Scenes From Silicon Valley’s Cautious Return to the Office

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Silicon Valley should be one of the first places to spring back to life as the pandemic eases in the U.S. Nearly three-quarters of eligible people have been vaccinated, and more than 80% have gotten at least one shot—a milestone San Francisco reached faster than any other city, according to the mayor. 

And yet, many tech industry offices are sitting nearly empty. Only 19% of office workers in the San Francisco metro area had returned as of June 23, the lowest share of 10 major U.S. metro areas tracked by building security provider Kastle Systems. The region's tech giants, among the first to send their office workers home when coronavirus pandemic deepened last year, may be among the last to coax them back.

Scenes From Silicon Valley’s Cautious Return to the Office

In New York, Wall Street banks are urging workers to get back to the office—and in some cases requiring it. Tech companies’ efforts have been more halting. Uber Technologies Inc. said that staff can plan on working from the office just 50% of the time starting in September, backtracking from its earlier minimum of three days a week. Alphabet Inc.’s Google relaxed its rules to allow some staffers to work permanently from their homes. Meanwhile, Coinbase Inc. said it plans to shutter its San Francisco headquarters, declaring itself “remote first.”

While traffic is reappearing intermittently on the region's highways and bridges, and weekend reservations at hot restaurants are tough to come by, Silicon Valley’s reopening is moving slowly. People are itching to return to a life beyond their computer screens, but not necessarily to return to their desks. Many executives are out of town, or are spending significant stretches of time in to Los Angeles. Contacted for this story, they had a common request: Could we do this interview over Zoom? A few others, though, have started the return to tech’s one-time hotspots. 

Scenes From Silicon Valley’s Cautious Return to the Office

The Ferry Building

Siri Srinivas, a principal at the venture capital firm Draper Associates, sipped a glass of rosé on the patio of the Ferry Building on a weekday afternoon in May. Last year, during the peak of the pandemic, the iconic marketplace and nexus of commuters and technology professionals was often near-vacant. That day, though, it was again buzzing with visitors. Some were clearly tourists. Others could pass as locals reacquainting themselves with the city they withdrew from over the last year.

The outing was among the baby steps Srinivas has been taking to return to a more normal life. In the Before Times, her day involved back-to-back breakfasts and coffees with founders, happy hours and dinners with other investors and techies. When she moved to a new San Francisco apartment during the pandemic, she decorated partly based on how things would look over Zoom, the virtual world in which she spent most of her time.

Scenes From Silicon Valley’s Cautious Return to the Office

But the video calls officially started to wear her out in March, when the pandemic turned a year old. “I would have to lie down on the floor because I was so mentally exhausted,” she said.

For Srinivas now, there’s no going back to exactly the way things were, even with San Francisco reopening. She’s spending part of the summer in New York, and will soon visit Europe where her sister lives. As the Bay Area staggers out of quarantine, New York City has been open for weeks. She expects that post-vaccine life in Manhattan will be “extra exciting.”

SoMa

Standing in a plaza in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, famous for its cluster of startup headquarters, Jack Mardack wondered aloud about how much things had changed. Before the pandemic, this small courtyard would be bustling, full of silver tables and chairs occupied by employees from companies like Social Finance Inc., LinkedIn and DoorDash Inc.—all based about a block away. But that afternoon, it was empty. The tables and chairs were stacked up in a corner.

Mardack is the co-founder of the human resources startup Oyster HR, which he and his co-founder launched in April 2020, just as the pandemic was gripping the U.S. Now, in search of coffee and a place to sit, he and this reporter walked north, passing three coffee shops along the way that had been temporarily boarded up after their office-dwelling clientele fled during the pandemic.

Mardack spent most his time in lockdown working on his startup out of his nearby one-bedroom apartment. Finally seated with a Pacifico at the Financial District’s Uno Dos Tacos restaurant, Mardack explains that the last time he saw his co-founder in person was in late 2019.

Oyster, which provides an HR platform for remote teams, launched with a fully remote workforce from the beginning. “The pandemic made things easier for us,” he said, because not going into an office “was everyone’s normal.” In a funding round in June, Oyster sextupled its valuation from a few months earlier, to $475 million.

Gradually, Mardack said, he’s reintroducing some face-to-face interaction into life at the company. In May, he had lunch al fresco with a handful of his colleagues, some of whom he had never met. And he’s planning a companywide trip as Oyster approaches 100 employees. The startup is setting aside money for group outings and experiences, Mardack said. But he’ll still be working from home for the long haul. 

