Trending: This governor alarmed professors 22 years ago with his vision for distance learning in 2020 — here’s what he says today
Zillow Group employees collaborate high above downtown Seattle, pre-coronavirus and social distancing mandates. (Zillow Group Photo)

Zillow Group is embracing WFH.

The Seattle-based real estate company told its employees Friday that they can work from home until at least the end of 2020.

The policy reflects rapidly-shifting office culture expectations for tech companies as the COVID-19 pandemic changes how we work and live.

Zillow employees have been working remotely since the outbreak began spreading in the Seattle area. Zillow CEO Rich Barton said the experience has changed his views on the work-from-home concept.

Zillow Group is based in downtown Seattle at the Russell Investment Center building and has nine additional offices. The company had 5,249 full-time employees nationwide as of Dec. 31. It recently rolled out a new virtual onboarding program for employees hired during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We are working through office reopening plans now and expect this to be a gradual process over many months,” a Zillow spokesperson said in a statement. “We want to make sure employees are supported and have the flexibility and visibility to manage their lives with work in these uncertain times. We’ve learned a lot over the past two months and have watched our teams pull together from their homes to keep the company moving forward. This situation has dramatically changed how we envision our future of work and we expect this experience will influence our decisions going forward.”

Here’s Barton responding to an inquiry from GeekWire co-founder John Cook about his changing perspective on WFH:

Other companies could follow Zillow’s lead. Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, said the coronavirus crisis will be a “tipping point” for WFH programs. She expects that 25-to-30 million U.S. employees will regularly work from home within the next two years — up from 5 million who do so half-time or more now.

One perk of coming into the office at Zillow? The view west of Elliott Bay. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A CNBC survey found that 24% of respondents plan to continue working entirely from home or at least more compared to before.

There are certainly benefits to a remote workforce. A company could save on physical office expenses such as rent and utilities. Employees can spend less time commuting and more time working, theoretically.

“From the employee side, the genie is out of the bottle,” Lister said in a statement earlier this month. “Having tasted the experience, most will not want to give it up.”

However, companies must provide adequate technical infrastructure for remote work. And for many parents, working from home with kids over the past few months has been difficult.

“Attempting to work full time while rooming with, feeding and educating one or more children during the pandemic is not going well — not for me, and not for most people I know,” New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote this week.

New expectations also need to be set, for both managers and employees. A Zillow employee review on Glassdoor notes that “management doesn’t trust employees while they are working from home. The constant check ins, daily reports and hours of meetings a day make it impossible to get your job completed.”

For companies, figuring out how to keep employees safe at the office presents a bevy of new challenges, from sanitization practices to social distancing measures. Common approaches include some combination of thermal screening and self-reporting of symptoms, according to a survey conducted by the Employer Health Innovation Roundtable.

“Much work will be needed in the next couple of months around return to work programming, testing logistics, contact tracing, and making sure workers feel comfortable returning to work,” the group said in a statement.

For a sense of what a return to the workplace could look like in developed countries, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates this week pointed to Microsoft’s 6,200-person operation in China.

“So far about half are now coming into work,” he writes in a new blog post about life after the lockdown. “They are continuing to provide support to employees who want to work at home. They insist people with symptoms stay home. They require masks and provide hand sanitizer and do more intensive cleaning. Even at work, they apply distancing rules and only allow travel for exceptional reasons.”

Amazon and Microsoft were some of the first companies to implement remote work policies. Microsoft’s latest guidance to employees was to work from home “until further notice.” Amazon previously said it will “localize work from home guidance beyond April 24 to follow local government orders and dates.”

“When local governments say it is okay to return to the office and after we implement any unique government-issued requirements, Amazon will provide teams with options to gradually return to their office or to continue working from home,” the company said in a blog post.

Boeing resumed airplane production in the Seattle area this week. Its airplane assembly operation is considered an essential business, and as such is exempt from Washington state’s stay-at-home order, which for now is in place until May 4.

The?latest computer projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that conditions could be acceptable for Washington state to loosen its current social distancing restrictions on May 28.

The shift from office to home for work could affect the future of commercial real estate and co-working businesses. These are just a few of many potential changes coming due to the pandemic.

Speaking on a Skift webinar last month, Eric Bailey, Microsoft’s global director of travel, said he expects a fundamental shift in how companies decide to travel, in part due to the rapid adoption of video conferencing apps and other software amid social distancing orders.

“It doesn’t mean that people stop traveling, necessarily, but it does mean that they they change the way that they travel,” Bailey said. “They don’t necessarily need to be face to face for a lot of things.”

He added: “I don’t think it’s going to be about the dollars — it’s about the time.”

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