May 15, 2020

Axios Login

I finally bit the bullet and set up a real home office yesterday, putting a desk in the bedroom.

Today's Login, which comes to you from said desk, is 1,311 words, a 5-minute read.

Situational awareness: Taiwanese chip giant TSMC confirmed plans to build a semiconductor manufacturing plant in Arizona amid White House interest in boosting U.S. chipmaking operations.

1 big thing: Many tech workers won't be going back to the office

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are gaming out how to bring employees back to the office, but many are expecting a new normal in which a significant portion of their workers stay home for good.

Why it matters: Some tech firms may find they are just as productive with a remote workforce. But a shift away from in-office work will have profound impacts on everything from the commercial real estate market to the vast number of support jobs that were built around serving Silicon Valley's sprawling campuses.

Driving the news:

  • Twitter told workers that they can work from home permanently if they want.
  • Others haven't gone that far, but many tech companies have acknowledged publicly or privately that they don't expect most workers to return to the office this year.
  • On a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday evening, the CEOs of Box, Okta, PagerDuty and Twilio all expressed a sense that they will end up with more remote workers permanently, even after the pandemic ends.

Some companies were headed toward more remote staff even before the coronavirus crisis.

  • "We were already trying to reduce our dependency on the Bay Area because of competition for talent and cost of doing business here," said PagerDuty CEO Jennifer Tejada.
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had announced in January, when COVID-19's impact remained a distant threat, that Twitter was moving toward a remote-first workplace.

Others found themselves having to quickly switch gears.

  • Box CEO Aaron Levie said that he used to like to manage by walking around the office, but has found other benefits from a remote workforce.
  • Remote meetings have been a decent substitute for talking in person, connecting Levie to workers in Australia, Japan and England all on the same day, with no need to travel.

Between the lines: Embracing remote work has a number of benefits for companies beyond just the costs of hiring and retaining workers.

  • Many tech companies have built up a massive army of contractors and vendors to support their workers, including food service, shuttle bus drivers and janitorial staff. Even a partial shift away from the office would likely add up to significant savings over time for the firms — although fewer jobs for those support workers.
  • For workers, meanwhile, the ability to work remotely means more than just cutting down a commute. It also means the ability to live wherever they want, rather than being tied to the Bay Area or another tech hub, like Austin, New York or Boston. Considering the high cost of real estate and other expenses in the Bay Area, that could lead to a significant exodus, though people have long predicted "peak Silicon Valley" — and long been wrong.

Yes, but: Some companies have invested significantly in their campuses and have a vested interest in maintaining an office culture.

  • Apple is the poster child for this. It spent a fortune on its Apple Park HQ and likes its products designed behind closed (and locked) doors.
  • Bloomberg recently reported Apple is making plans for some office workers to return this summer.

The big picture: Companies' stances will range from Twitter's "stay home forever if you want" to Apple's "can't wait for you to come back in." Software companies are likely to have an easier time than hardware producers relying on a largely distributed workforce.

What's next: Not all the changes we are seeing as a response to the coronavirus will be permanent. Some jobs that are being done remotely at the moment, including many roles in sales and support, will require more travel once shelter-in-place rules ease.

  • "We are going to have to feel our way around this," said Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, a subscription management company. "I don't think we know the end game."
2. Apple buys NextVR

As had been rumored, Apple is buying NextVR, an Orange County, California-based startup best known for streaming sports, concerts and other live events in virtual reality. The company confirmed the acquisition first to Bloomberg, and also to Axios.

Why it matters: NextVR was struggling before the pandemic hit. The combination of slower-than-expected adoption of VR headsets and now a lack of live events put severe pressure on the company's ability to raise funds and build its business.

The purchase price was not disclosed and Apple declined to comment beyond telling Axios, "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans," the typical statement it offers when it buys a company.

Between the lines: While NextVR had deals with the National Basketball Association and others, Apple's acquisition doesn't necessarily mean Apple will continue taking the company in that direction. Indeed, the only message now on both NextVR's website and Oculus app is a statement that "NextVR is heading in a new direction" and thanking its existing fans.

Go deeper: If you missed it earlier this week in Login, check out our special report on VR:

3. Airbnb, Lyft make key hires amid pandemic

As they hope to weather the coronavirus crisis despite severe dips in business, Airbnb and Lyft have both made new hires focused on safety and community, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Driving the news: Airbnb announced yesterday it has hired AppleCare chief Tara Bunch as its new head of global operations, while Lyft recently brought on Jennifer Brandenburger as its first director of community safety. 

  • Bunch will oversee Airbnb's customer service, trust and safety, and payments, and will report to CEO Brian Chesky. She is taking over some of the responsibilities of former chief operating officer Belinda Johnson, who left late last year. 
  • Brandenburger, who spent several years at Lyft before a brief recent stint at Airbnb, will report to chief policy officer (and ex-Transportation Secretary) Anthony Foxx. She will lead the company's new Safety Advisory Council and initially focus on COVID-19-related safety issues. 

Between the lines: The coronavirus pandemic has raised the stakes when it comes to making customers feel safe and comfortable. Sharing economy companies, such as Airbnb and Lyft, will have to find ways to convince customers their services are safe, while not imposing such severe standards on hosts and drivers that they abandon work.

4. Coronavirus derails smart city projects

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Large smart city projects were getting a lot of attention and investment from city halls before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, those budgets have all but evaporated and priorities have shifted dramatically, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

Yes, but: Some smaller-scale innovations could help cities as they fight to recover from the crisis.

Driving the news: Citing "unprecedented economic uncertainty," Google sister company Sidewalk Labs last week abruptly halted its high-profile bid to transform a formerly industrial Toronto neighborhood into a mini city of the future.

  • "Privacy became a lightning rod" in the Sidewalk Labs proposal, said Alex Ryan of Toronto's MaRS Solutions Lab. "The next proposal will be much less tech-centric and will involve other civic innovation that doesn't involve sensors and data."

The big picture: Local economies have ground to a near-halt due to the pandemic, and cities' precarious financial situations will force tough decisions about what services and products to fund.

Still, some tech tools will likely play a crucial role as cities and companies look to open up offices, shops and public spaces over the next several months.

  • For example, dynamic curbs with lights embedded in the pavement — allowing an area to instantly switch between sidewalk and vehicle roadway depending on the time of day — could become much more common as cities look to extend pandemic road closures, Ryan noted.
  • Contactless entry and payment technologies are being considered for public places like transit stations. Autonomous drones may be increasingly used for deliveries and monitoring.
  • Companies are looking to use new digital tools like thermal cameras for temperature screening to help identify possible COVID-19 cases as workplaces reopen.

Kim has more here.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Envoy, best known for digital systems used to sign in corporate visitors, has hired Philip Lacor, former global VP of sales at Dropbox, as its first-ever chief revenue officer. Envoy is also expanding into technology to help businesses reopen safely, an effort Lacor will help oversee. The company will also announce today that it has secured $30 million in new financing from TriplePoint Capital.


  • Microsoft is making another purchase in the telecom space, acquiring Metaswitch. (Light Reading)
  • The Libra Association, the organization behind a Facebook-backed cryptocurrency, added three new members: Temasek, Paradigm and Slow Ventures. (Libra)
6. After you Login

Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

Apple laptops, now and then. On the left, Apple's just-introduced 13-inch MacBook Pro. At right, my still-working PowerBook 145B from 1992.