Tiny startups and Big Tech giants alike have had to make hard decisions about their workplaces in this era of COVID-19. Following the wide availability of vaccines in spring 2021, companies started making calls about return-to-office plans: Tesla CEO Elon Musk began mandating workers to return to the office this summer, while other leaders, like Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, said employees could continue working remotely “forever.”
Comcast, the fourth-largest employer in Philadelphia, made its own call last month: Starting Sept. 12, employees are expected to be in the office three days a week.
Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable, wrote a memo to employees the first week of August explaining the decision to have all employees in-office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
“A big part of our culture is working together. Innovation thrives when teammates are together to spontaneously consider and debate ideas,” he wrote. “Our ability to listen and take action on key initiatives is enhanced. And for teammates hired since the pandemic began, it’s important to be able to provide better guidance and management and for them to develop face-to-face relationships.”
Like most announcements of back-to-office work, the reactions from staff have been mixed.
The move isn’t surprising — last year, Comcast said back-to-office plans were coming eventually. The company had also opened its offices for a “small number” of senior leaders in select locations, and has allowed employees to go into the office at will for many months now. Employees designated as essential have also been coming into the office throughout the pandemic.
But a full push of back-to-office work for all employees wasn’t imminent until last month. While Comcast hasn’t called the change a “mandate,” spokespeople for the company told Technical.ly that employees are expected to return.
One spokesperson said in an email Friday that the company wants to work with each employee to understand their situation and help get them back to the office. Comcast will be “flexible” in the shift to working in-person, and the company also has two designations: those who are considered “permanent virtual” or “designated in-office.” A Comcast spokesperson said every team was made aware of which designation they were at the time of the announcement.
Like most announcements of back-to-office work, the reactions from staff have been mixed. Though some tech companies have brought workers back, remote work for technologists, especially, was common long before the pandemic. Many argue it’s standard practice for employers looking for the best talent.
Technical.ly spoke to several technologists at Comcast, all of whom asked to remain anonymous to protect their identities, about how the return to in-person work will affect their jobs and their lives.
Retention and hiring concerns
While two said they don’t mind in-office work, and have even been going in on semi-regular bases, they’re worried about potentially losing members of their team or struggling to recruit talent in the future. Two other technologists said they are outrightly against the return to office for concerns of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, strain on time and resources in their life, and on “principle” — they’ve been performing at top levels while working from home, they say.
“We had record-breaking quarters when everyone was working from home. Now everyone needs to be here because that’s how we do our best work?”
One employee, a director, said the announcement of in-office work was met with a mix of immediate feedback. While he chooses to work from the office regularly, he doesn’t feel it’s necessary for his team members to do so; they’ve been doing great work over the last two and a half years. The company also had its best quarterly subscriber gain for its wireless business in Q1 of this year, and added 262,000 broadband subscribers.
“We had record-breaking quarters when everyone was working from home,” the director said. “Now everyone needs to be here because that’s how we do our best work? It’s a strong swing in tone.”
The director noted that following its initial announcement, Comcast opened a process for employees to be considered for remote work. A Comcast spokesperson said that it will review specific accommodations, whether they be health concerns or folks who are dealing with transition issues, like finding childcare for the time being. But the ultimate goal is to have those employees join others in the office.
For the director, the effects of the announcement were pretty immediate. He had two candidates who were being considered for roles on his team ask to be taken out of the running.
“They said, ‘I read the news, and I’d rather not proceed,” he told Technical.ly.
The director has heard rumblings from folks who say they might leave, although no one on his team has outright stated it. But he worries about the long-term effects of competing for tech talent against other companies that plan to stay remote.
Already applying elsewhere
A senior engineer who’s been with the company for years says he’ll likely be one of those to leave: The announcement in early August prompted him to immediately start applying for other positions, he said. The new policy is a “complete 180” from what he experienced pre-pandemic, where his manager only asked engineers to come in about once a quarter and for special meetings. Under the new policy, he’ll now be expected in three days a week.
