As remote work has a breakout moment during the pandemic, Seattle and Washington state should look at the risks and opportunities this presents.
One risk is that employers get so comfortable with remote workers, they think twice about creating more jobs in high-cost places like Seattle.
Workers may find offices in a metropolis more appealing than ever, after weeks at home. But managers will have new insights into the productivity of a dispersed headquarters. That will affect decisions when they resume adding jobs.
State and local leaders should be thinking about how to make the most of this evolution and preserve the concentration of tech jobs that will play an outsized role in Washington’s economic recovery.
One good outcome would be if major employers like Microsoft and Amazon finally decide it’s feasible to expand in places like Tacoma, Everett or Bremerton, giving employees options to work farther afield. That would reduce further harm to quality of life in Seattle and its environs to accommodate their office and housing demands. It would also extend the tech cluster to places needing a wider mix of jobs, with room to grow and new, fast transit connections.
Tech companies will still grow where there’s talent, but managers there and at other companies are likely to be more flexible about working from home, said Michael Cusumano, a distinguished professor of management at MIT who has studied Microsoft.
“Companies would be foolish not to take more advantage of it going forward,” he said.
Tom Alberg, managing director of Madrona Venture Group and a former Amazon board member, said people thought the internet and remote working would be a boon to small Washington towns, but it didn’t happen as much as anticipated.
“Maybe this will make both the companies and the individuals more comfortable with it,” he said.
Alberg noted that if Seattle workers continue working from home one day a week, “we’d probably solve our traffic problems.”
Microsoft historically favored a single headquarters. That brought thousands of software developers to Redmond and seeded the region’s tech industry. It continues to spend billions expanding its main campus.
But that mindset evolved decades ago. About two-thirds of Microsoft’s 151,000 employees now work elsewhere in the U.S. and world. More change is possible, after its headquarters experiences more people working from home for weeks, and after its Seattle-born founder, Bill Gates, left the board of directors this month.
During the last recession, Microsoft blunted the regional impact partly with construction spending through the slowdown. Lately it’s shown extraordinary community support. But the board’s hometown commitment will be tested at some point, especially if there’s a prolonged financial crisis.
Chief Executive Satya Nadella said recently he’s finally set up a home office, instead of working in bed, and is immersed in Teams, the company’s online collaboration and communication system.
Amazon was already looking to decentralize its headquarters, after flooding Seattle and becoming a punching bag for local politicians. Amazon’s “HQ2” second-headquarters push didn’t work out as planned. But it’s now done preparation to shift entire business groups out of Seattle and is moving one to Bellevue.
Neither company will up and leave, because they have a critical mass of employees and billions invested locally.
What I’m concerned about is that they’ll be more willing to go elsewhere for their next wave of growth. That was a concern even before the pandemic.
Competition will be fierce among cities and states for every new job created in the recovery. Stimulus dollars will be dangled, as upper management has a newfound appreciation of the potential for dispersed workers to stay productive.
Ed Lazowska, an esteemed University of Washington computer-science professor and rainmaker, said employees at companies like Microsoft and Google have worked remotely for years, so he’s not too worried about attrition. He’s more concerned that technology organizations of companies in other industries, such as retail, may be more vulnerable to relocation.
Fretting about tech employment may seem callous now. Tech giants will be fine.
Today we should be most grateful for workers braving the virus to care for the sick and keep food available, lights on and services functioning.
But soon, hopefully, we’ll be looking to tech to lead Washington’s return to economic health. Its 250,000 jobs and corporate spending are needed to resuscitate restaurants, sustain arts organizations and get builders back to work on housing and office projects. Schools, homeless services and all manner of government programs need tax revenues boosted by the industry.
Change is happening, to the workplace and politics. With luck and planning, Seattle should emerge an even better place for companies to thrive and keep supercharging the state’s economy.