Return-to-office mandates roil the Gig Harbor area’s large remote workforce
Eric SanInocencio of Gig Harbor has what many would consider a dream job. From his house near the head of the bay, he is immersed in baseball all day, every day as vice president of social media for Perfect Game USA. The company bills itself as the world’s largest scouting organization and hosts tournaments and showcase events around the country.
Before joining Perfect Game in May, SanInocencio worked for Amazon, also from home. And although Amazon has made waves recently around the issue of remote work, he has nothing but good to say about his former employer.
“I learned a lot” working for the Internet giant, but the offer of a new job that combined social media with baseball — his passion, and the focus of his earlier career — was too good to miss, he said.
Return to office mandates
Many remote workers in the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula area, though, would say he dodged a bullet. Return-to-office mandates from Amazon and other large King County-based employers are stirring up consternation here at the far edge of the Seattle metropolitan area, where commute times to headquarters are daunting and at-home white-collar workers have grown into a significant share of the labor force.
Amazon, the most visible of these companies, set May 1, 2023, as the date workers must start coming in at least three days per week. It is also reportedly forcing some far-flung workers to move closer, if they want to keep their jobs. The mandated “hybrid” (in-office/at-home) arrangement helped spark a walkout, and has led to questions of why a company that proclaims such green corporate goals is intent on putting thousands more commuters on the road every day.
Amazon’s position is that back-to-the-office is good for the company. Among other benefits, “it’s easier to learn, model, practice, and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues,” CEO Andy Jassy said in a blog post in February.
Other big employers agree. Microsoft last year started a gradual return to the office, and plans to get employees into the workplace at least half-time. Starbucks required 3 days in the office per week starting January 30, 2023.
Is it necessary?
One Amazon manager, who moved to Gig Harbor a year-and-a-half ago, questioned the necessity – and the environmental sustainability – of the policy change. “As an employee on a multinational team, where some 80% of my team is not co-located, I do not understand the decision,” the manager said. (Some of the remote workers interviewed for this story, including this one, asked that their names not be used.)
“It is a significantly increased burden on employees, on traffic, on the environment. The only ones who benefit are local businesses (which I understand), corporate leadership who want to increase control, and shareholders who are demanding change to increase their already historic profits at the cost of human capital,” this employee said.
Especially galling is that before moving to Gig Harbor, this employee applied for permanent remote worker status — essentially an exception to future back-to-the-office mandates. Amazon granted the exception, the worker said. The family bought property and enrolled their kids in Gig Harbor schools, only to have the company rescind the exception, the employee said.
“We love it here! We chose it for the cost of living, the quiet community, good schools, and access to the many benefits that the Pacific Northwest has to offer,” the Amazon manager said. Moving to Gig Harbor allowed the large family to get more land at an affordable price, and without a dreaded homeowner association. The only downside is the grueling, time-sucking commute.
Transit an option, but a tough one
Amazon spokesman Rob Munoz noted the company’s commitment to sustainability and progress toward its goal of going carbon neutral by 2040.
The company also points to commuter benefits it provides, including help paying for public transit; free commuter and campus shuttles; subsidies for rideshare, carpool and bike-related costs; onsite bike cages and showers; and subsidized parking.
Pete Baker, a Gig Harbor resident and manager for a Microsoft contractor, worked remotely until May. That’s when he had to start commuting to company offices in Eastgate, south of Bellevue, twice per week.
“The wear and tear on my car, the extra gas, the toll, it all adds up obviously,” Baker said. Like the Amazon employee mentioned above, he has concluded that driving is the only way he can comply with the hybrid work mandate, because of lack of flexibility and infrastructure gaps in public transport.
“Due to the technology present today, especially around how we communicate with each other, I don’t feel in-person interaction is as necessary as it once was,” Baker said. “However, there are times it is nice to be able to walk over to someone’s desk to have them show me what they are working on as opposed to sharing a screen via Teams. It lends itself to a more personal conversation.”
“I know a fair number of people here that work remotely (and many that have also had to switch to hybrid). There aren’t a lot of careers in Gig Harbor, but there are a lot of jobs. It is hard to raise a family on jobs. Therefore, one either has to commute, [or] work remote or hybrid,” Baker said.
Remote work is popular here
Statistics on the prevalence of at-home employment at the local level are hard to find. Yet experts agree it’s a common arrangement in the Gig Harbor/Key Peninsula area.
