Jul 15, 2020 - Technology

Tech hits the brakes on office reopenings

Illustration of an outlet making an uncertain face
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Tech was the first industry to send its workers home when COVID-19 first hit the U.S., and it has been among the most cautious in bringing workers back. Even still, many companies are realizing that their reopening plans from as recently as a few weeks ago are now too optimistic.

Why it matters: Crafting reopening plans gave tech firms a chance to bolster their leadership and model the beginnings of a path back to normalcy for other office workers. Their decision to pause those plans is the latest sign that normalcy is likely to remain elusive in the U.S.

What's happening: Many tech companies had already announced plans to allow most workers to telecommute through the end of the year (and in some cases indefinitely). Quietly, though, companies had been drawing up playbooks for portions of their workforces to return to the office sooner.In many cases, though, those plans are now on hold.

Snapchat, which had said employees could work remotely through Sept. 1, notified workers on Tuesday that was being extended through at least Jan. 4, citing the resurgence of COVID-19 in many parts of the U.S.

  • At the same time, Snap says it wants to offer as much flexibility as it can, recognizing that some workers want to come back to the office when it is safe to do so. "We will continue to press ahead with plans for reopening our offices for some team members, to the extent that we are allowed to, in accordance with local public health guidelines."
  • And while its U.S. offices remain largely closed, the company has partly or fully reopened some global offices, including Shenzhen, Paris, Hamburg, Kfar Yehoshua, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Yverdon-les-Bains, Oslo, Stockholm and Vienna.

Apple, meanwhile, has been forced to again close many of the U.S. retail stores that had re-opened.

Most companies didn't want to talk publicly about reopening plans, but private conversations with many of them revealed a consistent theme: The industry is expecting even more of its workforce to be out of the office longer than they'd anticipated before the latest U.S. resurgence of the pandemic.

  • The key factors driving the shift are the increase in COVID-19 cases, a continued lack of widespread testing and the likelihood that many schools will remain closed this fall. That has left companies that had yet to communicate fall plans scrambling to do so.

It's a big change from just a few weeks ago, when many companies held out hope that some percentage of their broad workforce would be able to return in fall. Now, firms are returning their focus on those workers who absolutely have to be in the office.

The big picture: Tech has become increasingly central to American life as the key gateway for entertainment, information, commerce and education. The good news is that many tech companies have found that much of their work can be done from home, without a big hit to productivity.

Yes, but: Not all workers can stay home. Cloud-based software companies need relatively few on-site workers, while a company like Intel needs a fairly large in-person staff. (You can't manufacture chips at home.)

Between the lines: Lots of companies say their workers are their biggest asset, but in the tech industry, where the competition for engineering talent remains fierce, that's especially true.

  • There are many startups and large companies whose main assets are the engineers on their payrolls, plus some pricey office furniture and expensive real estate — along with the patents that emanate from those employees.
  • A clear sign of where things stand is companies are now spending more to help workers get set up in their home offices, paying for things like ergonomic furniture and other gear that's expensive upfront but can pay dividends over time.

Our thought bubble: Tech has the luxury of taking care of its valuable workers. In many other industries, the practical and ethical equation is far more complex, because keeping the business going often requires some workers to be put at risk.

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