Silicon Valley’s learning it can’t work tech employees to the bone during coronavirus

Originally published April 23, 2020

By Ian Sherr

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the world into a mass experiment in working from home. For some companies, self-quarantine for the public good has meant finding new ways to collaborate while navigating spotty internet connections, video conferencing etiquette, new apps and even newer security woes. That’s a no-brainer for Silicon Valley, where companies build apps and technologies to help power services used by hundreds of millions of people each day.

But with schools and day care centers closed around the country, tech companies, from Apple to Facebook to Google to LinkedIn to Uber, are facing a more challenging test: family. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in a March conference call with the press that caring for his two young daughters at home with his wife, Priscilla, a pediatrician, is “a big change.”

The nonstop 24-hour work culture that led many tech companies to hire high-end chefs for free food cafeterias, offer onsite car oil changes and, in some cases, do free dry cleaning is running up against the realities of child care and other family care in self-quarantine at home. The unspoken agreement that all those benefits came in exchange for long and grueling work hours is falling apart at home.

Day care centers and schools around the country have closed, while nursing homes are sending some residents to live with family. That’s all put extra demand on working parents, who now have to split their attention between work, homeschooling, child care and family needs throughout the day.

Zoom said it’s tallied a 700% increase in weekday evening meetings on its platform since February, and a 2,000% increase in meetings on the weekend. While users have flocked to the service and social Zoom calls are now du jour, the numbers could also hint at an overburdened work force pushing meetings to out-of-hours when kids have gone to bed.

“The notion of the overwork culture in Silicon Valley happens because innovation is really hard,” said Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo, an adjunct professor at Stanford University. “But now that the climate has changed, we have a whole new set of issues.”

For decades, Silicon Valley sold itself as a worker’s utopia. The promise that if you work hard, you’ll succeed — with big salaries, employee perks and a stock option payoff that could make you a millionaire — is the driving force behind the always-connected work culture. But for families stuck at home, with no caretaker backups to speak of, many employees are being left to choose between caring for loved ones and doing their daily work. In California, home to Apple, Airbnb, Facebook, Google, HP, LinkedIn, Twitter, Uber and an endless list of startups, most schools won’t reopen until the fall. Meanwhile, nursing homes have been among the places hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, forcing some residents to move in with family members instead.

You need that coffee now more than ever. Getty Images

Though tech companies are known for their generous leave policies, offering much more than the 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected family and medical leave mandated by US law, some Silicon Valley parents say the pressure has intensified since being stuck at home — and not just from their bosses. A parent working at LinkedIn, writing last month on the anonymous employee messaging app Blind, said that while their manager was compassionate about handling work and kids, “I fear losing my job if I reduce my work hours.”

Most responding co-workers were supportive and some shared similar feelings. But others told the author to “stop whining like an entitled baby” and that “having kids is not an excuse to work less.”

LinkedIn, known in Silicon Valley for its employee-focused work culture, said it doesn’t tolerate retaliation against anyone for taking advantage of benefits it offers, or for bringing forward concerns. It also offers employees a way to anonymously report any issues. 

The social networking company is also offering an additional 12 weeks of paid emergency leave to help its 16,000 employees manage during the crisis (Microsoft, which bought LinkedIn in 2016 for $26.2 billion, has made the same offer to its 151,000 workers).

“Many of our employees are having to take on additional responsibilities at home with children out of school or parents who need care, and we are supporting them,” said Kenly Walker, a LinkedIn spokeswoman. 

Employees at Apple and Uber who spoke to me also said they felt overworked without much leeway to take care of kids. And they aren’t alone. More than half of the 6,163 working parents surveyed by Blind earlier this month said they felt their work wasn’t being fairly compared to that of their colleagues during the crisis. As a result, 61% of them, including employees from Google and Facebook, said they’re putting in at least three extra hours each day to complete their work.

“For people who have a family, you feel that you have to operate as if you don’t,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. She’s faced many of these struggles firsthand, sharing online about navigating life in the tech world while homeschooling her daughter. It’s likely this crisis will change how we all prioritize life and family, she said. It may also change the culture at companies that have historically bristled at remote work, such as Google, Apple and Facebook.

“I’m hoping this is going to help us afterward to be more flexible,” Milanesi said. “I’m hoping it will humanize workers more.”

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