Culture   //   August 9, 2023

What do Zoom’s moves on RTO mean for the future of work?

Yet another return-to-office mandate was announced this week, but what came as more of a surprise was who made it.

Zoom, the video conferencing company which had rocket-like growth during the remote working movement, with its services enabling millions of employees to work from home, has mandated staff go into the office two days a week.

While many companies have pivoted from fully remote to hybrid, the news that Zoom – a company which has championed remote working for its own employees – is doing the same has caused some to question the long-term future of remote work.

We spoke with experts to unpack the latest Zoom news and what it means for the future of work.

Internally, when employees got wind of a company-wide meeting being called last Thursday, some braced for news of layoffs, according to an internal source. Instead it was the news of an RTO mandate –another big change that requires schedules to be altered and a new approach to working.

Companies have been moving to a hybrid approach over the last couple of years, but when a company that largely makes remote work possible decides to make the switch, it makes us all stop and wonder if remote work is truly possible for the long term.

Some are saying that it’s officially the beginning of the end of remote work. In an emailed statement Zoom said it believes that “a structured hybrid approach … is most effective for Zoom.” Employees who live near an office need to be onsite two days a week to interact with their teams. The spokesperson did not say which two days those would be and if everyone would have to be in on the same days. It’s also uncertain if employees’ contracts include whether or not they could be mandated to RTO at any time.

Those who aren’t near an office have access to WeWork, according to an unnamed Zoom employee who spoke with WorkLife.

“As a company, we are in a better position to use our own technologies, continue to innovate and support our global customers,” Zoom’s statement read. “We’ll continue to leverage the entire Zoom platform to keep our employees and dispersed teams connected and working efficiently. Additionally, we will continue to hire the best talent, regardless of location.”

Ironically, Zoom did its own survey in February, that found that flexible work is now almost as important as compensation. The company wrote: “​​When we get to work when and where we want, we get to take better care of our personal and professional lives.” Its survey of 4,000 knowledge workers across the globe found that 70% would consider leaving their current job for a more flexible working environment in the future and 43% believe that flexible work is no longer a perk, it is a basic expectation.

But these latest moves mark a shift — and one not universally embraced.

One verified Zoom employee on anonymous workplace community platform Blind wrote: “I have never felt worse about working here. Eric [Yuan, CEO]’s suggestion to leave the company if we are unhappy with the changes is the icing on the cake.” Another said that snacks in the office won’t be enough to encourage them to come back.

All of this begs the question of what the future of work really looks like and if companies are taking into account what workers are saying when it comes to flexible working. Zoom has always been on the forefront of advocating for flexible work and now its decision to return to the office hasn’t come with much explanation, which doesn’t really help either the employees or the greater good.

“As an outsider, I would love to understand have they learned something that the rest of us don’t know yet? Are they tracking data in a meaningful way and are they tracking a decline in their ability to innovate products or their engagement?”
Paul Wolfe, former HR exec and author of Human Beings First.

“I would love to understand how they’ve gone from ‘it’s all about flexibility, let’s embrace it’ to ‘oh no, you need to come into the office two days a week,’” said Paul Wolfe, a human-first leadership advocate, former HR exec, and author of Human Beings First. “As an outsider, I would love to understand have they learned something that the rest of us don’t know yet? Are they tracking data in a meaningful way and are they tracking a decline in their ability to innovate products or their engagement?”

But at the end of the day it’s business, and Zoom doesn’t owe it to the public to share why it has made this decision.

“What the Zoom move does show is that organizations are still figuring out which model is best for them,” said Finn Bartram, HR expert at podcast producer People Managing People. 

While Zoom employees will be back in the office two days a week, other companies have settled on three days, or even choose a week out of the month for everyone to come in and the other three weeks they are at home. Coming up with a hybrid model can take time.

“It still remains that the biggest challenge for businesses right now is adapting to a hybrid working model that both engages a team and maintains productivity and team happiness,” said Bartram.

Zain Ali, co-founder and CEO of AI-powered global expansion services company Centuro Global, agrees. 

“I don’t think it’s as black and white as a bubble bursting but more of a split in how businesses choose to operate and individuals can then choose what works best for them when looking for a new employer,” said Ali. “Zoom is a business and the company will have evaluated what it thinks is best for it to run most effectively.”

Going this route, Wolfe said it’s necessary to keep tracking if RTO was the best decision for the business. “Are you going to evaluate this in six or 12 months?,” said Wolfe. “How are you going to measure if things are better once you’ve done this for a while? Maybe RTO isn’t the secret sauce.”