Remote work outlook: Even Zoom is reverting to in-person work

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Zoom, the reigning pandemic-era champion and household name for videoconferencing, is back in the office. Has hell frozen over?

“Connecting people has been really important as we’ve expanded out beyond our core into other verticals,” Zoom’s chief people officer, Matthew Saxon, explained in a recent Fortune interview. “We are still majority-remote, but I think a lot of people forget our many products and solutions that are only designed for in-office work.” 

Zoom has customers, “by the way, who span the gamut,” said Saxon, who joined the company from Meta in 2022. “We’ve got customers who are completely in the office. We’ve got customers who are completely remote, and we’ve got all the various flavors of hybrid in between. We want to ensure we’re very customer-centric; that means really, truly understanding the customer use case and pain points.” 

That becomes a challenge—particularly assessing the needs of fully in-office workers—if Zoom’s primary workforce is permanently remote. 

So Saxon and his C-level peers told workers that if they live within 50 miles of a Zoom office, they must come in two days a week, structured according to team. (Zoom’s four U.S. office locations are in San Jose, Denver, Santa Barbara, and Kansas City.) Within the first week of the rollout, ideas began flowing to enhance products and improve efficiencies, Saxon said.

“We’ve seen a revolution, honestly, in how we work, and I’m not just talking about Zoom,” he went on. “I talk about moving from surviving to thriving, and I think by and large, we check the box, as a society, on whether we can survive remotely. The question is still out on whether we can thrive, and what that looks like now.”

Then there’s Saxon himself, who works fully remotely from Austin, “I think I can manage people at Zoom effectively while working fully remotely,” he told Fortune. “I go into the office from time to time, obviously, for my role, but the majority of the time, I’m home.”

That makes Saxon a testament to Zoom’s mission—or what many people perceived to be its mission during the pandemic, when the office was often not an option at all, and work was only accomplished one way. 

Explaining the ‘why’ behind the mandate

Those two in-office days for local workers are filled with meaningful in-person work, like training and all-hands meetings, with a simple after-work drink added in. “But I don’t think people need that all the time,” Saxon noted. “A sprinkle of in-person work every so often can really help, but again, we found people coming into the office to do their individual contributor work. In that case, there’s no real difference if you’re sitting on a Zoom call.”

To be sure, those other value-adds, like relationship-building and networking, are inarguably valuable. But solo workers are nonetheless “certainly very effective through pure Zoom-only engagement and interaction,” Saxon said. 

“I think we can very, very efficiently get things done,” without an office, Saxon said. But should they, like Zoom corporate, make the return to office move, it must be deliberate—and the decision-makers need to show their work. “Thoughtfulness is crucial,” he advised. 

When the decision to return to the office was made, shortly after Saxon’s arrival, Zoom employees wanted to know the “why,” he recalled. So the team told them. “We had a good, honest conversation about our products, our customer base, and how we’ll improve,” he said. “When we had a more laissez-faire approach to coming in on certain days, it was sub-optimized, and we heard that from employees. So we said, ‘Okay, well, let’s try this different model.’ I think it’s been a good success.”

Proximity bias can help—but it can’t always protect you

Another plus to working beside your boss: it can help newer workers succeed, because the psychological impacts of face-to-face meetings are near impossible to duplicate. “Proximity bias certainly exists,” Saxon acknowledged. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we have a quality of information flow, so things like asynchronous work can happen. We also need to make sure we have some degree of reporting and metrics.”

Keeping an eye on those hardline numbers ensures remote workers in far-flung locales aren’t discriminated against when it comes time for raises or promotions—or rounds of layoffs. Zoom has held several, including one in February that slashed almost 2% of its workforce, per CNBC

On that front, Saxon said the same rules of transparency apply. “It’s important to communicate why certain decisions need to be made. I think employees now expect it, and I think that’s a fair expectation,” he said. “They don’t always have to agree with it, but I do think taking the time to explain things is really important. We spent a lot of time on that, even when we were [laying workers off].”

After the explaining comes the listening. “We needed to give people avenues to express their feelings and be heard—that’s key,” Saxon said. “I use the analogy that culture is like a garden. It constantly needs air, feeding, watering, and refining. Culture is a super, super, super nuanced but important thing that requires a thoughtful approach.” 

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