As tech offices begin to reopen, the workplace could look very different

The pandemic forced many employees to begin working from home, and, in doing so, may have changed the way we think about work. While some businesses have slowly returned to the office, depending on where you live and what you do, many information workers remain at home.

Many companies have discovered that their employees work just fine at home.

That could change in the coming months as more people get vaccinated and the infection rate begins to drop in the U.S.

As that happens, it is likely that more offices will reopen. We’ve already heard from major employers like Salesforce, which indicated it will be allowing a percentage of its workforce back to the office this month, starting with the company’s San Francisco headquarters. The CRM giant plans to move slow and follow the government’s lead, allowing 20% capacity at first and hoping to build to 70% over time.

Most companies aren’t the size of Salesforce, which boasts a worldwide workforce of more than 50,000 employees. These smaller companies often don’t control entire skyscrapers, as Salesforce does in San Francisco. That creates complicating factors, including managing people who aren’t willing to be vaccinated, dealing with social distancing and masking, and sharing buildings or floors with other companies.

Even more, many companies have discovered that their employees work just fine at home. And some workers don’t want to waste time stuck on congested highways or public transportation now that they’ve learned to work remotely. But other employees suffered in small spaces or with constant interruptions from family. Those folks may long to go back to the office.

On balance, it seems clear that whatever happens, for many companies, we probably aren’t going back whole-cloth to the prior model of commuting into the office five days a week.

Last August, we spoke to a number of tech company executives about what returning to the office could look like. We recently went back to most of those same executives, as well as a Rhode Island state official and a medical expert we spoke to then to revisit the idea and talk about what’s changed and what work could look like as we move slowly toward the post-pandemic era.

The office will never be the same

While their approaches vary, all of the executives I spoke to said that they foresee adopting a hybrid model when they can return in earnest, although there were definitely different interpretations of what that means, and what the office structure will look like.

Iman Abuzeid — CEO and co-founder at Incredible Health, which helps connect nurses with hospitals that need their skills — said she recently decided to be remote-first, even after the pandemic eventually ends. Prior to COVID-19, half of her now almost 50 employees lived outside San Francisco. She says that’s up to 70% now, and that her firm has gotten comfortable working this way.

“So we’re all very much using Slack, Zoom, and these remote tools and have learned to operate in a remote-first manner and so we made the decision officially [ … ] that we are a remote-first company,” Abuzeid said. The company has expanded its hiring radius to anywhere in the country (and perhaps the world) and intends to offer a Silicon Valley salary regardless of location. This is in contrast to Facebook, which announced in May 2020 that it would cut salaries for employees who relocated outside of the Bay Area.

While such an approach works for a company like Incredible Health, it won’t necessarily work for every company. Payam Banazadeh, CEO and co-founder at Capella Space, a San Francisco startup that makes satellites, needs some of his more than 100 employees working in the office. In fact, the company has had people in the office throughout the pandemic, and its CEO said it won’t be remote-first even when it can reopen fully.

“What I can tell you is for my company and for my business, we would never be a remote-first company just because that collaboration [our business requires] just simply can’t be done outside of office,” he said. But, that said, he could see some sort of hybrid approach, with some employees working from home part of the week.

Pedro Bados, CEO at Nexthink, a company that builds software to help IT manage employee technology needs digitally, said he expects his 700-employee company to continue a hybrid approach after offices open. He wants to continue giving his employees the flexibility to work where it makes the most sense for them — a sentiment that includes both his U.S. and EU locations.

“When we polled our employees last quarter, 85% stated that they want [that] work-from-home flexibility in the post-COVID world. They like the work-life balance that not having a commute affords, but they also miss the social interaction with their colleagues,” he said. The hybrid approach would give them the best of both worlds.

Managing a hybrid work world

If work is changing, it’s going to have an impact on how we set up our offices and even how much office space we need. It seems that some percentage of companies will have more flexible workspaces rather than the assigned offices or cubicles of the past.

Instead, employees can sign up to come into the office and get a workspace assigned to them. While that would require some cleaning regimens, especially until we get past the pandemic, it could better accommodate the new approach to working than the old permanent-desk norm.

