Tech companies were among the first large employers to send people home when the pandemic began in the U.S. in early 2020. A year later, with vaccine distribution ramping up nationwide, they're now grappling with how to bring people back.
Salesforce, San Francisco's largest employer, recently said it plans to reopen its headquarters, Salesforce Tower, in May. Only employees who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will be allowed to work from the office, to begin with, and the company is capping the number of employees on each floor at 100 people. Salesforce says it will strongly encourage vaccinations and testing once it fully reopens its offices in the U.S.
DocuSign, which has its San Francisco office one block over from Google, told Protocol it's glad to see bigger tech companies make the first move.
"I'm kind of happy Salesforce and Google and Facebook, whose offices are near ours, have decided they want to reopen," DocuSign Chief People Officer Joan Burke told Protocol. "I think it'll begin to revitalize that neighborhood."
Protocol caught up with a handful of San Francisco tech companies like DocuSign, to learn more about when they're hoping to bring employees back to the office, how to do it safely, whether to require vaccinations and how to support a large number of people who have grown accustomed to working from home.
Reopening now or later
San Francisco currently allows businesses to operate offices at up to 25% of their normal capacity, with employees adhering to social distancing requirements. On June 15, California will allow offices to "return to usual operations" as long as they implement mask mandates, increase indoor ventilation and use "common-sense risk reduction measures," Gov. Gavin Newsom's office said earlier this month.
A few blocks away from the once-bustling Caltrain station in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, workplace startup Envoy has tentative plans to formally reopen its office sometime in May, CEO Larry Gadea told Protocol.
Nothing is stopping Envoy from partially reopening today, but Gadea said he doesn't want to find himself in a position where the company will have to scale back again.
"We really have to involve all our internal teams to think about the implications of this," Gadea said.
Envoy likely won't require anyone to come in to the office before August. Even then, Envoy team managers will determine any mandatory return-to-office dates, Gadea said.
"I can say we're not going to be 100% remote," he said. "I can say that with confidence."
DocuSign, which is targeting an Oct. 4 reopening date, is taking a more conservative approach. While some companies are taking advantage of the fact that San Francisco is allowing partial reopenings, DocuSign has made a conscious decision not to invest in partial reopenings, Burke said.
DocuSign has no interest in reopening an office with cordoned-off desks, a strict mask and social distancing requirement and so forth.
"We didn't think that investment would pay off," she said.
CircleCI, a software development startup located near Google's San Francisco office, is looking at a June or July timeframe for returning to the office.
"We're in a good place to be ready to get employees back in our SF office and still meet the guidelines the city and state require," CircleCI VP of People John Carlstrom told Protocol.
That timeframe gives CircleCI some time to see how other companies are approaching this new challenge, he said. In December, the company ran a survey to see how people felt about a return to the office. About 25% of employees said they were unsure about ever coming back to the office.
"I think they trust that we'll have a safe environment," he said. "But it's about running the gauntlet on Caltrain, it's being in traffic. I think that is what is giving people some pause."
Company leaders and workers are also concerned about how many other businesses will be open around their offices. It's important, for example, that coffee shops, lunch restaurants and other businesses be up and running in the area around the office.
"Those things also need to be there," Carlstrom said.
Hot desks and neighborhood hotels
Envoy found itself in a precarious position when cities all over the country started implementing shelter-in-place orders.
"We literally sell software to workplaces," Gadea said. "The thing that was almost made fully illegal by the government."
Through Envoy Protect, companies can conduct health questionnaires and monitor how many — and which — people are there. Envoy Desks allows employees to reserve socially-distanced desks at their respective workplaces.
As Envoy gears up to reopen its own offices, it plans to use its own tools and services. If employees commit to coming in at minimum of two to three days a week, Envoy will give them a permanent desk. Those who come in less often, however, will use a "hot desk" — finding a seat on any given day at a communal, unassigned desk.
Hot desking, Gadea told me, "is through the roof."
CircleCI also envisions fewer dedicated desks and more communal places where teams can meet in an open environment. Another office management strategy called neighborhood hoteling, where workers reserve short-term spaces physically near their colleagues, seems to be gaining traction.
DocuSign envisions using neighborhood hoteling to accommodate workers who come into the office less regularly. Engineers, for example, could reserve work stations in the engineering department's neighborhood, while human resource professionals would reserve desks in their own neighborhood.
Hybrid work models
Pre-pandemic, about 15% of DocuSign's workforce — primarily sales staff — was fully remote. DocuSign, like larger firms, is currently looking at every role and trying to determine whether those employees need to be in the office, and which jobs can continue to be fully remote.
Receptionists, for example, need to be in the office five days a week, Burke said. But she envisions most other jobs being "flex jobs" where employees can choose to work remotely at least 50% of the time. There will then be jobs that can continue to be fully remote, but DocuSign will leave those decisions up to senior managers.
"The truth of the matter is, this is just a big experiment that we're all in and none of us really have an answer," Burke said. "We just have to stay open and fluid and listen to our employees."
CircleCI has always been partially remote, so Carlstrom envisions the company being able to provide some flexibility to employees who have left the Bay Area or have adopted a new lifestyle that requires more time at home.
Throughout the pandemic, CircleCI employees proved they can work effectively and grow the company while at home, Carlstrom said. That's why he envisions CircleCI will be able to have a hybrid model.
"It used to be work-from-home on Friday," he said. "But that could turn into 'work from the office on Wednesday.'"
A vaccine mandate
An overwhelming majority of tech employees want their employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, according to a March survey. More than 50% of tech industry workers who participated in the survey said they would consider quitting their jobs if their employer doesn't require employees to get vaccinated.
DocuSign is considering requiring employees to be vaccinated before returning to the office, but Burke said the company hasn't yet made a decision on that.
CircleCI is also undecided. One of the many factors in the decision, Carlstrom noted, is considering that some people are not eligible to get the vaccine. Pfizer, for example, recommends that people with severe allergic reactions to components of the vaccine, or those that have had severe reactions after a dose of the vaccine, should not get vaccinated.
"We're trying to be thoughtful about individuals' right to privacy and the community good that comes from people being vaccinated," Carlstrom said.
Envoy, similarly, has not finalized its plans but does have an idea of what it will do.
"We're intending to ask that our staff be vaccinated before allowing them back into the office this year," Gadea said. "We want to do our part in ending this pandemic."