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.
- Nearly Half of Employees Want to Continue to Work From Home ... ›
- Childcare Is In Short Supply As Parents Return To Work. Here's How ... ›
- Trends To Watch As We Return to Work - dot.LA ›
- Netflix and Google Will Dominate L.A. After the Pandemic - dot.LA ›
- Guest Column: Here's How Businesses Can Make Sure their ... ›
- California Reopens Without A Vaccine Verification Plan - dot.LA ›
Female founder and funders explored how female founders and investors are navigating the landscape during dot.LA's recent strategy session. Watch the full video, and read our takeaways here:
Watch: Fundraising for Female Founders
Five Tips for Women Entrepreneurs Raising Money
Female founders are gaining ground in venture capital, but the funding gap between genders remains broad. ILIA founder Sasha Plavsic, Rael CEO and co-founder Yanghee Paik, Bank of America Senior Vice President and Market Manager Grace Kangdani and Upfront Ventures Partner Aditi Maliwal explored how female founders and investors are navigating the landscape during dot.LA's recent strategy session.
One of the biggest initial challenges for women entrepreneurs with female-focused products is convincing investors of their value.
Yanghee Paik, founder of Rael, said that because her company's products are centered around feminine care and feminine health, it could be difficult to explain to male investors why Rael was so necessary.
"There have been a lot of big companies who have been pushing some new innovations, but none of them has been really focused on the need or the natural aspect of feminine care products," said Paik. "That took a lot of effort for us — to really do a lot of pitching with a lot of education about the products' industry itself."
But when founders — not just female founders — know their markets, their value proposition and build their network, they have the tools for success.
Grace Kangdani, senior vice president at Bank of America shared key characteristics of successful presentations, products and companies.
"A lot of the people with the checkbook, let's be honest, it's still male dominated," said Kangdani. "Have (a) network of people and different kinds of people. If you're selling a women-specific targeted product, have men in the mix to bounce off ideas, [to see if] it's resonating with them too. Know your product. Know your value proposition ... build your network and build your tribe."
Relationships are key when building a team.
Rael's founding team is a group of three women, including Paik, and she shared how they support each other through the ups and downs of running a company.
"Being an entrepreneur is a very lonely journey, and sometimes you need the support from your team or co-founders or investors. It's always the easiest [when you] have co-founders to talk about the challenges," said Paik.
Sasha Plavsic, founder of the makeup brand ILIA shared that because she started very grassroots, surrounding herself with a strong network was key to expanding her company.
"In business, it's ultimately about relationships and building that trust, and it doesn't matter what stage you're at," Plavsic said. "But definitely in the earlier stages it is more of a challenge, and [if] you do need some people skills and if you don't have it, you need a partner that will need to bring it."
Access, successfully presenting your company and your value and confidence are key for female founders to break into male-dominated spaces.
Upfront Ventures partner Aditi Maliwal has an extensive background in fintech, a space that is still extremely male dominated, and finds value in seeking out other women in the industry.
"There aren't enough opportunities for female founders to get in front of a whole variety of other people," Maliwal said. "I relate very well with [female founders] and so I want to be able to help my demographic. That being said, that's not to say that I don't want to spend time with other demographics — I absolutely do. I just want to find ways to have alignment in my values and hopefully their values."
Genuinely listening to groups outside your own demographic is key to promoting gender parity and supporting minority entrepreneurs.
That goes beyond just finding individuals from other backgrounds — it means truly listening to people and their motivations, even when it doesn't directly benefit you.
"It's pretty important to ensure that you're sort of giving space to these people, giving space to female founders giving them space to speak, to come in and be able to pitch, even if it's not necessarily a space that you would invest in," Maliwal said. "Ensure that you're spending time actually, getting to know the founder and not just … because you're a woman or you're such and such demographic, but [asking] 'what's your story?'"
About the Speakers:
Sasha Plavsic, founder of ILIA Beauty
Sasha Plavsic, Founder of ILIA Beauty
Born in Vancouver and raised in a rural, ocean-side setting just outside the city. Sasha's interests fell into design, studying typography in London and New York. She found herself in Los Angeles in 2006 and spent several years working as a branding executive within the fashion and beauty industries. After moving home to Vancouver for a brief sabbatical, her mother encouraged her to read the ingredient list on her favorite lip balm. Sasha was shocked to discover many of the ingredients were not safe, and it's something she used daily. The challenge was set: re-create her favorite lip balm so that it would be safe, effective and natural. And so the story of ILIA began. Sasha currently resides near ILIA's headquarters in Laguna Beach, CA with her husband and two young daughters.
Yanghee Paik, ceo and co-founder of Rael
Yanghee Paik, CEO and Co-Founder of Rael
Yanghee Paik is the co-founder and CEO of Rael, an L.A.-based clean feminine care and skincare startup founded by three female entrepreneurs in 2017. As a seasoned professional with nearly 15 years of experience in corporate strategy, sales and marketing, and global expansion, Yanghee has been the driving force in growing Rael as a trusted organic feminine care brand, expanding its reach beyond digital platforms and the U.S. market. She is deeply passionate about making positive impact on women's lives and growing Rael as a holistic personal care brand for women that provides innovative, clean, and effective solutions around their hormonal cycle and life. A native of Seoul, Korea, Yanghee earned her MBA from Harvard Business School and received a B.A. degree in business from Seoul National University. Now she considers L.A. her home and loves its sunny weather, diverse culture and excellent Korean food.
