Welcome back to Ask a Tech Worker! For this recurring feature, I’ve been roaming downtown San Francisco at lunchtime to ask tech employees about how the workplace is changing. This week, I caught up with tech workers about what their companies are doing to avoid omicron outbreaks, and whether many of their colleagues had been out sick lately. Got an idea for a future topic? Email me.
Omicron stops for no one, it seems. Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 10, 8.8 million Americans missed work to either recover from COVID-19 or care for someone who was recovering, according to the Census Bureau. That number crushed the previous record of 6.6 million from last January, and tripled the numbers from early last month.
Tech is no exception here. Even with remote work and a highly vaccinated workforce, startups and tech giants alike are grappling with how to keep employees healthy this winter.
When I ran into software engineer Tristan Paul at Salesforce Park at lunchtime yesterday, he was squinting down at the instructions of a rapid COVID-19 test. The test kit was set up on the bench next to him. “They provide [the tests], or we can expense them,” Paul said of Check, the payroll-as-a-service startup where he works.
Paul had just flown into San Francisco and was taking the test before visiting Check’s office. No, he wasn’t worried about a potential exposure: The company now requires a negative test to visit the office in order to prevent the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, he said.
Many offices remain open, but some have instituted temporary closures or delayed reopenings in recent weeks. Atlassian, for example, closed its offices before the holidays and doesn’t plan to reopen until Feb. 4 at the earliest because of omicron, an employee told me.
At this point, 60% of tech workers no longer expect a “return to normal” at work, according to data that Qualtrics published Wednesday. 69% believe COVID-19 will be around forever, and 62% of tech workers support businesses requiring employees to get a booster shot.
For now, though, tech teams are having to deal with lost work time when several colleagues get sick at once.
“A shitload of junior professionals are getting a big lesson in team accountability as the workload from their unboosted, bar-hopping, now-COVID infected colleagues falls on them for a week,” Atrium co-founder Peter Kazanjy tweeted two weeks ago.
Maybe that’s a little harsh. But Janani Thiyagarajan, whom I met outside Home Coffee Roasters in Chinatown, said about half of her nine-person team at Accenture had been sick with omicron.
“I know a lot of my co-workers who went out during New Year’s Eve and stuff, so I probably think that’s why,” Thiyagarajan said. “Everyone is vaccinated. Most of them, I think, are boosted.”
Thiyagarajan’s team is mostly still remote, and Accenture requires employees to be vaccinated, she said. Thankfully, her colleagues’ symptoms were mild enough that no one was out sick for more than a week, she said. “It was kind of hard for us to juggle everything,” Thiyagarajan said. “There were a lot of people [out sick] at once.”
In a call this week, Nikki Salenetri, the vice president of People at the employee fitness provider Gympass, credited the company’s high vaccination rate — she estimated it at 95% — with avoiding too much employee sick time during the omicron surge. “Luckily, even though we’ve been having more cases, they’ve been significantly more mild,” Salenetri told me. “People haven’t really been out of work for more than a day or two when it happens.”
Even with high vaccination rates, though, there’s a definite atmosphere of fear around the virus.
In the past week, Thiyagarajan said she and others on her team had been nervous that they would get sick, too, but that they were slowly getting comfortable going out again.
“But it’s definitely not like how it was a month or two ago,” she said.
Peter Bayuk has been seeing similar trends. Bayuk, an office manager at RapidAPI, said that omicron’s huge surge in the last few weeks had frightened workers away from San Francisco offices — even though a number of positive omicron cases are asymptomatic, he pointed out.
“People have kind of gone back into their caves a little bit,” Bayuk said. “I think [omicron] scared people more than anything.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Nikki Salenetri's name.