Intel’s shift to hybrid work could press other Oregon employers to embrace flexibility


Rows of identical desks, separated by high fabric walls and illuminated by a bright fluorescent glare, were nearly as much a part of Intel’s identity as its cleanrooms and bunny suits.

Yet even in a global pandemic, Intel could scarcely pry some employees away. Working at an office was so ingrained in the company’s culture that, in the early days of COVID-19′s spread, Intel had to issue firm directives that people should stay away from the office.

Now, managers aren’t sure they could get them back.

Attitudes about the office quickly reversed as engineers, accountants and marketers began enjoying the flexibility that working from home afforded.

So Intel decided last fall it wouldn’t summon workers back to its offices after the pandemic, at least not on a full-time basis. It’s moving most of its personnel to a hybrid model, leaving it to individual work groups to decide when employees should be in the office — or if they need to come in at all.

“We just knew that our employees weren’t going to be interested in going back,” said Amber Wiseley, Intel’s vice president of benefits. Moreover, she said it became clear to Intel that its workers were doing their jobs at least as well.

“We as a company will entertain that flexibility in a much more progressive way than we have in the past,” Wiseley said.

Intel was among Oregon’s first companies to move permanently to hybrid work after the pandemic. And as the state’s largest corporate employer, Intel’s move could be a catalyst for other businesses to make the same choice.

Indeed, many other organizations have made similar decisions lately, among them Google and The Standard. Others – notably Nike – have revamped their initial plans to pull workers back into the office amid resistance from their staff.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates more than 1 in 6 Oregonian workers did their jobs from home during the first year of the pandemic, slightly above the national rate. Many of them have no interest in going back to the office full time.

With Oregon unemployment under 4%, and the number of job vacancies outnumbering the number of unemployed people, workers plainly have more leverage to determine how and where they work.

“It’s a fierce talent pool out there,” Wiseley said. “We’ve got competition.”

The Portland area had one of the nation’s highest share of remote workers leading into the pandemic, with 7.7% of all employees working from home, according to U.S. Census data. That was the fourth-highest rate among the 50 largest metropolitan regions.

The high rate of remote work reflected the absence of large, corporate headquarters near Portland. The state had increasingly become an outpost economy, with a rapidly growing and highly educated workforce serving large corporations based elsewhere.

Tech and creative firms seemed more open to remote work, even before the pandemic, seeking the most talented employees wherever they could find them. Sometimes that meant hiring Oregon workers who did their jobs at coffeeshops and coaches – hundreds or thousands of miles from any corporate office.

Working remotely wasn’t Intel’s style, though. Legendarily combative former CEO Andy Grove reputedly kept a “late list” in the early 1970s, requiring employees who arrived at the company’s offices after 8 a.m. to sign in.

The late list didn’t last, but Intel’s office culture was firmly established. Comedian Conan O’Brien famously lampooned the scene when he visited Intel’s corporate headquarters in 2007, mocking colorless rows of cubicles that make “people feel they’re all basically the same, that there is no individuality, there’s no hope.”

While Intel had relaxed considerably in recent years, it still expected the vast majority of their workers to report daily to a corporate campus. In Oregon, Intel’s largest hub, that often meant long commutes along U.S. 26 to offices and labs in Aloha and Hillsboro.

In the spring of 2020, in the weeks after COVID-19 hit the U.S., Intel established a task force to begin evaluating how the pandemic would change its workplace. Wiseley said the company set three goals – to be flexible, prioritize simplicity, and aspire to progress over perfection.

“It’s this idea of being agile, learning, being iterative, not really having this fixed mindset of what our culture is,” she said.

Intel says it doesn’t anticipate reducing its office footprint, even with workers coming into the office less frequently. Instead, the company says it expects it will convert cubicles into shared workspaces designed to encourage collaboration at times employees are on site.Intel photo

Intel’s factory workers and many researchers in its labs kept coming to work through the pandemic, with new protections in place to prevent coronavirus transmission. That won’t change.

But Intel has thousands of other Oregon workers whose jobs don’t require them to be on hand to run the manufacturing and laboratory equipment. And as the pandemic dragged on – Intel’s Oregon campuses were closed for nearly two years – it became clear the company could operate differently than it had.

Intel provided employees a $500, one-time reimbursement for home office equipment like desks and computer monitors. It set them up with ergonomic chairs and provides $50 a month to help cover the cost of an internet connection.

Rather than establish a firm rule for how they will work after the pandemic, Intel opted to let employees and their individual work groups figure it out.

