Google Is Helping Its Workers Cope With Bad Government
A pedestrian walks past signage at Google Inc. headquarters in California, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Google Is Helping Its Workers Cope With Bad Government

Google’s announcement on Monday that employees can work from home until July 2021 came as a surprise. It seemed as if the data-and-search giant expected the pandemic to rage unchecked for another year.

But it’s actually a very compassionate decision for the company’s working parents, and according to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was swayed by concern for them in the face of so much uncertainty about school reopenings. Because the school year typically runs from late August to mid-June, Google’s decision gives working parents at least one thing they can count on this academic year. That’s one less variable to sweat over.

Some companies have taken a more moderate approach, trying to re-establish the office as the norm while making allowances for particular employee situations, including caregiving responsibilities and medical conditions that would make catching Covid-19 especially dangerous. But there are benefits to a blanket work-from-home policy.

For one thing, all-remote teams often work better than partially remote teams, says Barbara Larson, a professor at Northeastern University who studied geographically dispersed teams long before they became pandemic-necessary. On partly remote teams, you tend to get an in-group and an out-group, she says. The in-group has more information and tacit knowledge about what’s going on; the out-group is often inadvertently left out of key decisions and conversations. But with virtual organizations, “there is no out-group.” Everyone’s on the same playing field.

And think about the particular people who are likely to need remote work this coming year: caregivers and employees with health conditions. There’s already a stigma attached to working parenthood and caregiving; letting those employees stay home while others brave germ-filled subways or commuter trains will foster resentment among other staff. When only employees with caregiving duties can work from home, you may as well ask them to wear a t-shirt reading “Don’t promote me.”

Similarly, allowing only employees with health conditions or comorbidities to opt out of the office is likely to result in no-win conversations about fairness with in-office staff. Managers will be accused of having different standards for different staffers and won’t be able to explain why some employees get special treatment without disclosing private health information. Moreover, offering a health exemption means some employees might have to disclose sensitive information to their bosses when they’d rather keep it to themselves — and have every right to privacy.

A blanket work-from-home policy neatly steps around all these traps. And during this season of uncertainty, when so many decisions have had to be deferred or made contingent on events beyond people’s control, when making long-term plans feels utterly futile, it’s refreshing to see a leader like Google make a simple, definite call. For their business, a long-term WFH plan removes uncertainty and frees them to make other plans.

But let’s be clear. In making this choice, Google and others are turning a truckload of lemons into sour lemonade. The government has failed us. The U.S. has the worst record in the world on Covid-19.

It would be better if the U.S. had a plan for coordinating local responses and stamping out Covid-19. It would be better if our schools had a plan for reopening safely. It would be better if companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter didn’t find themselves in this situation. But their employees can be grateful that they’re willing to pick up the slack.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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