Paige Schulte, a local realtor with her own company called Neighborhood Experts, estimated that some 50% of her buyers in the Gig Harbor area work remotely or, if they are a couple, at least one works from home. Based on the clientele she serves, the Gig Harbor area seems particularly appealing to transplants from King County who work remotely in the higher levels of companies there, Schulte said.
During the pandemic, vast numbers of office workers at all levels switched to remote work out of necessity. When COVID-19 eased and companies began trying to bring employees back, it turned out many preferred at-home work — including a substantial number hired during the pandemic who had never known a different arrangement with that employer.
Still others, like Artondale resident Rhonda Riegel, have remote jobs for employers so far away that they are effectively immune to back-to-the-office mandates. Riegel in March swapped a job that required her to commute to Seattle two days per week for a fully remote position with a Bay Area startup.
“There can be benefits to gathering together as a team in person,” she said. At her current job, “my team is actually planning to meet in person at the end of August for a few days” and she believes the entire company also meets once per year.
“However, I do not think that means we need to be in the office all the time, or even part-time just for the purposes of culture and/or bonding as a team,” she said. “If there is a business need or goal other than that, I understand and respect it. I also understand that some people work better in groups, together, in-person.”
“I don’t think it can be a blanket decision,” Riegel said.
More people on the bus
More commuters boarding Sound Transit’s ST Express 595 bus — which runs between Gig Harbor and Seattle — heralds the return of once-remote Peninsula-area workers to their far-off office towers, says Kim Blake, an executive assistant and office manager for a manufacturing company based out of state.
Blake, who lives in Lakebay, rides the bus between the Purdy Park-and-Ride and a downtown Seattle office about three days per week. In the last three months, “there’s been more and more people getting on” at the two Gig Harbor stops. She knows a lot of fellow riders work at Amazon because of their ID badges, she said.
Before her current job, Blake commuted to work at Amazon in Seattle. “I knew there was a ton of Amazon people who lived out here and in Gig Harbor” because she discussed starting a carpool with them. (It didn’t work out. Many people wanted to ride, few wanted to drive, she said).
Another Gig Harbor resident, who works remotely for a Seattle-based financial technology company, said “my employer has already made moves to have people come back into the office.” Anticipating this, she “solidified” her remote position with her employer more than 9 months ago.
This employee’s situation is somewhat special. She has a neurological disability that is more easily accommodated by at-home employment. That highlights another reason employers should support such a working arrangement, she said.
“I am one of the many with an invisible illness, that is to say one that is not readily apparent from my appearance,” she said. “The flexibility aspect (of remote work) has been a huge benefit for people with disabilities.”
“For years the disability community has championed remote work as an option for certain employees and the pandemic made it a reality for everyone. Moving away from the option to work remotely will mean underemployment and missed career opportunities for disabled folks,” she said.
75% remote work, 25% in office?
SanInocencio, the Perfect Game USA VP, moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2021 to begin remote work for Amazon. He and his wife looked for the perfect community, including neighborhoods in Lynnwood and in Mukilteo. Then one day they drove down through Tacoma, across the Narrows Bridge and into Gig Harbor.
“It was a sunny day, you could see the mountain, we had lunch at the Netshed (Netshed No. 9 restaurant)” on the waterfront and knew it was the place they wanted to live, SanInocencio said.
“I love the flexibility of being remote,” he said about his current job, and about his old one with Amazon. He’s thankful to be able to take his kids to and from school and to attend their sports practices.
He recognizes that business accrue benefits from in-person interaction with co-workers, and believes this need will be met in his current job through travel around the country to the company’s many baseball events.
SanInocencio said he’s not sure yet what is the ideal ratio of home-based work vs. in-person interaction. He speculated it may be around 75% remote, 25% in person. “We hope to find the sweet spot,” he said.
Amazon is moving forward with the demand that at least three out of five workdays be spent in the office. The company says the hybrid arrangement is already paying off. “There’s more energy, collaboration, and connections happening since we’ve been working together at least three days per week, and we’ve heard this from lots of employees and the businesses that surround our offices,” Munoz said in a prepared statement.
“We continue to look at the best ways to bring more teams together in the same locations, and we’ll communicate directly with employees as we make decisions that affect them.”