Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Businessperson working at a desk with a mask on.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

Delta isn't just scaring Apple

"I know a couple companies that have just indefinitely put plans on hold," said Niki Armstrong, who serves as general counsel, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer at Pure Storage. "We really just don't know what the future's going to hold here in the next few months."

Pure is one such company. The nearly $6 billion data storage hardware and software maker initially planned to fully reopen its offices after Labor Day, but decided last week to delay its full reopening indefinitely.

Pure decided to indefinitely delay its full reopening because of concerns about the spread of the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19. Vaccinated people are far less likely than the unvaccinated to wind up in the hospital with COVID-19, but breakthrough cases do occur. Pure still plans to reopen on a voluntary basis next month, but only to employees who tell the company they're vaccinated.

Employees may also have concerns about bringing the virus home to unvaccinated family members or may be unvaccinated themselves for a medical reason, Armstrong noted.

"It's not 'vaccine and chill.' It's 'vaccine and still continue to be safe,'" Armstrong said. "It's not 100% guaranteed that you're not going to get it, even with the vaccine."

By delaying the full reopening, Pure is allowing employees to continue to live where they want, whether or not that's near the office, until it's clear when the company can safely reopen. Pure wanted to avoid uprooting employees and then changing plans, Armstrong said.

ServiceNow delayed its full reopening for similar reasons. The $114 billion software maker decided last week to delay its September reopening until January or later, spokesperson Caitlin Stewart said.

"We understand the complex realities everyone is facing, including concerns about the COVID-19 delta variant," ServiceNow said in an emailed statement. "This extended period of employee choice will give our people time to transition back to the workplace safely and plan for personal situations."

Similar to Pure, ServiceNow is allowing employees to come into the office in the meantime if they choose. All but three of ServiceNow's 27 U.S. offices are partially open, Stewart said.

Salesforce, SAP, Airbnb also won't require employees back until 2022

Google, Amazon and Microsoft have all indicated September as their full reopening date, though spokespeople for both Facebook and Google told Protocol earlier this week that they were monitoring the changing situation.

And it's not uncommon for companies to look to October or later. Like Apple, Facebook doesn't expect to fully reopen until October. Salesforce, SAP, Twilio and DoorDash are letting employees work remotely until January 2022 or later.

Some are looking even further into the future for their reopenings. Airbnb won't require its employees to come back to the office until September 2022, CEO Brian Chesky revealed on the company's May 13 earnings call, telling investors that the company wants to "model the 'live anywhere' lifestyle" and would "allow a lot of flexibility."

Vaccine and mask mandates

Local government officials in the Bay Area have been urging people to wear masks in public, indoor places for the last week.

A similar recommendation in Los Angeles was quickly followed by an indoor mask mandate, which went into effect last weekend in L.A.'s public, indoor spaces, including offices.

It's possible that the Bay Area's mask recommendation could turn into a mandate if the case counts don't get under control, said Rachel Conn, a San Francisco-based partner in the labor and employment group at the law firm Nixon Peabody.

"Could I see the Bay Area fall in line and do something similar to L.A. in the future? I certainly could," Conn said. "We were, of course, the first to have a lockdown in the country."

A potential mask mandate in offices could throw a wrench in companies' reopening plans. Already, Google and Intel have begun urging even vaccinated employees to wear masks in the office again, given that both companies are allowing unvaccinated employees to come to work.

"A lot of times employers are getting feedback from their employees," Conn said. "If employers are seeing a rise in concerns with their employees about the delta variant, or data they're seeing, they should consider all of that."

Officials in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties also recommended yesterday that given the rising case counts, employers should consider imposing vaccine mandates at the workplace. In a radio interview on WNYC today, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on employers to require vaccinations for workers.

Only a handful of large tech companies are currently barring unvaccinated employees from the office, including Adobe, Twitter, Asana and Twilio. Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are among the companies that aren't imposing such mandates.

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