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

Policy

Steel decided World War II. Chips will decide whatever is next.

“Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology” foreshadows the coming battle between nations over semiconductors.

“Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies.

Image: Scribner; Protocol

“World War II was decided by steel and aluminum, and followed shortly thereafter by the Cold War, which was defined by atomic weapons,” Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, writes in the introduction to his latest book. So what’s next? According to Miller, the next era, including the rivalry between the U.S. and China, is all about computing power.

That tech rivalry and the story of how the chip industry got from four to 11.8 billion transistors are all part of Miller’s book, “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” which comes out Oct. 4. “Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies: three from the U.S., one from Japan, and one from the Netherlands.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

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.

Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and 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 Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins