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Rocky road to reopening: What’s happening in US tech offices?

29 Jul 2021

While Twitter shuts several offices again, other major tech companies will require their employees to be vaccinated.

We’ve come a long way from the sudden shuttering of offices last year.

Big tech companies started to announce that their staff would work from home in early March due to concerns around Covid-19, and these measures have continued for many, with work-from-home policies being extended into 2021 before the middle of 2020 had even arrived.

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Now, a year and a half after those initial office closures happened, it seems that potential reopenings are still not straightforward.

In light of the increasing number of Covid-19 cases in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places with high Covid-19 transmission rates. This updated recommendation rolls back on an earlier decision to allow fully vaccinated people to go mask-free in most settings.

The new recommendation has led social media giant Twitter to close its New York and San Francisco offices just two weeks after reopening them. According to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Twitter said the decision came after careful consideration of the CDC’s updated guidelines.

“We’re continuing to closely monitor local conditions and make necessary changes that prioritise the health and safety of our Tweeps.”

An Apple a day may keep employees away

The news follows a string of other challenges and red flags around the reopening of offices, with iPhone maker Apple standing out in particular.

While Google, Facebook and other companies were announcing extended remote working policies in May 2020, Apple had already started making plans to bring staff back to offices on a phased basis.

In June 2021, CEO Tim Cook sent out an email informing staff that they will be asked to return to the office three days a week starting in early September, a policy that has been vehemently fought against by many Apple employees.

Now, it seems the rising Covid-19 case numbers have pushed Cook’s office return out by at least a month, although the overall plan doesn’t seem to be changing yet despite continued discontent among staff.

According to The Verge, the company’s crackdown on remote working has led a number of employees to quit, with many others worried they’d have to leave the company due to its lack of flexibility.

Vaccination rules

It’s not smooth sailing for the more flexible companies either. This week, Google and Facebook announced that they would require all employees in their US offices to be vaccinated for a return to the workplace.

Google boss Sundar Pichai also said the company would expand this requirement to other countries in future months.

“Getting vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep ourselves and our communities healthy in the months ahead,” he said.

Pichai added that accommodations would be made for people who can’t be vaccinated for “medical or other protected reasons”.

Facebook’s vaccination requirement will also extend to all US offices, but how exactly the policy is implemented will depend on local regulations.

Lori Goler, vice-president of people at Facebook, said the company will have “a process for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons” and will be evaluating its approach “in other regions as the situation evolves”.

What all this means for Ireland

These tech companies have workforces in Ireland, so time will tell what their plans are for offices outside of the US. However, it raises questions that all employers should be considering right now, not just the major tech companies.

In terms of reopening Irish offices, there has been no set time for this. Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, indicated in June that a partial return to offices in August could be on the cards, but increasing concerns around the Delta variant seem to have put any further signalling around this on ice.

When it comes to vaccination policies, the return to offices becomes even more complicated. A HRLocker survey at the beginning of the year found that almost one-quarter of 750 leaders surveyed in Ireland said they plan to make vaccination compulsory for their staff to return to the workplace.

Meanwhile, another survey from the Association of Compliance Officers in Ireland found that almost 90pc of Irish businesses have called for guidance on the collection of employee vaccination data as pandemic restrictions lift.

But earlier this year, William Fry’s head of the employment and benefits, Catherine O’Flynn, told Siliconrepublic.com that while employers may be keen to confirm whether their employees have or have not received a vaccine, it’s important to remember their duties under data protection legislation.

“The Data Protection Commission issued guidance that clarified that GDPR provides a legal basis for processing health data where the data processing is necessary and proportionate,” she said.

“Employers should ensure that the legal basis for processing data is clearly explained in their vaccination policy. In addition to this, employers should monitor the necessity and proportionality of processing employee information in line with Government guidance.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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