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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.

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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."

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