Workplace

Despite delta, some tech companies are back in the office with no vaccine mandate

Most of Big Tech has pushed back its reopening to October or later. But these smaller companies are fully back in the office — no vaccine mandates needed.

An office full of work stations with masked employees

Despite the COVID-19 surge that has led many companies to postpone reopenings, some smaller and mid-sized tech companies have continued calling their employees back to the office.

Photo: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Despite the COVID-19 surge that has led many large, well-known companies to postpone reopenings, some smaller and mid-sized tech companies have continued calling their employees back to the office.

Three of those companies (Starry Inc., C3 AI and Cepton) have all reopened their offices and are embracing in-office work as the default. None of the three indicated to Protocol that workers are required to be vaccinated before coming in.

Most of the industry's giants remain in a "partial reopening" phase of the pandemic. Their offices are open at a limited capacity, and in many cases only to vaccinated employees. Many tech workers won't have to reenter the office until the fall or winter.

That's not the case at Starry. The Boston-based Internet service provider that reopened in June isn't mandating vaccines and allows managers to decide whether to accommodate remote work.

"[CEO Chet Kanojia] is a big advocate of non-remote working," one Starry employee told Protocol. "He sees a lot of the political fervor around mask mandates and vaccine mandates … This is his way of trying to toe that line."

No vaccine mandate, no problem?

Starry, which has more than 700 employees across the U.S., called its corporate employees back to the office in late June. Its executive team works in the office every day, but some managers are allowing their teams, or individual employees, to work from home some days.

"We're in every day, and that's what we prefer to do and we want to set an example," said Virginia Lam Abrams, Starry's senior vice president of government affairs and strategic advancement. "That doesn't mean not allowing our managers to have some flexibility in how they manage their teams."

Starry doesn't require its workers to get vaccinated but has collected proof of vaccination from almost 70% of its workforce and nearly 90% of its in-office corporate staff. Unvaccinated employees are required to wear masks at Starry offices, as are vaccinated workers at offices that are subject to the local mask mandates in Los Angeles and Washington.

Still, a Starry employee who spoke to Protocol expressed frustration at the "level of COVID-preparedness at the company," noting that at his office, which is not in L.A. or Washington, most haven't been wearing masks, and employees have resumed sitting at adjacent desks rather than spacing themselves out.

To Starry's credit, there have only been a handful of staff COVID cases over the last year and a half, and no one has caught the virus at the office. The company incentivized its workers to turn in proof of vaccination by offering spot bonuses of $25 and entering vaccinated employees into a raffle for 5,000 stock options.

Cepton's workforce almost fully vaccinated without a mandate

Cepton, a San Jose-based lidar maker with 116 employees, didn't need to offer prizes. When the five-year-old company was gearing up to reopen in May, it asked its workers to get vaccinated but stopped short of a mandate.

"It might sound trite, but we are lucky (and grateful) to have an employee base that wasn't just focused on their own health but also the health and safety of their colleagues," said T. R. Ramachandran, Cepton's chief marketing officer. "People wanted to enable others to come into the office without worrying about falling sick."

Almost all of Cepton's employees are working on site because between 90% and 95% need to be in the office "to support the build and manufacturing of our products," Ramachandran said, noting that the company had not had any COVID cases connected to the office.

Being based in the Bay Area also means Cepton's office is subject to the local mask mandate that applies in public, indoor places, regardless of vaccination status.

C3 AI is another company embracing in-office work for the long term. The Redwood City-based enterprise software vendor's billionaire CEO, Tom Siebel, said earlier this summer that he would require his employees to come to the office five days a week. "There are talented people who work from home," Siebel said in June. "We just don't hire them. We tend to attract people who are not introverted, who like to interact with other people and where work is a big part of their lives."

Apparently, Siebel's philosophy hasn't changed since COVID cases picked back up last month. A spokesperson for C3 AI said Wednesday that the Silicon Valley enterprise software vendor is "fully back in the office," but the company didn't respond to several inquiries sent over the last week about its mask and vaccine policies.

Who's back at the office?

Companies like these seem to stick out in an industry where most of the giants are embracing hybrid work and won't head back to the office until October, if not next year. But they're certainly not alone.

A recent survey of more than 22,000 LinkedIn users found that the software and IT sector was the only one where most employers were allowing for permanent hybrid work. But even that sector had a substantial number of respondents — 45% — who reported their employers weren't going hybrid.

Across the broader U.S. workforce, most office workers across industries who Morning Consult surveyed between July 16 and Aug. 5 said they were already back at the office. More highly educated office workers were more likely to report that they were still working from home, with most professionals with advanced degrees still working remotely.

The IT sector saw an increase in office attendance between June and July, according to data released Tuesday from Robin, a workforce management software maker that tracks its customers' desk reservations.

Some of that came from San Francisco, which across industries saw a more than 50% increase in desk bookings and a 153% increase in employees returning to the office in July. The financial services, professional services and tech industries are driving the return to the office in SF, Robin found.

But tech workers were still spending an average of just a few hours in the office per week, according to Robin, which found a similar office attendance rate in the wholesale, nonprofit and retail sectors.

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