“I’ve proven I’m better at my remote job.”
“For me, I did my best work remotely, and it reflected in my annual reviews,” the senior engineer said. “I’ve always been happy this way.”
He’s already applied to two other large tech corporations where he says remote work and great benefits are drawing him in. He has no intention to leave the Philly area, but has seen coworkers go on and be happy at other companies, and has experienced working remotely pre-pandemic and before he worked at Comcast. While some folks have kids or loved ones at home that need their time and attention, the senior engineer said his pets are a consideration. And he doesn’t feel he needs a “better” reason than that.
“I don’t think we should have to justify why we want to be remote. I’ve proven I’m better at my remote job,” he said. “It’s silly I have to make a medical excuse or have a conversation with HR.”
When Tuesday, Sept. 13 comes along, the senior engineer has no intention of coming in to the office. He, and a few others he knows, just plan to see what happens. While he’s looking for other options, he’d be happy to stay at Comcast if they change the in-office rule, he said.
While some employees feel they don’t need a justification to work from home, others, like another engineer who’s been with Comcast for about half a decade, say they have significant concerns with the plan.
It eats into the work-life balance that he and others have finally achieved in the pandemic, he said. For one, the return to office will add two hours of commuting time to his workdays. The engineer said he was likely going to be looking for a new job once he hits his five-year mark at the company, but this move will accelerate those plans. The return to office will have the biggest effect on working parents and other caretakers who have to worry about child care and time spent commuting, he said.
Comcast employees are no longer required to be vaccinated to work in person, in line with city guidelines.
This engineer also expressed concern over the company’s current COVID-19 safety protocols, as Comcast is dropping its vaccine requirement. A Comcast spokesperson confirmed that employees are no longer required to be vaccinated to work in person, in line with city guidelines. Masking is also optional.
The City of Philadelphia’s guidance for businesses as of July 2022 includes promoting, but not necessarily requiring, COVID-19 vaccines. It also advises that masks be required for 10 days for vaccinated people who have been exposed to someone with the virus, and that a five-day quarantine, then five days of masking, be required for unvaccinated people who have been exposed. Otherwise, masking in most establishments is not required.
The engineer said the language in Comcast’s return-to-office announcement was frustrating, and came with some mixed messages.
“It’s frustrating to hear from a company that they care about their employees, but they’re mandating you be in the office, while they drop the vaccine mandate,” he said. “And monkeypox is a concern now, too. To say we care about health and wellbeing, but we’re mandating 8,000 people suddenly come back to Center City three days a week doesn’t make sense.”
The engineer said he’s concerned about being exposed at work and bringing COVID-19 home to his partner, who is immunocompromised: “I’m not going to put her at risk because my CEO is sad there’s not people in this fancy office they built.”
Will tech talent stay or go?
A product manager who’s been with the company a number of years said the plan reflects the cadence of how often he’s been going into the office. For him, it’s easier to stay on top of goals and accountable to a schedule when he’s in the office. But he acknowledges that there are valid critiques for folks who don’t want to be in-office.
“I think everyone’s worried that we’re coming into the office to still sit on Teams calls in different conference rooms,” he said.
“People who feel strongly will try to get an exception or they’ll walk.”
But the announcement ends the sort of “will they or won’t they?” return-to-office question that the company has been facing, he said. To him, that’s a good thing — no one wants to be unsure in between.
The product manager said he can see that the move might affect hiring, as he’s already seen people in his department leave for companies like HBO Max, Warner Bros. Discovery, Roku and Meta. He himself has done phone screenings for jobs over the last few years just to see what’s out there and what other companies are offering. The return to office plan alone won’t push him to leave, but he knows it’ll be a factor for others.
He outlined what Comcast — and other large tech companies that make a return to office plan — will likely be dealing with in the months after this return:
“People who feel strongly will try to get an exception or they’ll walk.”
Are you a Center City Comcast employee? Share your thoughts about this transition back to the office: [email protected].