Therese Poletti's Tech Tales: Welcome back, cubicles? Longtime Silicon Valley CEO says coronavirus could kill the open office

Therese Poletti’s Tech Tales

Carol Bartz, a longtime CEO of the architectural software company Autodesk, says ‘office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people’

Former Yahoo Inc. and Autodesk Inc. Chief Executive Carol Bartz told MarketWatch that CEOs must be truthful in these scary times. “When someone has their first layoff, they want to say they will never do this again. Please don’t say that — sure enough, you will have another one six months later.”


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Nothing will be the same when corporate America goes back to the office, and one longtime tech CEO believes a permanent change could be the death of the “open office.”

Carol Bartz, who led the architectural and engineering software maker Autodesk Inc.
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for a decade before heading up Yahoo Inc. during a turbulent period that began with the last recession, is known for being direct and speaking her mind. In a recent telephone interview with MarketWatch from her home in Silicon Valley, Bartz described the current age of COVID-19 as a “new game,” with “new rules” for everyone, and made a few predictions about how she expects life to change, especially at work.


‘I don’t think we will know the new normal for two years. People are just going to go slow.’


— Carol Bartz

“I think office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people,” she said, adding that, while she realizes this in the grand scheme amounts to minutiae, this is one of the many kinds of changes that CEOs are going to have to address in the future, in what will be the new life of the CEO. “We have to take the fear away from people,” she said, noting that this will probably be the first time offices will have to be designed around health factors.

Instead of the old office cubicles separating desks, “They probably will be clear, you will not sit there in that big open space. I think people are going to want protection, plexiglass or whatever. There will also be more teleconferencing, absolutely less flying — you will teleconference with customers,” Bartz said. “Tthey don’t want to see you in person, and you don’t want to see them.”

Don’t miss: Companies reveal their plans for what work will look like when America returns to the office

Bartz, who worked in the tech industry for decades, is now an investor and chairman of a privately held cannabis company in San Jose called Caliva. Since an unceremonious ouster at Yahoo in 2011, Bartz has also served on the boards of Intel Corp.
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and several other companies.

She said it is likely that more companies will continue to allow employees to work from home if they can, and perhaps even prefer that they do, which could also reduce office-space costs.

“I think as many industries as possible will continue to work at home, and the companies will get better as to how to manage it. That’s good for a lot of reasons — it’s good for heath, it’s good for people who have those obligations, like small children.”

She said that, 15 years ago, companies were cool to the concept of working from home, in part because they did not have the tools to deal with remote work, and it was often reserved for special situations.

“We have to figure out what those rules are and how it works for each company; maybe it’s better for certain divisions than others. There will not be as many people willing to move around. They will not be ready to jump on planes.”

See also: Bill Gates says it’s impossible to overstate the pain that lies in the years ahead

Some industries are now being forced to use technology in ways mostly avoided so far: physicians, for example, who usually prefer seeing patients in person. “In the last five days, I had four telemedicine appointments with doctors. I never had one in my life before; now, in the last four days, it’s all been telemedicine,” Bartz said.

Bartz said that whatever huge changes a company is going through during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most important things is that leaders be honest with employees about what is happening. Bartz, known for bluntness — especially in her tenure at Yahoo, when her brutal honesty and salty language came as a refreshing change of pace for tech reporters — said CEOs should have video chats with or streamed videos for their employees, because it’s too easy for memos to be rewritten by staff.

“They want to see your eyes and your face and read you a bit now — they want to see does this person look scared or what,” she said, observing that many CEOs are going to be faced with cutting jobs. “When someone has their first layoff, they want to say they will never do this again. Please don’t say that — sure enough, you will have another one six months later.”

Don’t miss: The CEO who built Cisco into a powerhouse has a sobering pandemic prognosis

Bartz said that, if asked about layoffs when there are none planned, executives should say that, but they should also concede that they don’t know about the future. “Never say never. I hear people say it all the time — never and always. I hate those two words. When you are that absolute about something, you better have it sitting right in front of you.”

These times will also likely bring a lot of self-doubt among executives who feel stress because they are supposed to have all the answers, or that they have to fix the problems themselves. She said while she was at Autodesk during the dot-com boom, the company did not have a way to sell its shrink-wrapped, complex engineering software for computer-aided design over the early internet.

“I kept thinking I had to fix this,” she said. “When I finally got that out of my head, that I was not that important, and got thinking about how we strategically could involve our customers and employees to go forward, that was a big moment for me.”

Bartz observed that the postpandemic world is going to be changed in many ways that we can’t yet foresee. “There are just certain things that, until we know that we can be densely packed pretty safely, I don’t think many people will go out,” she said. “I don’t think we will know the new normal for two years. People are just going to go slow.”

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