Workplace

Tech companies roll back office COVID restrictions as Biden says pandemic is 'over'

Tech offices are doing away with vaccine mandates and health surveys.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 7: People ride a PATH train from Hoboken, New Jersey during their morning commute as it stops at the Christorpher Street station on September 7, 2022, in New York City. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

“Technology companies and leaders are behaving as if this is now a manageable problem."

Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic is “over,” President Joe Biden said on Sunday’s “60 Minutes”: “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.”

Biden’s comments earned criticism from those concerned he’s downplaying the seriousness of the virus, which still poses major health risks. But the remarks mirror a shift in the U.S. toward living with COVID as an endemic virus. Many tech employers have relaxed their own COVID restrictions, according to Joe Du Bey, co-founder and CEO of the workplace experience and people operations software maker Eden.

“Technology companies and leaders are behaving as if this is now a manageable problem,” Du Bey told me. “They are returning to the office and to corporate events in a meaningful way.”

More companies have also been letting go of vaccine mandates and dropping symptom questionnaires for employees heading to the office, Du Bey said.

This summer seemed like a “tipping point” for getting rid of these kinds of COVID precautions, Du Bey said.

“Even a few months ago, there was much higher engagement among our vaccine tracking tools, and I was seeing a lot more chatter among our startup community customer base and people I know around requiring it for team events,” Du Bey said.

A similar trend has emerged with Officely, a desk-booking tool that customers use inside Slack. Officely users returned half as many health surveys in August as they did at the peak in March, co-founder and CEO Max Shepherd-Cross told me.

Users also conducted 70% fewer contact traces than they did in March, according to Shepherd-Cross.

“I suggest this means that the actual amount of positive cases in offices is substantially down,” Shepherd-Cross said in a DM. “However, people are still worried about it, hence the smaller drop in companies requiring health surveys.”

AlertMedia, whose emergency communication software was used for contact tracing earlier in the pandemic, has found that customers have “less of a focus” on COVID.

“They’re using us in a bunch of different ways,” said CEO Christopher Kenessey. “We’ll hear our customers say, ‘Hey, I originally bought your product for the COVID use case, to communicate with them, and now we’re using your product for something different.’” (That can include natural disasters, active shooters and political unrest.)

Some kind of normal

At its own office in Austin, AlertMedia no longer requires employees to get vaccinated or to fill out a health survey before coming to work. The company dropped those policies as other businesses around Austin relaxed precautions like masks and vaccine cards, according to Kenessey.

The vaccine mandate at AlertMedia no longer seemed necessary once employees had a chance to get the shots, Kenessey said.

Much about life at AlertMedia looks close to normal these days. The company had 150 or 200 employees at the grand opening of its new, 68,000-square-foot office in Austin on Tuesday. More than 75% of the company’s 450 employees live in the Austin area, and Kenessey is hopeful that employees will choose to come to the new office three or four days per week.

That said, Kenessey is stopping short of requiring workers to come in.

“You can’t say, ‘We’re going to roll back the mandate to require a vaccine to come to the office,’ but then force people to come to the office,” Kenessey said. “If someone doesn’t feel comfortable, they have the flexibility of not having to come into the office.”

Back to the office, sort of

North American offices are busier than they have been since the start of the pandemic, though vacant desks still abound.

According to new data from the desk-booking software provider Robin, workers booked 22% of available desks last week — the first time since mid-June that one in five desks were in use. (It’s worth noting, though, that as some companies cut back on office space, higher utilization rates don’t necessarily mean more employees are showing up to work.)

Return rates vary across different cities, where different industries dominate, the Wall Street Journal reported. In New York, badge swipes tracked by the security provider Kastle Systems found that office attendance jumped from 38% to 46.6% earlier this month. San Francisco saw only a 2.3 percentage point increase to 40.7%.

And if workers are coming to the office more often, it’s not necessarily because they’re less nervous about getting sick. According to research from Slack’s Future Forum, concern about catching COVID isn’t high on the list of reasons why workers stay home.

“I think that is the smallest [part] of the conversation, in some ways,” Brian Elliott, executive leader of Future Forum, told Protocol. “Most of the conversation is about the fact that people want to find a balance between what works for them and the organization.”

And as workers gather in person, COVID cases follow. Google employees have been receiving regular notifications of colleagues’ COVID infections. Several AlertMedia employees tested positive for COVID after returning from a trade show last week, Kenessey said.

“We’re not ready to claim victory here at AlertMedia and say it’s over,” Kenessey said. “But we feel that it’s getting to the point now where you have to kind of live with it, work with it and be thoughtful of your peers, be respectful of them, and do it the right way.”

Additional reporting by Lizzy Lawrence

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