People

Ping-Pong and catered lunches are back — for the few SF tech startups willing to reopen

Remote is trendy, but some San Francisco tech workers are choosing to go back to work.

Woman working with mask on

Tech offices are starting to reopen in San Francisco, but few companies are actually going back.

Photo: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

For the last few days, Fast CEO Domm Holland has been able to look out from his standing desk and see his co-workers working alongside him. They shared a catered lunch inside their lofty SOMA-based office, and Holland raided the snack kitchen.

These would have all been normal scenes at a tech company in 2019, but for Holland, it's the first time since March that he's been able to return to a bit of "normal" after San Francisco finally began reopening offices this week.

He even managed to squeeze in a game of Ping-Pong, a startup classic, with a co-worker at his online checkout system startup. "It's a great activity because it's a socially distanced game," he told Protocol, even with masks required and having to wipe down the equipment after.

Fast's return to the office is still a rarity in Silicon Valley. While other cities and states have allowed office reopenings for a while, San Francisco only announced last week that it would begin to allow nonessential office workers back beginning Oct. 27 and capped office attendance at 25%.

And that's if they choose to reopen at all. Many tech companies, including several Bay Area giants, have decided to go entirely remote or postpone reopening until next summer.

"All my NYC companies are back in the office at this point, although with limited capacity and lots of ventilation," wrote Founders Fund investor Delian Asparouhov in an email to Protocol. He pointed out that some Bay Area labs have been back for a while, especially those working on hard tech, but many startups have held off so far.

"A lot of the companies in my portfolio in SF are being slower to the draw than I'd have guessed in terms of their time frames for returning to office. I'd still say most of them aren't even really thinking about doing it until end of Q1 at the earliest," he added.

Data from BART ridership shows there wasn't a major rush back once San Francisco gave the green light to reopen. Ridership is only up a few hundred people systemwide in the days since offices reopened, and it's still down 87% from previous ridership levels.

"The reopening is not a moment in time," said Envoy's CEO Larry Gadea. "The reopening is something that happens over the next one to two years, and it's going to be gradual."

His company, once synonymous with those tablets visitors use to sign in at tech companies, has been on the frontlines of trying to help offices get back to work. It's rolled out products like Envoy Protect, which helps manage desk reservations, health questionnaires and touchless sign-ins at the office, to help make it easier for companies to know who and how many employees are at work at any given time.

Still, the CEOs Gadea talks to remain cautious about bringing their employees to work, afraid to be the epicenter of an outbreak or to be seen as forcing employees back before they are ready. In a recent national survey run by Envoy and Wakefield, 73% of the 1,000 people surveyed said they were worried about going to the physical office. The study also found that about a fifth of employees have returned to their offices already, and 39% of employees never stopped going.

Tech workers in the study were the most worried about returning to the office, and San Francisco tech companies in particular have been more conservative than most, Gadea said. Of the most ambitious companies going back, Gadea says he's seeing around 10% to 15% of employees returning to the office. At Envoy, only a handful of its 120 employees have been back to the office, and while Gadea has been in a few times for things like 2021 planning meetings, even he hasn't made a full-fledged return.

"I get that we can all be robots at home and write code and get evaluated only for the output that we do, but it's very hard to be creative, to brainstorm and collaborate very specifically on things," he said. "I think people are getting there's a difference between being able to get your work done and being able to get your work done really well in a way that you're really excited and bought in."

It's the potential boost in productivity and engagement with work and coworkers that has some employees excited to go back. Despite only being back a few days, Founders Fund's Asparouhov already likes the normalcy of commuting and being back at the office. The group team lunches may be gone and replaced with individual boxed lunches, but there's still the option of seeing a colleague through a glass wall and asking to go on a walk for just a small bit of watercooler talk. He'd already been going for socially distanced walks with founders to be able to meet them "mask to mask," but going back to work in an office has already helped life feel closer to ordinary.

"Despite having a very sparse office, and having to meet with founders wearing a mask, my current workflow actually feels pretty 'normal' despite being quite different from my 2019 workflow," he said.

Fast's Holland had been laying the groundwork for six months to make sure his company would be able to return when San Francisco finally decided to reopen. The office used to fit 120 desks comfortably, and it's been reduced to 25 socially distanced workspaces. The company set up a ticketing system so people can sign up for the nine available slots a day. The catered lunches aren't buffet trays, but individual orders from Uber Eats and DoorDash. Even with the changes, Holland is still feeling the rush from just being able to bring a small bit of community back into his work life, and so far, the maxed-out attendance in the office has shown that other employees have craved it, too.

"Most of the people I know today and am friends with I met through work," Holland said. "So I am bullish on keeping the community alive. They don't necessarily need to be on your team, but we can still provide a place and a community for people."

The biggest change, though, has just been rethinking what the office actually means to Fast. The startup instituted early in the pandemic a Fast Flex policy, which allows people to work from anywhere, whether it's in a foreign country or while on a road trip or just from their couch. It also started hiring more people from outside the Bay Area, so now around 30 of Fast's 70 employees live outside of Silicon Valley. "We're in a position where nobody has to come in ever again if they don't want to — and that's fine," he said.

