Virtual dating is great, says Roblox boss, but not virtual working

Colin Campbell, Thursday, October 19th, 2023 9:25 am

Roblox CEO David “Dave” Baszucki is big on people interacting in visual social environments – most especially playful places like the game platform he runs. He even thinks dating is going to be a thing on Roblox. But he’s not so keen on his workers enjoying the freedom to use such technologies to fully work from home.

In a recent email and blog post aimed at employees, Baszucki informed employees that they must commit to working at least three days per week from the company’s San Mateo offices, slap bang in the middle of some of the busiest commuter routes in the United States, not to mention the exorbitant house prices and rental costs associated with Silicon Valley.

“Today we will be asking a number of our remote employees to begin working from our headquarters in San Mateo by next summer and transitioning away from remote work at Roblox,” he wrote in the email.

According to Baszucki, the diktat is all about creativity and harmony, which must be great news for employees glumly dusting off their garaged Corollas, while anticipating endless hours on Route 101.

In his blog post, Baszucki turned to one of his favorite rhetorical gambits – the cozy personal anecdote. He marked remote work as a vestige of COVID, rather than a proven quality-of-life choice that workers are increasingly likely to value in their employer choices.

“I remember clearly the start of the pandemic,” he cooed. “I was planning an international trip and watched, day by day, as the likelihood of any sort of travel diminished. Of course, the trip never happened and Roblox transitioned to a completely remote workforce in March 2020. What we initially thought would be a few weeks turned into a few years, and I was impressed with how much we were able to get done under truly extraordinary circumstances.”

Fading glow

That glow evidently did not last. While other companies are willing to recognize how much workers value the option to fully work remotely, Roblox was going in a different direction. “We had numerous deep discussions and we kept coming back to the notion that, ultimately, Roblox is an innovation company and we needed to get back to working in person.”

His evidence for in-person work triggering extra creativity seems to be mainly based on personal experience and observation. “Nearly a year after most of us have returned to our headquarters in San Mateo, we’ve seen how much we can accomplish, how far we can push innovation, and how being together strengthens our culture,” he wrote.

The observations and experiences of workers are not mentioned in the blog post but, reassuringly, he notes that “we know” this is the right decision for Roblox.

According to Baszucki, a long meeting is “exhausting” over video, as opposed to in-person where “brainstorming sessions are more fluid and creative”. He allows for the possibility that this might change in the future, but makes no timeline commitment. “While I’m confident we will get to a point where virtual workspaces are as engaging, collaborative, and productive as physical spaces, we aren’t there yet.”

As is traditional when company bosses force through changes that are likely unpopular with workers, he notes that this is a “difficult decision”. He also accepts that some employees are not going to trade their perfectly satisfactory remote working environment for a return to the grim grind of office life. “Unfortunately, I know that some employees will decide not to join us at headquarters,” he wrote.

Exception criteria

Of course, some people can work from home, although this seems to depend on what suits Roblox, rather than any individual’s needs. Exceptions include people who work in “data centers, moderators, call centers, etc” as well as certain “individuals who have niche skill sets or significant institutional knowledge”.

New employees will not be offered the option to go fully remote, unless they fit the exception criteria. Those who refuse to return fully to the full in-person gaze of their bosses can opt to “take a severance package”.

Those who aren’t sure have until January to decide, and then until April to make the change, which Baszucki acknowledges will often include literally moving house. “We did not make this decision lightly, as we understand that the decision to move is significant, both for our employees and for their families and loved ones.” All affected workers must be doing at least three days a week in the office by July.

McKinsey and Company’s American Opportunity Survey, published last year, found that “when people have the chance to work flexibly, 87 percent of them take it”. Additionally, the report, which surveyed more than 25,000 working people, concluded that this positivity is “widespread across demographics, occupations, and geographies. The flexible working world was born of a frenzied reaction to a sudden crisis but has remained as a desirable job feature for millions.”

A Harvard Business Review recently found that workers overwhelmingly see remote work as good for productivity, while managers are less keen. The report posits the notion that, when calculating productivity, workers count the hours they spend commuting, while managers somehow consider this time to be nothing to do with work.

Game companies have reacted variously to the challenge of remote work. Many prefer a hybrid approach, although it’s notable that smaller companies are often more comfortable with existing without a central office at all. Companies that are growing also tend to be more flexible, recognizing the need to attract talent.

Still, Roblox employees returning home after a day in the office can look forward to engaging in other virtual activities, once considered to be best done in person, like dating. Speaking in a recent interview at The Code Conference, Baszucki enthused about Roblox as a potential dating platform.

“What’s really interesting about the dating market; there’s probably a third of the population that won’t go on [dating apps] just because of awkwardness. In an immersive 3D avatar type communication where you can be Shrek and I can be whoever I want to be … there’s actually a little bit of a breakdown of the friction, of the fear of the video call. So I actually do believe that will happen. I do believe someday someone will build a dating app on Roblox. It’ll be very safe. It will be for 17-and-up [ages] people to connect.”

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.