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Uber’s workplace VP says the future of work is in the office

May 21, 2021 / New Zealand

Michael Huaco has always been optimistic about the future of offices, even during the height of the pandemic when working from home became the necessary norm. As Uber’s Vice President of Workplace and Real Estate, his last year has been a balancing act of global building projects, remote work structures, and office reopening plans. As COVID-19 vaccines become more available and cities begin to reawaken, Huaco is finally getting to see those plans take shape. Uber itself is implementing a hybrid working model, and employees will be back in their offices at least three days a week starting in September.

We caught up with Huaco to find out how the pandemic led to positive workplace changes, how Uber is managing phased reopening, and why employees can feel comfortable coming back to the office.

Uber for Business: The experience of the pandemic has given us a chance to step back and reevaluate how we work, especially in offices. What positives do you think have come out of this forced reset?

Michael Huaco: A major positive has been an acknowledgement and understanding of why it’s so important to work in an office. Social isolation has become a much bigger issue toward the end of the pandemic than at the beginning of lockdown. The office plays a pivotal role in collaboration and engagement and is part of your daily social fabric. Now we’re going to have to relearn some of that. How do you re-engage with society? It’s almost like being marooned on an island and you’re coming back into the world. [But] the general consensus among my peers [at other tech companies] is that people want to be back in an office. People want to come back to some semblance of normalcy. Humans need structure and some sort of predictability in our lives.

While there has been great progress in combating the virus, we’re still technically in a pandemic. How is Uber managing the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 as employees begin to return to offices? 

It is challenging, but you’ve got to think about things in chunks and phases. In the US, we have the benefit of access to vaccines for the majority of the population, but that isn’t the case in the rest of the world. [Uber’s] first phase is between now and September, when we’ve formally said we’ll be back in the office, [and it] is purely voluntary. You can start getting your sea legs and figuring out how to do this. You know, taking off the bathrobe and getting back into your car or on public transportation. As things turn on [again], our number one rule is that we don’t open an office, whether it’s in the US or anywhere else in the world, until we get the approval of the local government regulatory agency. 

Uber has been in the process of building and designing new offices for a couple of years now. How did your pre-pandemic vision match up with the realities of the new spaces?

When we started implementing our current global real estate strategy, we decided to be much more sustainable. I really pushed [Uber CEO] Dara and the Executive Leadership Team that part of our brand had to be sustainability, and part of that was also health and wellness. We’re going after the WELL [certification], which is a building that meets health and safety standards focused on the employee. So the buildings are designed to bring in more natural light, less fluorescent light, and more natural ventilation. The food we prepare, the gyms, and the way the space is designed also create less of a sedentary lifestyle. 

All those things were implemented in facilities in places like Mission Bay [in San Francisco], Amsterdam, London, and Mexico City. Mission Bay [may be] one of the healthiest buildings in San Francisco, because it was designed with things like a certain number of air changes per minute and outdoor spaces. We didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic, and now [many others] are trying to do the same things. It takes a long time to implement, but we thought about all of these ways to improve employee health that had nothing to do with the pandemic.

Beyond the health and safety of employees, what else is being prioritised at Uber as people head back to their offices?

What we’ve done in Mission Bay and other places is create space that has much more focus on collaboration and engagement—less individual seating and more areas where people can gather. We’ve surveyed employees, and that’s what they want. Most people don’t work throughout the day in a single style. Sometimes you need collaboration with a lot of people or heads-down quiet time. We have libraries—that really look like college libraries—or yoga rooms for that. There are spaces for large groups with digital whiteboards. There’s a lot of technology and tools to help you work in many styles and methods because there is no one solution. In San Francisco, we also have beautiful terraces that are completely wifi-enabled, so you can work outside all day every day if you want.

Even with declining COVID cases and increased vaccine prevalence, employees may still feel unsure about returning to their offices. What is Uber doing to ease those worries?

In San Francisco and many of our other places around the world, you’re coming back to brand-new facilities. They’re state of the art and encompass many of the health, safety, and sustainability features that we look for. You’re not going back to a second- or third-generation space that we kind of just took over when we were in growth mode. These are [some of] the healthiest buildings in cities that we’re opening up. We’re also being very cognisant of the fact that we have to maintain social distancing, and we have all the cleaning protocols to help ensure a greater level of safety. We’re also trying to create a fun environment where people can work with their comrades and everyone else to create great products and come up with great ideas. 

Learn more about how Uber for Business can help with your return-to-office plans.