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Commentary: There’s good reason for tech workers to embrace the office


Who wants to go back to the office? Commutes can be crazy, and plenty of people can be just as productive (if not more) working from home. Just one problem, particularly in the tech industry: Staying home could threaten employee power, corporate ethics and even national security.

Google workers ride bikes outside Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2012. If U.S. employees at places like Google and Facebook stop reporting to work in person, there’s nothing to keep the most portable positions from being moved to Hungary, India or Mexico – where workers may be so motivated to cling to their jobs that they would hesitate to blow the whistle on any ethical lapses. Paul Sakuma/Associated Press, File

For some jobs, showing up is a necessity. Starbucks stores, Amazon warehouses need people on site in every location where they operate, and they need to be everywhere. Hence, they can’t credibly threaten to take the jobs elsewhere – which is why they’re more susceptible to worker demands and unionization.

Not so Facebook, Google and Twitter. At this point, many of their tech workers are simply maintaining the platforms, not executing virtuosic feats of coding or research. Only some vague notions of culture, innovation and coolness inspire them to keep jobs in expensive places such as Silicon Valley or New York City. If people stop reporting to work, there’s nothing to stop the money folks from moving the most portable positions – say, in advertising operations – to Hungary, India or Mexico.

The pitfalls of such offshoring can go far beyond the loss of U.S. jobs, as my experience in financial services illustrates. Back in 2010, I worked at a firm that calculated portfolio risk for banks and hedge funds. Then another company acquired us and immediately made clear that researchers like me were not a priority. The salespeople all got bigger and better offices, and many of the research jobs went offshore.

Pretty soon I was talking to earnest young people working outside of Mexico City and Budapest about the latest implementation of risk models in securities or credit. They were eager to learn and desperate to keep these great jobs they’d gotten. I liked them, but also worried that they’d never call foul if they saw something unethical going on. They had little power, in large part because there were so many others like them.

You can see where this might lead in a company such as Facebook. The world knows about the company’s ethical lapses – about its pursuit of profit to the detriment of fairness, truth, teenage girls and society at large – in large part thanks to employees who blew the whistle and spoke with investigative reporters. What if they didn’t? What if they were so motivated to cling to their jobs that they would never even consider it?

That said, workers in popular offshoring destinations may also face other pressures – from their governments, or from organized crime. Hence my national security concern. The U.S. government rightly worries about the influence of the Chinese-controlled app TikTok on the many Americans addicted to it. What if people subject to recruitment by foreign governments or gangsters were taking care of our Gmail servers?

For their own sake, and for the sake of our country, I urge tech workers to get back to the office and accept those free lunches and laundry services while they last.

 



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