How Covid-19 is Reshaping the Tech Workspace and Competition for Top Tech Talent

February 9, 2021

By Leah Scanlan, Partner, Talent, Oak HC/FT

The rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations has prompted many American businesses to start developing plans to return workers to the office. But not all businesses. In the world of tech, where the virus sparked a flight of employees and companies from the industry's power enclaves in the Bay Area and New York, companies are debating not so much when, but whether a great return is in the offing.

As early as last May, Twitter took the bold step of telling workers they can keep working from home permanently if they wish, and a number of smaller tech companies including Spotify, Shopify and Box, soon followed suit. In December, Silicon Valley-based Oracle and Tesla said they will move their headquarters to Texas.

While the reasons for these actions varied - Oracle and Tesla preferred Texas's business climate - they signal the advent of a more relaxed stance about where tech companies operate and where their employees work and live.

Indeed, it has become clear that in the wake of Covid-19, a more flexible tech workplace model is unfolding, one focused on affording workers greater personal freedom while leveraging the potential benefits of a more decentralized workplace. As Talent Partner at Oak HC/FT, a venture capital firm focused on Healthcare and FinTech, it's been fascinating to witness this trend and consider what it means for talent recruitment.

Two factors have fueled it. First, the talent pool for skilled tech talent is thin, and many top-flight recruits have found they like working from home. Second, to the surprise of many companies, keeping employees home has actually worked out well. When we surveyed our portfolio companies this summer, the consensus was not only that productivity hadn't suffered, but had improved. People weren't travelling constantly; they were planted at their computers, connecting with clients and colleagues remotely. They accomplished more.

Whether that's still true three months from now is unclear. At some point, Zoom fatigue may set in and productivity could slip. We will see. For the foreseeable future, the best path forward for companies is to keep operating as they currently are.

That could change as vaccinations rise, the pandemic ebbs and workers can finally return to offices safely. Still, it has become evident that when that day arrives, the post-Covid technology work world will look different than it did before Covid.

In particular, companies have awakened to the savings they can achieve by shrinking their footprint and spending less on rent and amenities. As a result, many parts of organizations may not return to the office. Tech companies are carefully weighing such issues as: Should we relocate? Should our headquarters remain a nucleus of activity and decision making, or should we have multiple work sites and decision centers? To what extent will staff and C-suite executives work remotely?

These questions will defy easy answers in the absence of clarity around the pandemic's future course. Even so, it has become clear that to position themselves to recruit top candidates, companies would be wise to address these questions sooner rather than later. Sought-after prospects seek visibility into companies' future work arrangements and an assurance of flexibility, so that the sooner companies can firm up their future work policies, the easier it becomes to recruit.

In addition, cutting office space and in-office perks can do more than lower costs; it can help companies corral talent. Channeling the money saved into employee benefits tailored to a virtual work environment - such as online gym memberships, Uber Eats meal kits, credits for virtual education or mental-health counseling -demonstrate that a company has found innovative ways to address employees' changed wants and needs. That can be a powerful lever for recruitment.

At some point, perhaps soon given the rising pace of vaccination, tech companies will confront the issue of how to remobilize their in-office work forces. They will need to tackle a host of cost-sensitive decisions about whom to bring back, and the kind of office to which workers will return. Will cubicles be separated by glass? Will teams be segregated into pods? Will workers have to be masked? Will those who decline to be vaccinated be allowed to return?

However the new normal in the tech workspace evolves in the coming months, its contours are already taking form rapidly. To keep pace in the contest for talent, it is advisable that companies begin to consider the post-pandemic future now.