still debating when — or whether — to go back to the office.
“That’s a really, really big deal,” said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington historian who has written extensively about tech hubs like Seattle.
Microsoft is not only one of the region’s largest employers, O’Mara said, but also was one of the first companies in the world to go remote when COVID hit. She said many other employers will be asking whether this “sends a signal: Is this over? Is this the new normal? Are we on the other side of this?”
Microsoft said it will fully open its facilities to employees, visitors and guests, and resume campus services, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela announced Monday.
But Microsoft’s reopening doesn’t guarantee all workers will come back full-time. Microsoft said Monday its approach “embraces schedule flexibility as standard for most roles” and that it is allowing managers to approve employee requests to adjust their work site, location or hours.
“Throughout the pandemic, our employees have adapted to many new ways of working while helping our customers and partners navigate their own challenges,” Capossela said. “We know there’s not a singular solution to how people work best, which is why we believe flexibility should be at the forefront of our evolving hybrid workplace.”
Employees have 30 days from Feb. 28 to work out those agreements with their managers.
Expedia will also adopt a flexible approach, said spokesperson Dave McNamee. Most of the company’s offices are currently open to vaccinated employees. The elegant waterfront campus, which was completed in 2019 as the company moved from Bellevue, had only been open for a short time before workers were sent home to work remotely.
Starting April 4, employees will be expected to “spend at least 50% of their time in the office, working with their respective leaders on an appropriate schedule,” McNamee said. “We’re of course going to be flexible and as such have instructed leaders to adopt a team-led approach in deciding schedules.”
In the midst of the pandemic, Microsoft set up a “hybrid workplace dial” to guide its plans for bringing workers back to the office and reopening its facilities. The dial moves in both directions, the company said.
In stages 1 through 5, employees were encouraged to work remotely, and Microsoft set up precautions like social distancing of workspaces, face coverings, daily health attestations and attendance strategies.
In stage 6, the final stage that Microsoft is heading toward this month, “COVID-19 is no longer a significant burden on the local community,” Microsoft said in a March 2021 blog post outlining its strategy. At this stage, most pandemic-specific worksite requirements and prevention measures are removed.
Microsoft made the decision to reopen based on high vaccination rates, declining hospitalizations and deaths in the state, and established local testing solutions, Capossela said Monday.
As of Feb. 14, about 87% of all eligible King County residents had completed their vaccine series and 95% had received at least one dose, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County data.
“As we navigate this new phase of work, we’ll continue to take a data-driven approach to decision-making that follows the guidance of public health authorities,” Capossela said. “We’re maintaining a close watch on local health data in every area where Microsoft has a physical presence, and we’ll adjust our course if necessary.
“We’ve learned a lot about working remotely in the last two years, and we’re fortunate to have the tools to continue doing so if needed.”
Microsoft will also fully reopen its Bay Area sites on Feb. 28.
Microsoft’s announcement was welcome news for the small business community of Redmond, the site of the company’s sprawling headquarters of more than 100 buildings on 500 acres, according to Kristina Hudson, CEO of OneRedmond, a public-private economic development enterprise. Before the pandemic, about 47,000 people worked at the Redmond campus.
The disappearance of Microsoft workers from the campus imperiled businesses that relied on that daily influx, Hudson added.
“This is a great step toward resiliency and having that additional foot traffic in small businesses will be welcomed,” she said.
She asked that returning Microsoft workers and customers “give some grace and patience” when visiting small businesses that are now struggling to rebuild amid staffing shortages and increased costs.
“We are excited to welcome Microsoft employees back to their Redmond campus soon,” Mayor Angela Birney said. “As Redmond’s largest employer, Microsoft’s employees’ return to work creates a positive impact for our entire community, especially our small businesses, and it demonstrates continued progress in moving forward together.”
Business owners in downtown Bellevue, like their contemporaries in many city centers in the region, have also eagerly awaited the return of the office workers who once crowded downtown streets and helped support merchants.
“As one of our top employers, their plans and decisions to come back to the office … it’s a big deal for downtown Bellevue,” said Patrick Bannon, president of the Bellevue Downtown Association.
Expedia’s news also got a positive reaction among policymakers and business leaders in Seattle. Although the company’s returning workers will have a smaller effect in Seattle than Microsoft’s will on the Eastside, the announcement was seen as a win for a downtown area that has sometimes struggled to maintain momentum for recovery.
“I’m hoping this is going to be the beginning of a spring with more back-to-work announcements,” said Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose district takes in Expedia’s Interbay campus.
Lewis took a tour of the new campus in early 2020, not long after it opened, “and then literally, two or three weeks later, they had to walk away,” Lewis said. “So it is good to see them coming back to be able to enjoy that campus with all the work they put into making it what it is.”
Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell contributed to this report.