Armen Vartanian, SVP of global workplace services at identity management company Okta, says that his company is taking an organized approach to the issue, starting with building an app for the company’s 2,800 employees to request time in the office.

“We’re actually launching a workplace app that we’ve developed ourselves, and so effectively people will be registering for the office, and doing their health [checks] and those kinds of things from there,” he said. “But it’s also a tool for us to share when we plan on being in the office and so co-workers can see when other co-workers are going to be in the office.”

Beyond that, Okta also plans to have a flexible workspace with office resources that employees can book for the day, like conference rooms, smart lockers, reserved desks or whatever employees need to get work done while they’re in the office. Instead of 100 desks for 100 people, he said that the plan is to have a very different approach to the space.

“Now in the space where we had 100 employees, we will only have [maybe] 15 standard desks, and the rest of the space is really built out like a co-working type of environment where you have a working cafe or soft seating, but the important thing is that those are all places that you can actually get work done in,” he said.

The company even plans to put sensors in spaces to measure how much people are using them.

By contrast, Cockroach Labs, a database startup in New York City with around 250 employees, won’t be going as far as Okta. But it does have plans to similarly rethink office space, especially because the company has hired people in different geographies over the last year, said Lindsay Grenawalt, chief people officer at Cockroach Labs.

“We will be catering to individuals who want to be fully remote, individuals who need that in-office environment to be productive, but then also the people in between who … have really become adapted to that flexibility,” she said. At the size of Cockroach, Grenawalt said that the setup will give it the room to experiment over the next couple of years with different approaches to office space and see how things shake out.

The public health perspective

The good news from a public health perspective — according to Dr. Shira I. Doron from Tufts Medical Center in Boston, whose specialties include infectious diseases and hospital epidemiology — is that we have lots of data about COVID infection rates at work. That’s because plenty of people have gone to work during the past year, even while many tech workers were able to work from home.

The data show that we might not have to worry about going into the office, especially with rising vaccination rates, she said. After reviewing the data over the last year, she found that the patterns are pretty clear and that COVID, with some exceptions, hasn’t been spreading at work when people take reasonable precautions like masking, hand washing, social distancing and properly ventilating workspaces.

“People test positive for COVID-19 with more frequency when the numbers in the community are higher and with less frequency when the numbers in the community are lower. For the most part, we don’t see clusters of individuals who gave it to each other in the workplace,” Doron told me.

She said that this kind of workplace infection has been very rare, and has grown rarer over time as we’ve learned the basics of infection control. Workplace infection clusters have tended to happen when people let their guard down and are not as masked and distanced as they should be. If we can keep that in mind, especially with more people vaccinated, which should further lower the risk of going back to work, perhaps a return to the office isn’t a huge risk.

It’s worth noting that Doron doesn’t recommend rapid testing as a way to allow people in buildings, saying that isn’t effective and opening buildings should be governed by community infection rates.

“Eventually, numbers will start to decline, and when the case numbers are low — as low as they were last summer, hopefully lower, and hopefully in a more sustained fashion [ … ] — it would not be resource-efficient to test people on the way into a building,” she said.

Further, Doron pointed out that rapid tests have been shown to have way too many false positives, making them a poor way to judge who should be allowed in the building.

Siu-Li Khoe, vice president of business development at Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, said her state has its own perspective on the matter. Like Doron, she has seen many businesses stay open throughout the pandemic and, through a careful system, stave off major infection outbreaks in those workplaces.

It starts with masking, distancing, hand washing and ventilation, but also involves testing, tracing and now vaccination as we think about reopening offices for non-essential businesses.

“We will continue to do lots of testing. [ … ] We have the whole system to do contact tracing that [we built] with Salesforce, and we did with the Rhode Island Department of Health. And then we have our vaccination program, where we are trying to get as many people vaccinated as we can. There has been no guidance yet that there’s going to be a requirement [to be vaccinated to go to work in Rhode Island],” she said.

There are still a lot of unknowns about how this is all going to come together. In some ways, it’s an extension of what happened when offices closed last year and we had to learn how to work from home on the fly. This year, the whole notion of how we work and where we work is going to change yet again.