When Josh Kallus, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, started working at a technology company in Ann Arbor in August, he didn’t do any work for the first day and a half. He couldn’t go to the office because of social distancing policies and was waiting for his work laptop to arrive in the mail.

“It’s definitely hard to start a new job remotely,” Kallus said. “That was not something I anticipated.” 

Kallus said he has been at the office only “one time for five minutes” since he started working last month. This experience has become the norm in the offices across the country as companies have had to make adjustments to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including having employees work from home to mitigate crowding in offices. The Ann Arbor tech scene is no exception.

Even as social distancing restrictions have been relaxed, many companies continue to operate almost entirely remotely and express uncertainty over what work will look like after the pandemic is over. For some, the experience with remote work has caused them to move to a more remote-friendly model, meaning fewer of their employees will actually be in Ann Arbor.

While much of the shift to working remotely has involved what one might expect — firing up Slack instead of doodling on a whiteboard and plenty of Zoom meetings — tech companies have also taken the opportunity to try out creative ways to keep morale high. For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, Censys, a cybersecurity and digital risk management company headquartered in downtown Ann Arbor, started hosting guided meditation sessions for employees and doing what they call “vocial,” or video social, events to help employees stay connected to each other. Events included virtual happy hours, trivia games and lunch hours.

Jasmine Burns, Censys’s head of people, said these events helped people process the unsettling developments happening around them. Burns said they were hosting about three vocial events per week at the beginning of the pandemic, but have now scaled it back to one each week.

“Having those kinds of vocial things ongoing all the way from the beginning was a way for us to feel like we’re all in this together, and we’re all, kind of, experiencing things individually, but we can connect as folks (and) talk about things that are not work-related — talk about our fears, talk about how crazy it is,” Burns said. 

As well as hosting events for employees, Burns said her CEO decided to embark on a socially distanced road trip to visit every employee at their house, with employees spread out from Washington, D.C. to the West Coast, and hear their thoughts on the company. In addition to giving employees face time with the CEO, Burns also said the road trip gave employees a chance to be candid and open in a way they couldn’t over Zoom.

For tech companies who can’t easily work remotely, the creativity came in actually figuring out how to keep operations running. At May Mobility, an Ann Arbor-based autonomous shuttle startup, employees went home with their vehicles so they could continue to work on them even if they couldn’t come into the office, said Rohit Bery, May Mobility’s vice president and chief of staff.

“Our technicians who work on vehicles, we found ways to get those vehicles to their garages or even their apartment garages (and) get the tools that they needed, so they could continue to maintain safe distance and get work done,” Bery said. “If somebody needed to do some work to make (the vehicle) road-worthy, do that, put the tools in the back, drive it to your house. It was that simple.” 

Some local tech companies have benefited from the transition to working from home because it better aligns with the products they offer. For Lakeside Software, who makes software that allows information technology departments to check the performance of computers and other devices, the shift to working from home has meant an increase in clients, according to product marketing manager Heather Bicknell.

“In a way, we’re more productive than ever in the sense that we can really help our customers,” Bicknell said. “A lot of large enterprise customers also had to undergo this huge shift and move tens of thousands of employees home, and part of how they planned for that and have managed that transition is through our software, which, of course, has kept us all very busy just to meet … the market demand.”

While working from home has allowed for some positive adaptations at Lakeside, May Mobility and Censys, representatives of all three companies acknowledged a changing workplace dynamic. They previously depended on the office as a space to collaborate and have not yet planned a return.

Currently, Lakeside is 100% remote and Censys allows a small number of people to come into the office on a voluntary basis, though only a handful come in each week. For May Mobility, the numbers are slightly higher since their work sometimes necessitates working in-person with their vehicles, but their software team is still fully remote.

Bicknell acknowledged that working from home is not as relaxing as it might sound, especially for employees with young kids. She said her company would reopen if it weren’t for the issue of safety.

None of the companies said when or under what conditions they would reopen their offices to all employees in a pre-COVID manner, or if they even would at all.

If remote work lasts beyond the pandemic, will Ann Arbor remain a hub for technology companies, or will these businesses go somewhere else? 

Burns says Censys’s experience with remote work during the pandemic has shown them that remote workers can be as effective as traditional workers, and as a result, they’ve opened up their hiring to applicants who want to work remotely and expect the majority of their next hires to not actually live in Ann Arbor. 

“Our philosophy has changed in terms of, ‘Yeah, we can be fully remote,’” Burns said. “In fact, out of the 50 employees that we’re planning to hire from now until next year, we anticipate the majority of those actually not being in Ann Arbor where we’re headquartered, and that’s because not only does it open our candidate pool like 1,000-fold, but it also it just rang true.”

Burns added that the pandemic has also led Censys to call off their search for more office space in Ann Arbor.

“We’re no longer looking for additional office space in Ann Arbor, and we’re anticipating that, at least in the next couple of years, we won’t have either enough people that want to go into the office at once or have hired enough locally that we would be at max capacity,” Burns said.

Kallus said he wonders if the ability to work for large companies from anywhere might provide opportunities to workers who want to stay in Ann Arbor .

Bery said the strong ecosystem of other automobility companies in the area, the dynamism of Ann Arbor as a community and its connection to the University are reasons that May Mobility doesn’t anticipate scaling back their presence in Ann Arbor. Edwin Olson, May Mobility’s founder, is a tenured professor and grew the company out of a U-M lab.

“We’re an Ann Arbor company; we’re a Michigan company — this is where we want to grow,” Bery said. “Even things, like, ‘Do we have the right office space?’ the answer continues to be yes for us.”

Bicknell said tech companies like Lakeside Software will continue to stake their headquarters in Ann Arbor as long as the talent pipeline from the University is there.

“The success of our company really hinges on engineering talent, and we get a lot of that talent from the University of Michigan,” Bicknell said. “I think we will continue to be part of the community (and) invest in the community for that reason. This is a great place to be as a tech company and a great hub for talent.”

Daily Staff Reporter Carter Howe can be reached at tcbhowe@umich.edu.

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