Aditi Maliwal, partner at Upfront Ventures
Aditi Maliwal, Partner at Upfront Ventures
Aditi leverages her operating experience and global perspective to invest in and support the highest-potential founders and teams. Before joining Upfront, Aditi was a product manager on the Next Billion Users team at Google, in a hybrid role leading investments in and building product for companies in emerging markets. Previously she worked on the corporate development team at Google, leading acquisitions across various sectors including AI, messaging and media. Prior to Google she worked in early-stage venture at Crosslink Capital leading investments in BetterUp, Chime and PowerToFly, and before that in investment banking at Deutsche Bank, in the technology banking group. She holds a B.A. in psychology from Stanford University and has lived between India, Hong Kong, Singapore and San Francisco.
Grace Kangdani, senior vice president, market manager at Bank of America
Grace Kangdani, Senior Vice President, Market Manager at Bank of America
Grace Kangdani is Market Manager of the L.A. Metro Business Banking team, leading a team of relationship managers who work with clients to proactively provide strategic advice and integrated financial solutions. Core capabilities include credit and financing solutions, treasury management, long-term fixed rate commercial mortgage (conventional and SBA 504), equipment finance and merchant processing.
In January 2019, Grace was recognized by the Los Angeles Business Journal as one of the Top Women in Banking. In December 2020, she was named in 2020 Thriving in Their 40s, a list of Top Professionals in Los Angeles, as recognized by Los Angeles Business Journal. She currently attends Pacific Coast Banking School, at University of Washington.
Active in the community, Grace serves on the Board of Trustees of P.S. Arts, a nonprofit organization that provides high-quality arts education programs in underserved public schools and communities. She is also Board Member for Women's Leadership Council, a women networking organization built around the spirit of both professional and personal accomplishment through collaboration, inspiration and support.
Kelly O'Grady, chief host and correspondent at dot.LA
Kelly O'Grady, Chief Host & Correspondent at dot.LA
Kelly O'Grady is dot.LA's chief host & correspondent. Kelly serves as dot.LA's on-air talent, and is responsible for designing and executing all video efforts. A former management consultant for McKinsey, and TV reporter for NESN, she also served on Disney's Corporate Strategy team, focusing on M&A and the company's direct-to-consumer streaming efforts. Kelly holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. A Boston native, Kelly spent a year as Miss Massachusetts USA, and can be found supporting her beloved Patriots every Sunday come football season.
Sam Adams, co-founder and ceo of dot.LA
Sam Adams, Co-Founder and CEO of dot.LA
Sam Adams serves as chief executive of dot.LA. A former financial journalist for Bloomberg and Reuters, Adams moved to the business side of media as a strategy consultant at Activate, helping legacy companies develop new digital strategies. Adams holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard College and an MBA from the University of Southern California. A Santa Monica native, he can most often be found at Bay Cities deli with a Godmother sub or at McCabe's with a 12-string guitar. His favorite colors are Dodger blue and Lakers gold.
- Why Funding Inequity Isn't Deterring These Female Founders, VCs ... ›
- LA Female Founders See Big Drop in Funding - dot.LA ›
- New Data Show the Pandemic Has Hit Female Founders Harder ... ›
Funding for Southern California startups has stalled as some of the region's biggest investors spread money outside the region.
In 2010, roughly one in every 10 startup dollars deployed nationally funded tech companies in Southern California. A decade later, that share has remained stubbornly static, even as the total sum invested in local startups ballooned from $4 billion in 2010 to $14 billion in 2019. That's according to a new report commissioned by Alliance for SoCal Innovation, a nonprofit advocating for the local tech scene.
"The good news is the pie has gotten bigger, but our slice of it has stayed more or less the same," said Andy Wilson, the executive director of the Alliance.
A major reason why the share has not budged is that most local startups are still in their infancy, raising smaller rounds. That brings down total investment dollars. Southern California startups raising Series B or later funding accounts for 64% of total investment, compared to 68% for New York and 80% for the Bay Area.
"We really haven't done particularly well in late-stage funding," Wilson said.
The data — which encompasses San Diego, Orange County and L.A. — was compiled late last year by Boston Consulting Group and is now being made public.
It also found fewer venture dollars are staying local. In 2013, about 30% of dollars stayed in Southern California versus fewer than 10% last year, a direct consequence of firms like B Capital, Fifth Wall, and Sinai Ventures raising larger funds that are geographically agnostic.
"These bigger guys don't really seem to be focused on taking advantage of the local market opportunity," Wilson said.
Upfront Ventures has invested in the most local companies in the last three years with 58, followed by Greycroft, which has backed 45 startups. Of VCs not based here, NEA and Sequoia Capital led the way with 24 and 23 startups, respectively.
The report counted 3,750 startups in Southern California, which is about half the number in the Bay Area, and fewer than New York's 5,100 startups.
Despite a reputation for consumer tech, Southern California is the most well-diversified across industries among the country's top three innovation hubs, with an even split with software and tech, health and media companies.
"Most of the world thinks of us as king of the consumer Internet and media – Netflix and Snapchat – but SpaceX is here and Relativity Space and all the electric car companies are here," said Wilson.
- LA Venture Capital Survey Sees Hiring Ahead - dot.LA ›
- Here Are Los Angeles' Top Venture Capitalists - dot.LA ›
- Los Angeles Venture Capital Activity Was Up in Q3 - dot.LA ›
- The Largest Venture Capital Raises in Los Angeles in 2020 - dot.LA ›