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When Amazon said in March that most of its 60,000 workers in the Seattle area would return to the office by fall, some employees were infuriated. A few threatened to quit for reasons both substantial and otherwise, including one who said post-pandemic rules would interrupt his regularly scheduled kayaking. At the same time, Microsoft, at Redmond, said employees could work from home, the office or in a hybrid arrangement. Covid has compounded the impression that while Microsoft is often more enlightened, Amazon is harder driving and more old school. As employers compete for prized workers, demand for remote or hybrid work is fast becoming a part of hiring negotiations and compensation packages. Work flexibility may be even more important than pay.

“I think the job market has changed forever," said Chris Bloomquist, co-founder of Talent Mine, a tech recruiting startup. Years ago, he said he could have counted on one hand the number of prospective employees seeking remote work. Now, seven of 10 candidates mention it off the top. And many, several recruiters say, insist on 100% remote.

Amazon has clarified its rules, likely shamed into it by corporate peer pressure. It now plans to allow two days of remote work. This beats its earlier “office-centric culture as our baseline", but maybe not by enough. “People can be wooed away by other companies," said an Amazon software engineer who requested anonymity. “I am jealous of Microsoft. There is implicit trust in its policy, that trust is meaningful." A self-described introvert, she feels the office reduces her productivity, which flourished under stay-home rules, partly because she said she recharged after a daily siesta.

As of now, Microsoft says when offices fully open in September, employees can work from home half the time, no questions asked. Additional time can be arranged with a manager, which is also true at Amazon. Even after Amazon’s policy upgrade, a big difference remains. Remote days at Microsoft are employee determined, Amazon’s, by management. Flexible work at such companies is mostly available to a privileged group of information workers, software engineers, software architects, data scientists, folks in artificial intelligence, and some sales and customer service workers who worked remotely before covid. On-site workers include hardware engineers, for example, and frontline interface workers.

Some small companies like the Seattle-based realty website Zillow have one-upped competitors with their fully-flexible policy on work location, a hiring advantage. “It was the deciding factor for me,’’ said Brecia Young, a recently-hired data scientist at Zillow. Young lives in Chicago and didn’t want to relocate. She picked Zillow over others because the other companies were less specific about remote work. To be clear, remote work is unavailable for Zillow home evaluators and, for regulatory reasons, some who work in home loans.

After a year of working remotely, many workers understandably grew accustomed to it. One financial analyst whose Amazon work was linked to a fulfillment centre, Grigory Lukin, left in May, because he said Amazon wanted him back there and he couldn’t face the commute. He now lives in Canada. You may be able to explain Amazon’s approach by taking a quick look at its many new office buildings; the company has invested heavily in real estate.

But this is a new work universe. Wages are rising in many fields and workers are quitting in big numbers. How do you keep them in office after they’ve experienced the freedom of remote or hybrid work?

A Microsoft study found that 73% of 30,000 people in 31 countries want flexible, remote work to stay. Paradoxically, 67% also want more in-person time. The companies most likely to win the talent war, therefore, will offer a mix. “There is a pretty firmly held belief this is a very big change... everybody around the world wants more flexible work options,’’ said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president of Microsoft 365. “Don’t tell me we are an in-the-office culture. We’ve just done this. I’m hearing anecdotally, ‘Man, for the first time in my career, I am having breakfast with my kids. I didn’t know what I was missing.’"

The rivalry between Amazon and Microsoft isn’t new: Both consider themselves workplace pioneers. Amazon, don’t forget, lets workers bring half a kennel to the office. And over many years, locals have asked which company better connects with the community? Which is more philanthropic? More socially responsible?

The cultural change of the last 16 months is bigger than any single company or class of workers. Even some terminology has turned upside down. The phrase ‘phoning it in’— okay, zooming it in—is no longer pejorative. It is an increasingly respected feature of the workplace of the future, wherever that may be.

Joni Balter is a multi-media journalist and lecturer.

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