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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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
The list includes many familiar names. Dana Settle, founding partner of Greycroft, and Mark Mullen, founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, garnered the most votes.
Settle manages West Coast operations for Greycroft, a New York firm with $1.8 billion in assets under management. She is one of only nine of the top 100 VCs nationally who are women, according to CB Insights.
Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, which closed a $100 million second fund in September to continue funding seed stage business-to-business (B2B) software startups. Mullen has also been an angel investor and is an LP in other funds focusing on other sectors, including MaC VC and BAM Ventures.
Below is the list of the top ranked investors by how many votes each received from their peers. When there was a tie, they appear in alphabetical order according to their last name:
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures
Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.
In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.
Dana Settle, Greycroft
Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.
"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in an interview with Business Insider. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital
Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.
"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in a blog post for Mucker.
Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.
William Hsu, Mucker Capital
William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford.
In an interview with Fast Company, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."
These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures
Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.
He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.
In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company."It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures
Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently raised $18 in a Series A round.
"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures
Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.
Though Upfront had attempted to recruit her before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.
Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.
In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.
"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures
Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.
Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders on Crosscut's website reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures
Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.
In an interview with John Livesay shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures
Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."
"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."
His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners
Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.
He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.
"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global.
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures
Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his blog, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.
In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," Suster wrote about the importance of passion — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.
"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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When we started this podcast, people asked if we'd run out of guests after a year of weekly episodes with Los Angeles VCs. Not even close. For this week's episode of L.A. Venture, we hope you enjoy a few highlights from the show.
- Kara Nortman
- Deb Benton
- Mark Suster
- Peter Lee
- Scott Stanford
- Alex Gurevich
- Eric Pakravan
- Jesse Draper
- Courtney Reum
- Arjan Schutte
- Michael Tam
- Dana Settle
- Marcos Gonzalez
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