AS coronavirus lockdowns begin to ease in some parts of the world, the debate about the future of work intensifies.
In Silicon Valley, some tech companies are having second thoughts about abandoning their offices and letting everyone work from home.
But on this week’s Tech Tent, we meet a tech entrepreneur who believes offices are over and his staff can work from anywhere.
Phil Libin is a serial entrepreneur who, until recently, could not imagine working anywhere but Silicon Valley. As chief executive of the note-taking app Evernote, he was not a fan of working from home – indeed he banned video meetings at the company, believing people needed to be in the room to make a proper contribution.
But now, he has moved to Arkansas and his latest venture is mmhmm, a video presentation tool designed to liven up those endless calls on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
What’s more, he has told the workforce of what he describes as a “distributed” company that there will never be an office for them to attend.
He tells Tech Tent that this kind of business has a number of superpowers, chief among them an end to commuting. He asks us to imagine what would happen if he called a meeting to change that remote-work system.
“We’re going to try a new thing. I’m going to need each of you to spend two hours every day sitting in traffic,” he says.
“Yes, it’s not productive, you can’t work and you’re not spending time with your family. And yes, it’s bad for the environment. And it’s stressful and unhealthy. But you know, I’m just going to need everyone to go ahead and do that.”
He says the company’s board would fire him on the spot.
Another example he gives is the ability to hire anybody anywhere around the world, making it easier to solve the perennial problem of finding talented people.
“I’m never again in my life going to write a job description that says ‘looking for machine learning engineers in San Francisco’, or ‘looking for graphic designers in Tokyo’. 100% of our job listings now say global,” he explains.
That would seem to have worrying implications for Silicon Valley as a location for tech companies, and for the wider American workforce, which will surely look expensive compared with skilled staff hired in countries such as India.
But when asked about this, Mr Libin has a surprising answer: “What if I paid the person in India the same as I pay someone in the US? Well, why not? Right? Like, why do I care where you live? I just care about how productive you are.”
Now so far, his company only has a policy of uniform salaries across the United States – an engineer gets paid the same whether they live in San Francisco or Kansas City – but he insists the plan is to have the same pay around the globe.
It is hard to imagine shareholders of bigger companies approving a policy of effectively throwing money at workers who would accept far less, but maybe Mr Libin is ahead of his time.
He accepts that many Silicon Valley businesses may have different views of the future of work. “The only thing that we know is that there’s going to be massive change in the world,” he says.
The last year has shown how rapidly our working lives can adapt to new circumstances when we have access to fast connectivity and advanced digital tools.
Employers who demand that their workers go back to the old ways may find they face a revolt.