South Park

The center of San Francisco’s venture capital universe is an oval-shaped park with a quiet playground at the center. Firms with offices that abut its close-cut lawn include Kleiner Perkins, Index Ventures and Accel. 

On a Tuesday afternoon in late June, Patreon Inc. co-founder Sam Yam sat nearby at a table outside Blue Bottle Coffee, sipping from a bottle of watermelon-infused Hint water.

Yam had brought his fruit-infused water from Patreon’s office, about a mile south. It’s part of an effort to lure employees back to the office. Patreon, a platform for fans to fund podcasters and other creators, recently plowed a few million dollars into its physical space, creating more meeting places and, of course, upping its snack game. Yam said he snacked through lunch that day, sampling some of the new offerings: beef jerky, dried pineapple and puffed bean crisps.

But despite the efforts of Yam and other nearby companies, the park that’s normally buzzing with meetings between venture capitalists and techies is quiet. That afternoon, Blue Bottle had only a few customers and almost no line. South Park’s benches were mostly vacant.

Patreon’s office is open at 25% capacity, Yam said, and fewer people than that are showing up. The office is “pretty quiet,” Yam allowed, “but it’s also delightful hanging out with people.” The entrepreneur said he’s craving in-person encounters and hopes that employees will soon start to fill back into the office at least a few days a week.

Right now, the majority of Yam’s meetings are over video or phone calls. But he says little by little, people have started to suggest meeting up for coffee in person.

Palo Alto 

A few miles south of San Francisco, the headquarters of companies like Facebook Inc., Google and Apple Inc. sit within a short drive from Stanford University’s palm tree-lined campus by Palo Alto. Wendy Gonzalez, chief executive officer of digital training platform Sama, lives nearby. Every day, she used to make the long drive to San Francisco to Sama’s headquarters in the Mission neighborhood. 

Now, Gonzalez walks just a few yards to be at her desk by 6 a.m., a leafy green plant and a small painting behind her. Based on her Zoom background, you’d never know she’s working out of the Airstream RV she purchased for family trips during the pandemic that’s parked in her driveway.

Over coffee at Palo Alto’s popular tech meeting spot Coupa Cafe, Gonzalez said she cherishes the roughly three hours a day she saves by not driving into the city. Still, she expects to return to the office about once a week by the end of the summer. As for her team, she is leaving it up to them to decide whether to work from home indefinitely. The office will also be changed: When the Sama staff goes back, nobody will have assigned desks anymore, and everyone will be given a locker to store items they want to use while they’re there.

At the moment, Sama is raising money. Gonzalez has done a few outdoor walks and coffee meetings with investors, but she estimates that fewer than one in 10 of those conversations have been in person. 

Scenes From Silicon Valley’s Cautious Return to the Office

The Rosewood

When visiting tech dignitaries make their pilgrimage to the Bay Area, they often stay at the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel. Its sprawling lawn and generous lounges are typically teeming with tech personas, who flock there to be close to the world’s preeminent venture capital firms, which are clustered along the olive- and oak-lined highway outside.

Maha Ibrahim, a general partner at the VC firm Canaan, returned to the Rosewood last summer during the pandemic after a long hiatus. She recalled taking a walk around the hotel grounds, only to find the typically manicured gardens and hedges overgrown, an ominous sign of the times. “It was dead,” she said. 

Scenes From Silicon Valley’s Cautious Return to the Office

In June, a few Rosewood diners ate under yellow umbrellas on the patio of its restaurant. But its library, a living room-like area with couches and large windows, was empty. In the olden days, Ibrahim said, the place would have been packed on a Thursday afternoon.

The Rosewood was a regular haunt for Ibrahim before Covid. At the time, she mostly spent her workdays doing in-person meetings, or traveling between them in cars or on planes. Then, in lockdown, virtual meetings only quickened her pace: Ibrahim was sometimes so back-to-back booked that it was difficult to find time to use the bathroom, she said, let alone to take a shower. 

Now that much of the Bay Area has eased Covid-era restrictions, Ibrahim is adding a few in-person dinners and lunches to her calendar. But she’s not in a rush to go back to the way things were.

“It’s going to be this crawl, walk, run” back to normalcy, Ibrahim said. “On the social side, I’m definitely on walk. Workwise? Crawl.” 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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