Like any buzzing business, Zoom’s spanking new London headquarters is managed by a warm and welcoming receptionist. Only, he’s just a Zoom call away.
At the press of a button, remote worker Arik welcomes me into the 6th floor of the building situated in Holborn, a quiet and picturesque corner of the otherwise bustling metropolis.
From there on, the rest of the 15,000-square-foot site is seamlessly kitted out with the latest technology. As you walk into the building, you’re greeted by a virtual map with floating heads displaying which desks are taken. If you’ve not already booked a desk, artificial intelligence embedded in the workspace reservation tool will recommend where to sit based on who (and what) you’re usually next to. For example, if you tend to pick the window seat, it’ll recommend one near your team.
One of the first things you notice is that each room has been designed with digital rather than exclusively physical collaboration in mind.
The curved conference table in the meeting room maximizes each person’s visibility on screen and an intelligence detector displays who is talking. LED displays dotted around the office can be used to present important information or act as whiteboards for informal catch-ups. Meanwhile, one giant screen takes center stage and can be viewed from most corners of the floor for all-hands-on calls with the founder Eric Yuan.
Technology aside, it’s clear that Zoom is trying to entice workers with an experience elevated above the usual scenario of working on a couch with a scrappy homemade meal. Breakfast and lunch from local eateries – which would normally cost an arm and a leg – is provided free of charge to those who head into the office and workers can take a break from typing by unwinding in the wellness room’s massage chair. Plus, no tech company would be complete with a ping-pong table.
Of course, Zoom hasn’t splashed out on a new “engagement hub” just for the fun of it. The video communications platform has recently made a surprising U-turn on its remote working stance, so it’s now tasked with convincing its workers to ditch working from home—at least, for two days a week. But the pandemic darling wouldn’t tell Fortune just how much this is costing the company.
Zoom wants to earn employee acceptance for returning with the ‘gold standard’ in offices
Despite being one of the chief enablers and beneficiaries of remote working, Zoom has just asked staff who live within 50 miles of an office to work there twice a week.
“We believe that a structured hybrid approach – meaning employees that live near an office need to be onsite two days a week to interact with their teams – is most effective for Zoom,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Insider. “As a company, we are in a better position to use our own technologies, continue to innovate, and support our global customers.”
Indeed, many other companies have announced return-to-office mandates, but Zoom’s change of heart came as a shock given its role in facilitating remote work. Just last year, a spokesperson said that fewer than 2% of its workforce would work from an office.
But as businesses demand staff return to the traditional ways of working – in an office, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – shares in Zoom have plummeted. So now, it appears that the company is following the herd with a hybrid schedule and showcasing how to navigate this new working world with its Zoom technology (what else?) infused HQ.
@fortune Zoom wants employees to return to the office two days per week, so we took a tour of its London HQ. #zoom #london #uk #wfh #wfhlife #workfromhomejobs #workfromhome #remotework #remotejobs #meetings #office #returntooffice #rto #employee #work #hybrid #traveltok #tour ♬ Nimbus – BLVKSHP
“We want this to be gold standard,” Drew Smith, Zoom’s director of government relations, UK & Ireland tells Fortune while gesturing his hands to one of the snazzy new meeting rooms. “If employers just think, let’s go back to the old ways of doing things or use our old office in the same way, ultimately, their employee experience will be a business risk – they will lose their best talent.”
Today, employers need to earn their worker’s commutes. “For me, it’s knowing that when I go in, the people I want to see from my team are going to be there, we’re going to be sat together, we can have lunch together and we can have spaces to spill out of our desks and chat,” Smith says. “And then the next day I can go home and do my best work without being distracted.”
The drawback of having “maximum flexibility” was that those people choosing to come into the office to collaborate were often met with an empty room, because their team members went in on other scattered days of the week.
“I’m confident when I go in, because of our policies and because of our space, that I’m going to have a great day, I’m going to get something out of it,” Smith adds. “I quite like working from home, so to leave that environment, I want to have confidence that the space and the people are going to be there to make it worth it, which is at the heart of what we’ve done.”
On the decision to mandate two days, rather than one or three, Charlotte Holloway, Zoom’s government relations director EMEA tells Fortune: “This is the balance that our employees and our leadership have landed on. Every organization is going to be different. But it’s the technology that underpins and enables that practice, which is really key for the future.”
Future-proofing the office for a new era of generative artificial intelligence
The big risk when designing an office fit for the future is that we don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Who could have predicted a global health pandemic spanning three years and lockdowns forcing most businesses to shut shop?
But Smith is certain that “this is what” the future of work will look like – sort of. “The power of in-person collaboration will always be there,” he says. “But the genie is out of the bottle in terms of people working in different ways.”
So even if workers are putting headsets on to meet colleagues in the Metaverse in years to come, organizations will still need a space that has the capacity to keep evolving with tech innovations. “But at the same time, you want to create those times where you can come together in person.” he adds. “I think those are the two factors that will underpin successful organizations over the next five or 10 years.”
An office designed for the future, wouldn’t make sense without some thought spared for generative artificial intelligence. “A.I. is going to be really central to the next phase of our growth in all of our development plans,” Smith says, while adding that one of the platform’s latest features includes a summary of video meetings. The tool breaks down what was said by who, with time stamps and any action points, and dispaches an email to workers within minutes of the meeting wrapping up.
“That’s just the beginning of it,” he concludes. “The tip of the spear.”
But with researchers warning that the cost of A.I. advancements are human’s jobs, could Zoom wind up with a new state-of-the-art office that is virtually empty down the line?
“There’s a lot of talk about A.I., but where Zoom sets itself apart is where we relentlessly focus on making it practical to people’s day-to-day working experiences. That’s a real badge of honor for us,” Holloway insists. “Our innovations and what we’ve introduced are about helping free people for productive work, rather than replacing it.”