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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.

Go deeper

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
Oct 20, 2020 - Economy & Business

Germany pursues a right to telework

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Germany wants to give people a legal right to work from home.

Why it matters: The proposal is a testament to how far the world has come amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the once-fringe idea of telecommuting finding a place in the law books.

Democrat Mark Kelly sworn in to U.S. Senate

Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Astronaut Mark Kelly (D) was sworn in to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday after defeating incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) last month for the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain.

Why it matters: Kelly's swearing-in by Vice President Mike Pence narrows the Republican majority and moves the Senate balance to 52-48.

Senate Armed Services chair dismisses Trump threat to veto defense bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he plans to move ahead with a crucial defense-spending bill without provisions that would eliminate tech industry protections, defying a veto threat from President Trump.

Why it matters: Inhofe's public rebuke signals that the Senate could have enough Republican backing to override a potential veto from Trump, who has demanded that the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

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