Because it will always be a distributed company now, Holland thinks the office will serve more as a co-working space that's exclusively for Fast employees rather than a place for entire teams to report to work. Dropbox is taking a similar tack by launching "studios" instead of offices. For Dropbox employees, their daily work will be expected to be done in co-working spaces or from their couch, but the company will have more communal studios for team building, training and events.

While many companies are giving up their office spaces, Holland isn't backing away from them. Instead, he expects to see Fast open more in the future.

"I am bullish on the future of offices, but the way that I think of them is different from before COVID," he said. "We'll open up offices in other parts of the world, but I think of our offices as co-working offices for employees. They're not designed to be the office that you and your team and your boss all work from."

Power

How the creators of Spligate built gaming’s newest unicorn

1047 Games is now valued at $1.5 billion after three rounds of funding since May.

1047 Games' Splitgate amassed 13 million downloads when its beta launched in July.

Image: 1047 Games

The creators of Splitgate had a problem. Their new free-to-play video game, a take on the legendary arena shooter Halo with a teleportation twist borrowed from Valve's Portal, was gaining steam during its open beta period in July. But it was happening too quickly.

Splitgate was growing so fast and unexpectedly that the entire game was starting to break, as the servers supporting the game began to, figuratively speaking, melt down. The game went from fewer than 1,000 people playing it at any given moment in time to suddenly having tens of thousands of concurrent players. Then it grew to hundreds of thousands of players, all trying to log in and play at once across PlayStation, Xbox and PC.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

While it's easy to get lost in the operational and technical side of a transaction, it's important to remember the third component of a payment. That is, the human behind the screen.

Over the last two years, many retailers have seen the benefit of investing in new, flexible payments. Ones that reflect the changing lifestyles of younger spenders, who are increasingly holding onto their cash — despite reports to the contrary. This means it's more important than ever for merchants to take note of the latest payment innovations so they can tap into the savings of the COVID-19 generation.

Keep Reading Show less
Antoine Nougue,Checkout.com

Antoine Nougue is Head of Europe at Checkout.com. He works with ambitious enterprise businesses to help them scale and grow their operations through payment processing services. He is responsible for leading the European sales, customer success, engineering & implementation teams and is based out of London, U.K.

Protocol | Policy

Why Twitch’s 'hate raid' lawsuit isn’t just about Twitch

When is it OK for tech companies to unmask their anonymous users? And when should a violation of terms of service get someone sued?

The case Twitch is bringing against two hate raiders is hardly black and white.

Photo: Caspar Camille Rubin/Unsplash

It isn't hard to figure out who the bad guys are in Twitch's latest lawsuit against two of its users. On one side are two anonymous "hate raiders" who have been allegedly bombarding the gaming platform with abhorrent attacks on Black and LGBTQ+ users, using armies of bots to do it. On the other side is Twitch, a company that, for all the lumps it's taken for ignoring harassment on its platform, is finally standing up to protect its users against persistent violators whom it's been unable to stop any other way.

But the case Twitch is bringing against these hate raiders is hardly black and white. For starters, the plaintiff here isn't an aggrieved user suing another user for defamation on the platform. The plaintiff is the platform itself. Complicating matters more is the fact that, according to a spokesperson, at least part of Twitch's goal in the case is to "shed light on the identity of the individuals behind these attacks," raising complicated questions about when tech companies should be able to use the courts to unmask their own anonymous users and, just as critically, when they should be able to actually sue them for violating their speech policies.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Workplace

Remote work is here to stay. Here are the cybersecurity risks.

Phishing and ransomware are on the rise. Is your remote workforce prepared?

Before your company institutes work-from-home-forever plans, you need to ensure that your workforce is prepared to face the cybersecurity implications of long-term remote work.

Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The delta variant continues to dash or delay return-to-work plans, but before your company institutes work-from-home-forever plans, you need to ensure that your workforce is prepared to face the cybersecurity implications of long-term remote work.

So far in 2021, CrowdStrike has already observed over 1,400 "big game hunting" ransomware incidents and $180 million in ransom demands averaging over $5 million each. That's due in part to the "expanded attack surface that work-from-home creates," according to CTO Michael Sentonas.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Protocol | Fintech

When COVID rocked the insurance market, this startup saw opportunity

Ethos has outraised and outmarketed the competition in selling life insurance directly online — but there's still an $887 billion industry to transform.

Life insurance has been slow to change.

Image: courtneyk/Getty Images

Peter Colis cited a striking statistic that he said led him to launch a life insurance startup: One in twenty children will lose a parent before they turn 15.

"No one ever thinks that will happen to them, but that's the statistics," the co-CEO and co-founder of Ethos told Protocol. "If it's a breadwinning parent, the majority of those families will go bankrupt immediately, within three months. Life insurance elegantly solves this problem."

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Latest Stories