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.


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NASA’s JPL Receives Billions to Begin Understanding Our Solar System

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

NASA’s JPL Receives Billions to Begin Understanding Our Solar System
Evan Xie

NASA’s footprint in California is growing as the agency prepares for Congress to approve its proposed 2024 budget.

The overall NASA budget swelled 6% from the prior year, JPL director Larry Page told dot.LA. He added he sees that as a continuation of the last two presidential administrations’ focus on modernizing and bolstering the nation’s space program.

The money goes largely to existing NASA centers in California, including the Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory run with Caltech, Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

California remains a hotspot for NASA space activity and investment. In 2021, the agency estimated its economic output impact on the region to be around $15.2 billion. That was far more than its closest competing states, including Texas ($9.3 billion) and Maryland (roughly $8 billion). That same year, NASA reported it employed over 66,000 people in California, for an estimated economic output of $15 trillion.

“In general, Congress has been very supportive” of the JPL and NASA’s missions, Page said. “It’s generally bipartisan [and] supported by both sides of the aisle. In the last few years in general NASA has been able to have increased budgets.”

There are 41 current missions run by JPL and CalTech, and another 16 scheduled for the future. Page added the new budget is “an incredible support for all the missions we want to do.”

The public-private partnership between NASA and local space companies continues to evolve, and the increased budget could be a boon for LA-based developers. Numerous contractors for NASA (including CalTech, which runs the JPL), Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman all stand to gain new contracts once the budget is finalized, partly because NASA simply needs the private industry’s help to achieve all its goals.

Page said that there was only one JPL mission that wasn’t funded – a mission to send an orbital satellite to survey the surface and interior of Venus, called VERITAS.

NASA Employment and Output ImpactEvan Xie

The Moon and Mars

Much of the money earmarked in the proposed 2024 budget is for crewed missions. Overall, NASA’s asking for $8 billion from Congress to fund lunar exploration missions. As part of this, the majority is earmarked for the upcoming Artemis mission, which aims to land a woman and person of color on the Moon’s south pole.

While there’s a number of high-profile missions the JPL is working on that are focused on Mars, including Mars Sample Return project (which received $949 million in this proposed budget) and Ingenuity helicopter and Perseverance rover, JPL also received significant funding to study the Earth’s climate and behavior.

JPL also got funding for several projects to map our universe. One is the SphereX Near Earth Objects surveyor mission, the goal of which is to use telescopes to “map the entire universe,” Page said, adding that the mission was fully funded.

International Space Station

NASA’s also asking for more money to maintain the International Space Station (ISS), which houses a number of projects dedicated to better understanding the Earth’s climate and behavior.

The agency requested roughly $1.3 billion to maintain the ISS. It also is increasing its investment in space flight support, in-space transportation and commercial development of low-earth orbit (LEO). “The ISS is an incredible platform for us,” Page said.

Page added there are multiple missions outside or on board the ISS now taking data, including EMIT, which launched in July 2022. The EMIT mission studies arid dust sources on the planet using spectroscopy. It uses that data to remodel how mineral dust movement in North and South America might affect the Earth’s temperature changes.

Another ISS mission JPL launched is called ECOSTRESS. The mission sent a thermal radiometer onto the space station in June 2018 to monitor how plants lose water through their leaves, with the goal of figuring out how the terrestrial biosphere reacts to changes in water availability. Page said the plan is to “tell you the kind of foliage health around the globe” from space.

One other ISS project is called Cold Atom Lab. It is “an incredible fundamental physics machine,” Page said, that’s run by “three Nobel Prize winners as principal investigators on the Space Station.” Cold Atom Lab is a physics experiment geared toward figuring out how quantum phenomena behave in space by cooling atoms with lasers to just below absolute zero degrees.

In the long term, Page was optimistic NASA’s imaging projects could lead to more dramatic discoveries. Surveying the makeup of planets’ atmospheres is a project “in the astrophysics domain we’re very excited about,” Page said. He added that this imaging could lead to information about life on other planets, or, at the very least, an understanding of why they’re no longer habitable.


Behind Her Empire: Margaret Wishingrad On Creating A Low Sugar Cereal Brand

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Behind Her Empire: Margaret Wishingrad On Creating A Low Sugar Cereal Brand
Provided by BHE

On this episode of Behind Her Empire, Three Wishes founder and CEO Margaret Wishingrad talks about creating brand awareness and shares the key component to running a successful business.

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If Angelenos Don’t Seize the Curb, They Risk Losing Sidewalk Dining

Maylin Tu
Maylin Tu is a freelance writer who lives in L.A. She writes about scooters, bikes and micro-mobility. Find her hovering by the cheese at your next local tech mixer.
Connie Llanos, Jordan Justus and Gene Oh
Justin Janes, Vizeos Media

Three years ago, Los Angeles went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, cities like L.A. are struggling to hold on to pandemic-era transportation and infrastructure changes, like sidewalk dining and slow streets, while managing escalating demand for curb space from rideshare and delivery.

At Curbivore, a conference dedicated to “commerce at the curb” held earlier this month in downtown Los Angeles, the topic was “Grading on a Curb: The State of our Streets & Cities in 2023,” a panel moderated by Drew Grant, editorial director for dot.LA.

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