Ernest Ogbuanya spent the pandemic working from his home in Virginia, near Amazon’s HQ2, supporting the Amazon Web Services network. The work could be stressful—thousands of businesses rely on the Amazon cloud—but Ogbuanya liked knowing the work was important, and that he could do it without leaving his house. Then Amazon announced that everyone would be returning to the office in January. That didn’t fly for Ogbuanya. So when a hiring manager reached out from an all-remote job at OutSystems, he jumped at the chance, and even took a pay cut. “Being able to work from home permanently was the selling point for me,” he says.
Ogbuanya isn’t alone in reconsidering his priorities around work. More Americans have quit their jobs in the past few months than ever before, many citing job requirements that are no longer worth the paycheck. For tech workers—who are already high paid and in demand—this has led to a reshuffling within the industry. Tech workers are moving between jobs with new demands, including the ability to work remotely, more flexibility in work hours, and more time spent on meaningful tasks.
“When I’ve talked to engineers, one of the things they’ve been prioritizing, in addition to freedom and flexibility, is really about how the work can be important,” says Kit Merker, the COO of Nobl9, a software reliability platform. “It used to be about the campus, the perks, the money. But if you're sitting at home and you don’t have access to the micro kitchen, the barista, the massages, then what really is separating this job from another job?”
Merker runs a conference for site reliability engineers, and says many people in that line of work have been burnt out by the demands of keeping platforms up and running in the pandemic. Companies that make remote-work products (Slack, Zoom), video streaming (Netflix), or delivery (Doordash, Amazon) have all faced higher demand, along with higher expectations from customers in terms of how well their tech should work. Merker says that some engineers are questioning whether the stress is worth it. “It’s giving people existential angst,” he says. “Like, ‘I’m building software to help food get delivered. That’s cool, but man, it’s killing me.’”
“You’ve got people saying, ‘Now that I think about it, I have a bullshit job,’” says Joseph B. Fuller, who coleads the Future of Work Project at Harvard Business School. That’s one of the reasons he and other economists have seen white-collar workers, including those in tech, looking for new jobs in the last year. Fuller calls this phenomenon the Great Reconsideration: It’s not a total opting out of the workforce, but a reappraisal of what tech workers can expect to get out of their next job.
A poll from Citrix in September found that 35 percent of tech workers leaving a job cited burnout. In their new jobs, 40 percent of workers prioritized flexibility, and another 41 percent looked for benefits beyond financial security—including perks around wellbeing more broadly.
For some, well-being includes less time spent on toilsome tasks and fewer nights and weekends on call. Zac Nickens, a hiring manager at OutSystems, says job candidates regularly ask about how the team’s workload is split up. One advantage, he says, is that his team is distributed across three geographies: some in North America, some in Portugal, others in India and Malaysia. Working across several time zones “prevents us from having a standard ‘I’m on call day and night’ rotation,” he says. “We share weekends across those teams as well, it’s once every 12 weeks that someone has to be on call for a weekend. That’s really attractive to engineers.”
OutSystems is also a remote-first company, which has been an advantage in recruiting engineers like Ogbuanya. While some tech companies have vowed to return to an in-office culture next year, many are finding their employees have become accustomed to working wherever they like. Deel, an international payroll and compliance startup, has seen a 20 percent increase in its clients hiring abroad. Some, like Netflix, are expanding their global operations; others, like Coinbase, have embraced a “remote-first” office culture, where employees can work anywhere in the world. But others have had to make concessions to talent that wants to leave the country. “We had some big companies come to us and say, ‘My best engineer is going back to Croatia. What am I supposed to do?’” says Alex Bouaziz, Deel’s cofounder and CEO. “They have no choice.”
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What’s the net effect of all of this? For some industries, conditions in 2021 have led to a “golden age for workers.” But Fuller—who also consults with several major tech companies—says employers are at risk of making too many concessions. “One of the dumber things I’ve seen big companies do is survey their workers and say, ‘What would you like?’ What you get back is a 7-year-old’s Christmas list,” he says. (He cited an executive whose assistant has refused to return to the office because of a pandemic puppy.) Giving individual employees their own custom work arrangements can become an HR nightmare, he says, and can lead to the expectation that employers have to accommodate any request.
In tech, though, employers might not have much choice—it’s already wildly competitive to find engineering talent. “What is it actually going to take to retain talent and win competitive battles over new talent?” says Merker. Employers might not be able to compete without making concessions around where, when, and how employees work. “These things are changing the criteria, and this will have a long-term impact on the tech industry.”
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