Welcome back to the office, tech workers. Isn’t this fun?

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – When Google employees returned to their mostly empty offices this month, they were told to relax. Office time should be “not only productive but also fun”. Explore the place a little. Do not book back-to-back meetings.

Also, don’t forget to attend the private show by Lizzo, one of the hottest pop stars in the United States. If that’s not enough, there are plans for “pop-up events” that will feature “every Googler’s favorite duo: food and swag.”

But Google employees in Boulder, Colorado, were still reminded of what they were giving up when the company gave them mouse pads with the image of a sad-eyed cat. Underneath the pet was a plea: “You’re not going to RTO, right?”

RTO, for return to office, is an abbreviation born of the coronavirus pandemic. It is a recognition of how Covid-19 forced many companies to abandon office buildings and empty cubicles. The pandemic proved that being in the office does not necessarily equal greater productivity, and some firms continued to thrive without meeting in person.

Now, after two years of video meetings and Slack chats, many companies are eager to get employees back to their desks. The staff, however, may not be so eager for a return to morning commutes, communal bathrooms and daytime outfits that are not athletic wear.

So tech companies with money to burn and offices to fill are rolling out the fun wagon, even as they make it clear that in many cases, returning to the office – at least a few days a week – is mandatory.

Lizzo will perform for Google employees this month at an amphitheater near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

When Microsoft reopened its offices in Redmond, Washington, in late February, employees were treated to music from local bands, beer and wine tasting, and even classes for making terrariums.

To mark its first official week back at the office, chipmaker Qualcomm held a happy hour with its chief executive officer Cristiano Amon at its San Diego offices for several thousand employees with free food, drinks and T-shirts.

The company also started offering weekly events such as pop-up snack stands on “Take a Break Tuesday” and group fitness classes for “Wellness Wednesday”.

“These celebrations and perks are a recognition by companies that they know employees don’t want to come back to the office, certainly not as frequently as before,” said Professor Adam Galinsky from Columbia University’s business school.

At least for now, he added, firms are opting for the carrot over the stick: rewarding workers for coming into the office rather than punishing them for staying home.

Before Covid-19 struck, the biggest technology firms committed billions of dollars to erect offices that are marvels of architecture and trophies of financial success. Those gleaming offices, packed with amenities and perks, are a testament to the long-held belief that in-person collaboration is still better for fostering creativity, inspiring innovation and instilling a common sense of purpose.

But for many employees who enjoyed the freedom of working remotely, the return to office – no matter how fancy – carries a touch of end-of-summer, back-to-school dread. Few, it seems, are keen on going back five days a week.

On Memegen, an internal site where Google employees share memes, one of the most popular posts was a picture of a company cafeteria with a caption: “RTO is just bumping into each other and saying ‘we must grab lunch soon’ until one of you quits Google. “

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