When Will Tech Employees Return to the Office? As the Pandemic Recedes, Get Ready for Confusion and Awkwardness

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

When Will Tech Employees Return to the Office? As the Pandemic Recedes, Get Ready for Confusion and Awkwardness

When fully vaccinated employees at one of L.A.'s biggest venture firms began trickling back into the office at the beginning of May, they felt a bit uncomfortable.

"Everyone felt awkward," remembers Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures' General Partner. "It was really awkward sitting in front of people again."

After more than a year confined to only seeing a few family members face-to-face and perhaps the occasional masked walk with friends and colleagues, it felt strange to suddenly be sitting unmasked next to each other in conference rooms.

Soon enough though, the strangeness of being back in the office faded.

"By week three it was like COVID was over," Suster said. "You forgot all the fears you had. That's what I expected and that's what I wanted."

It was only a few months ago that the number of COVID cases in L.A. County was so high that the idea of returning to offices seemed like a distant fantasy. Now, with over half of county adults vaccinated and daily new case rates plummeting, L.A. and the rest of California are on the brink of a complete reopening June 15.

But while many parts of life return to normal – Dodger Stadium is about to be full of cheering fans for the first time since 2019 – it is clear the workplace will be altered for a long time to come.

Companies like Snap Inc. have even recently pushed back reopening plans and many are still in a wait-and-see mode as they juggle conflicting regulations and employee morale.

"The options are almost limitless with hybrid workplace variations, which causes confusion," said Petra Durnin, head of market analytics at Raise Commercial Real Estate. "Many are waiting to see what everyone else does."

Even though traffic is back, L.A. offices are only about 25% full, according to weekly data collected by Kastle Systems, an access control provider used in more than 2,600 buildings nationwide. That is higher than the 17% occupancy in New York City but considerably lower than the 42% in fully reopened Houston.

While some executives have expressed impatience over getting their far-flung staffers back in the office as soon as possible, most are treading lightly – still making returning optional.

"Anyone who doesn't feel comfortable — especially if you're providing child care or if you live with someone you feel is compromised – it's not a problem," Suster said. "No one should feel pressure."

There are also the outliers, such as one small L.A. VC firm – which, of course, wanted to remain anonymous – where employees never stopped going into the office and where deals would not close without an in-person meeting.

But what's more common is employers actually becoming more lenient, even as the pandemic recedes.

Snap Inc. had originally told its 3,863 employees they would be required to return in September. But in late March it announced a "virtual first" model that means employees can work from home for as long as they want, according to a company spokeswoman.

Dave— a buzzy banking startup — abandoned its office in mid-city and now allows its 169 employees to work from anywhere in the U.S., except Hawaii. It plans to bring everyone together once or twice a year for team building and eventually open up offices for those who choose to come back in L.A. and San Francisco.

"To support our virtual first model, we will have one pay scale that we will apply nationally and will be based on the California labor market," added spokeswoman Jazmin Beltran. "Career mobility will not be dependent on where a team member chooses to live. Over time, we expect to have team members at all levels, including senior leadership, living across the country."

Pipe, one of the fastest growing fintech startups, relocated from Los Angeles to Miami during the pandemic but has opened what it calls "microhubs" in Atlanta, New York City, Texas, L.A. and Europe.

"These microhubs are important because while we have a distributed workforce, we also value in-person face time, both for productivity and for building a strong culture of trust among our team, customers and investors," said Harry Hurst, co-founder and co-CEO of Pipe.

Navigating Conflicting Regulations

Employers are treading lightly in part because of the often shifting and conflicting guidance from varying levels of government.

Even vaccinated employees still have to wear masks and social distance under California Division of Occupational Safety guidelines, even though the Centers for Disease Control said May 15th it was safe for fully vaccinated people to resume their pre-pandemic routines in most circumstances.

Cal/OSHA is set to vote on relaxing workplace rules June 3rd, but it is far from certain that its board will go as far as the CDC. Some members have already said the CDC went too far in loosening restrictions.

It is also unclear whether employers can require employees to be vaccinated and even if they likely can, few want to risk costly litigation.

Employers are also wary of alienating employees who have mostly stayed productive even as they have endured the stressful circumstances of the past year. This is after all a tight labor market where tech employees who have accrued a considerable amount of wealth over the last year may walk out the door if they are forced to be at their desk everyday.

"Companies surveyed employees in 2020 to see when they would want to go back to the office and were likely somewhat surprised to discover that not everyone wanted or needed to be working in person five days a week," Durnin said. "I think that's why they are opening doors but not demanding employees return."

At the same time, there is the sense that even though companies say they are fine with employees working from anywhere, the ones who want to advance better be back in the office as much as possible. The ones who choose to stay home risk seeing their careers languish.

Suster of Upfront Ventures, acknowledges what works for the relatively small number of employees at a VC firm may very well not work for larger companies. But he said in the few weeks that employees have been back he has noticed an uptick in productivity and creativity that would not have been possible on Zoom meetings.

"The norm is once we get over our fears it's time to get back to work," Suster said.

🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.

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Fuel Innovation: 7 Unforgettable Team Building Experiences in LA
Image Source: Discover LA

In today's competitive business landscape, team building activities have emerged as a crucial tool for fostering a positive work environment, enhancing productivity, and crucially, improving employee retention. Studies have shown that such activities help employees feel valued, with one report indicating that 93% of those who felt appreciated were more motivated at work. Importantly, team building events may improve retention rates, as employees who feel connected to their colleagues and company culture are more likely to stay long-term. With these benefits in mind, let's explore some of the most engaging and effective team building activities available in Los Angeles.