“We do anticipate that most of our employees will want to be in the office some of the time,” Wiseley said. “We’ve really steered clear of mandates on how much time that will be.”

Intel is in the early stages of converting some of its famous cubicle farms into shared workspaces, designed for collaboration on days when employees are at work. It’s still figuring out how to build camaraderie among remote working groups, and how to respond if employees want to move far away from their offices.

“We definitely do not have all the answers and we have not been shy with our employees to tell them that,” Wiseley said. “And that, in itself, has been a transition.”

The uncertainty is bringing a degree of humility as Intel and other employers try to think through the future of work. But Wiseley said Intel is convinced the new approach is better for the company, and better for its staff.

“We believe wholly that our employees are going to be more productive if we empower them,” she said.

Many other employers have come to the same conclusion, reasoning that they can save on real estate costs if employees spend part of their time at home while giving employees the flexibility to do their jobs on their own terms – balancing family, exercise and other priorities.

It sounds like everyone is coming out ahead. So why didn’t everyone figure this out sooner?

“You need a shock event that can shake people out of the routine and their typical mindset to realize: Wait, there is an alternative solution that can work equally well if not better,” said Liu-Qin Yang, a psychology professor at Portland State University.

Many companies, Intel included, had gradually become more flexible about remote work in the years before the pandemic. Yang, who is president elect of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology, said the pandemic forced organizations to push the boundary of that approach.

And they discovered that boundary was much further out than they anticipated.

But Yang said the pandemic represented the beginning of the transition to hybrid work, not the end.

Employers and workers have to figure out how much time they need at the office to build collegial, productive relationships. Should they be there a third of the time? Half the time?

“That’s difficult because there’s a lot of differences across industries and organizations, and across individual workers,” Yang said. “How much hybrid is the best for each work group? I think that’s something we have to learn.”

For Nike, the learning curve has been steep.

The footwear and apparel company told employees in February that they would be required to be back on its lavish campus near Beaverton three days a week, beginning in May.

Employees revolted, though, complaining that the company was taking away the flexibility they had become accustomed to during the pandemic. So Nike revamped its plans last month, offering workers four full weeks of remote work each year.

“We heard your call for greater work location flexibility,” Chief Human Resources Officer Monique Matheson wrote in an email first reported by Business Insider. Business Insider also reported that Nike had been increasingly worried about employees leaving, especially in its fast-growing technology group.

Nike did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Insurance giant The Standard says it had few employees working remotely before the pandemic. Early on, though, the Portland company said it found employees were “remarkably productive and resilient” while working from home – and that employees strongly preferred the new arrangements.

So last year, the company asked managers to identify jobs that required employees to work in person, in the office. Ultimately, it concluded many jobs could be done just as effectively from home – so last month it began offering employees the option of working remotely after the pandemic.

Bob Speltz, spokesperson for The Standard, said the new arrangement gives workers more flexibility and gives the company the ability to recruit workers from locations elsewhere in the country, without requiring that they move to Oregon or work from its downtown Portland offices.

“As a national company, this shift in philosophy has meant we can hire the best talent out there and not require relocation to Oregon,” Speltz said.

The city of Portland, another major downtown employer, began calling workers back to the office for one day a week last month. According to Carrie Belding, spokesperson for the city’s Office of Management and Finance, Portland expects to keep that one-day rule in place through the summer.

Downtown boosters have been calling for months for the city to bring more workers back as a tool to help revive the area. The city’s core took a beating in 2020 when the pandemic emptied offices, civil rights protests deteriorated into sporadic violence, and homeless camp sites proliferated.

Belding declined to talk in detail about the city’s plans for bringing back workers, but said Portland is trying to be responsive to workers’ needs while adapting to constantly changing circumstances.

“There’s no playbook,” she said. “I think everybody is trying to figure out what’s working for employees and for business needs.”

Elliot Levin is research director and Oregon legislative advocate for PROTEC17, a union representing about 850 city workers. He said his members welcome more flexibility in how they work.

“Unions and employees have been asking for this for a long time and have been arguing that this is possible,” Levin said.

Workers are divided about what the future of work looks like, he said. Many are eager to get back to the office, but others want a more adaptive approach.

Hybrid work is probably going to be the future, Levin said, because it gives workers more input in how they do their jobs without taking away from organizations’ pursuit of their own goals.

“Sometimes it takes a system shock … to push progress forward,” Levin said.

— Mike Rogoway | | Twitter: @rogoway | 503-294-7699

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