Image Source: Modern Luxury Angelino

Pickleball is a fantastic team bonding activity because of the easy-to-grasp rules and gentle pace make it perfect for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. The game thrives on communication and teamwork, as players must collaborate and strategize to outplay their opponents, boosting team cohesion. Plus, the lively, fast-paced action sparks friendly competition and laughter, creating a fun and spirited atmosphere that brings everyone closer together. Los Angeles boasts numerous pickleball courts that are easy to rent if you have your own equipment. If you need additional assistance organizing your pickleball outing, there are plenty of full-service companies ready to handle every detail for you.

Resources: Pickle Pop, Corporate Pickle

Escape Room

Image Source: The Escape Game

Escape rooms are a great way to build camaraderie. They require participants to work together, combining their problem-solving skills and creativity to overcome challenges and puzzles. The immersive and time-sensitive nature of escape rooms fosters collaboration and communication. Additionally, the shared experience of tackling complex tasks and reaching a common goal helps build trust and foster positive emotions among colleagues.

Resources: The Escape Game, 60Out

Day Trip to Catalina Island

Image Source: Love Catalina

Catalina Island is a perfect day trip for a team because it provides a break from the usual work environment, allowing team members to relax and connect in a new setting. Shared experiences during the trip, such as exploring new places and participating in fun activities, help build stronger relationships and foster a sense of camaraderie. There are numerous team-building activities such as an arboreal obstacle course, an island tour, scavenger hunts and more.

Resources: Catalina Island Group Activities

Top Golf

Image Source: Topgolf

Topgolf is an excellent team building event because it provides an inclusive, relaxed atmosphere that accommodates players of all skill levels, fostering personal connections and improving team morale. The unique blend of competition and entertainment creates an ideal setting for building trust, enhancing communication, and revealing hidden skills among team members. Additionally, Topgolf offers structured team building packages with guided activities, discussion prompts, and lessons on culture, change, collaboration, and strategy, making it a versatile and effective platform for strengthening relationships and boosting overall team performance.

Resources: Topgolf El Segundo

SoFi Stadium Tour

Image Source: Discover LA

A SoFi Stadium tour offers a unique, behind-the-scenes experience of one of the world's most advanced sports venues, allowing team members to explore exclusive areas like premium suites, team locker rooms, and the player tunnel together. The tour provides a shared, memorable experience that can foster camaraderie and spark conversations among team members, regardless of their interest in sports. Additionally, the stadium's state-of-the-art features and impressive architecture can inspire creativity and innovation, while the group setting encourages interaction and collaboration, making it an engaging and enjoyable activity for teams of various sizes and backgrounds

Resources: SoFi Stadium Group Tours

Corporate Volunteering

Image Source: L.A. Works

Volunteer work serves as an excellent team building activity by uniting employees around a shared, meaningful cause, fostering a sense of purpose and collective accomplishment. It provides opportunities for team members to collaborate in new ways, often revealing hidden strengths and leadership qualities that may not be apparent in the regular work environment. Additionally, engaging in community service can boost morale, enhance the company's reputation, and instill a sense of pride among employees, leading to improved workplace relationships and increased job satisfaction.

Resources: Habitat for Humanity, L.A. Works, VolunteerMatch

Corporate Improv Sessions

Image Source: Improv for the People

A corporate improv class encourages spontaneity, creativity, and quick thinking, skills that are valuable in the workplace. It promotes active listening and collaboration, as participants must work together to create scenes and respond to unexpected situations, fostering better communication and trust among team members. Additionally, the playful and often humorous nature of improv helps break down barriers, reduces stress, and creates a shared positive experience that can improve team morale and cohesion long after the event.

Resources: Improv-LA, Groundlings, Improv for the People

🎬 Paramount and Skydance Are Back On
Image Source: Paramount

Happy Friday Los Angeles! Hope you all had a fantastic Fourth!!

🔦 Spotlight

Paramount and Skydance Media have rekindled talks to merge after negotiations abruptly halted in June. The proposed deal, contingent on approval from Paramount’s board, aims to combine Paramount’s extensive media holdings—including CBS, MTV, and Nickelodeon—with Skydance’s film expertise showcased in hits like "Top Gun: Maverick." This merger signals a potential transformation in the media landscape, positioning the new entity to compete more effectively amid challenges from streaming services and the decline of traditional cable TV.

Led by Shari Redstone, Paramount’s controlling shareholder via National Amusements, the deal represents a pivot towards revitalizing Paramount’s strategic direction amidst financial struggles and shareholder concerns. The involvement of major investors like RedBird Capital Partners and David Ellison underscores the financial backing aimed at stabilizing Paramount’s operations and addressing its $14 billion debt burden. Importantly, the agreement includes provisions to protect National Amusements from potential legal challenges, addressing previous hurdles that stalled earlier negotiations.

The deal also includes a 45-day period for Paramount to explore alternative offers, highlighting continued interest from other potential buyers like Barry Diller’s IAC and media executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. This flurry of activity underscores the significant stakeholders’ interest in Paramount’s future and its potential as a key player in a rapidly evolving media industry.

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  • Sidecar Health, a startup that offers personalized health insurance plans to businesses that allow members to see any doctor and pay directly at the time of service, raised a $165M Series D led by Koch Disruptive Technologies. - learn more

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