As Silicon Valley orders everybody to shelter in place, tech execs navigate barking dogs, screaming kids and Zoom calls

Key Points
  • Techies across the Bay Area are finding creative ways to collaborate remotely with colleagues while working in close quarters with family members.
  • Turbo Systems CEO Jen Grant hardly had time to start adjusting to her new job when she had to tell all her employees to start working from home.
  • Employees at ServiceNow and Marqeta are holding virtual happy hours, with relatives in the background.
Turbo Systems CEO Jen Grant
Z. Stack

Jen Grant was a little more than two weeks into her new gig running software software start-up Turbo Systems when she had to tell her 28 employees, split between Silicon Valley and India, that they'd be working from home because of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 coronavirus. On Monday night, government officicals instituted a shelter-in-place order for the Bay Area, which closed down all non-essential businesses and restricted people's motion. Three days later, the rule was expanded to the entire state.

Suddenly, Grant wasn't just at home all day on video calls but was joined by her husband, who works at Google, and their four children, ages 10 to 16. Everyone requires their own space: The children for their schooling that's moved online, and the adults so they can keep business running. Their dog, Husky, also needs attention.

The six family members come together for meals. At lunchtime on Wednesday, Grant laid out cans of soup for everyone and made the kids heat up their own portions. Then it was back to work, which for Grant meant seeking out a quiet spot somewhere in her house.

"Sometimes I get to be in my office, and sometimes, when my son gets online and has a seminar, I'm down in the kitchen," said Grant, who was previously the marketing chief at Looker, which Google acquired into its cloud business last year. "I'm the floater — wherever I can get a space."

Grant lives in Santa Cruz, a coastal city 70 miles south of San Francisco. She's in the same boat as tens of millions of California residents, as well as millions more now in New York State, who can only leave their home for essential needs, except for those working in hospitals, grocery stores and public services. Restaurants are open only for take-out, schools and offices are shut and colleges have gone remote, forcing families to co-exist and stay productive, often in tight quarters and all while staying away from friends and neighbors.

21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco
Arnab Bose

As tech executives move their communications to Zoom and other video products, they're introducing their colleagues, clients and recruits to rambunctious kids, barking dogs and even impatient spouses. It's an unfamiliar and unnatural way for many people to work, but one that everybody has to accommodate as state and local governments try and limit the spread of COVID-19.

"At work, we pretend there's no chaos in our lives," said Grant, whose company makes it easy for field service businesses to develop mobile apps. "Now we're inviting everyone we work with to our home on a daily basis and kids are there. I'm on the phone with a director and my son tries to sneak behind me because he doesn't want to get into the video."

A virtual happy hour

For much of the tech sector, the trend towards remote and distributed work has been underway for a while, enabled by high-speed internet, a host of cloud-based tools and an explosion of apps that are delivered and managed over the air. But with the exception of a few younger companies that have grown up as remote-first or remote-only, the vast majority of the tech industry is in the early stages of a mass experiment, trying to create an entirely spread out workforce on the fly that can meet customers' needs while simultaneously sheltering in place, surrounded by family. 

"We really went from taking 400 people who predominantly work in an office, to primarily working from home without skipping a beat," said Jason Gardner, CEO of Marqeta, an Oakland-based financial technology company. "We’re reimbursing employees for office equipment expenses, making sure people are comfortable at home and being flexible around schedules."

Gardner, his wife, and his 18-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter moved to a new home in Lafayette, a suburb east of Oakland, a little over a year ago. He's normally either traveling or working from the company's headquarters, so he hasn't yet set up his home office, which currently has a desk but no chair. He plans to upgrade that space this weekend, but meanwhile has been splitting time between the kitchen and his bedroom.

Gardner's wife is a psychotherapist, who's now seeing patients over Zoom. His son is also on Zoom much of the day for his high school classes. While the children are handling it OK for now, "I’m worried about the kids longer term if this isolation lasts many, many weeks," Gardner said.

Like Grant, Gardner is balancing the need to comfort his family members with the responsibility of keeping his employees happy and healthy, including by establishing a Slack channel so parents can swap tips. He's also holding virtual office hours.

On Thursday, about 40 Marqeta employees came together at 5 p.m. for a happy hour on Google Hangouts. There were alcoholic beverages, jokes and a game of charades. Gardner had a glass of whiskey.

"I usually don’t have a Maker's on the rocks at 5 o'clock," Gardner said. "But I did. It was nice."

At ServiceNow, a provider of cloud-based software for the back office, staffers can now use Zoom for daily employee-led yoga sessions, in addition to the happy hours that various teams are organizing. 

The company's more than 10,000 employees were directed to start working from home early last week. All-hands meetings, new employee trainings and job interviews have all moved to online video. Chris Bedi, ServiceNow's chief information officer, said a co-worker's daughter sat on her lap during a Zoom-based team meeting

Bedi, who lives in Pleasanton, 30 miles from the company's headquarters in Santa Clara, is meeting by video three times a week with his 40 direct reports to "try and substitute for the water cooler conversations," he said. Employees add emojis into their chats to bring some humor.

ServiceNow Chief Information Officer Chris Bedi on a Zoom call with CNBC

Pat Wadors, the company's chief talent officer, lives in Santa Clara, with her husband, 21-year old daughter and two German Shepherds. In her work group, they're encouraging people to learn something new on a particular theme that they can show the team, whether it's baking a cake or figuring out a song, so that "it's not all about the virus."

Wadors said her husband is recovering from a fractured hip suffered during a bike accident, and her daughter, who has special needs and normally volunteers at a local community hospital, is home with them.

For groceries and household essentials, Wadors wakes up at 6 a.m. to try and get her shopping in and beat the crowds. Her daughter normally walks the dogs, but now is limited to playing with them in the backyard, given the state's mandate that residents stay within 6 feet of other people while in public.

"She's too social," Wadors said of her daughter. "She'd interact with the neighbors."

Jeff Webb, who sells software for cybersecurity company SecurityScorecard, is typically on the road three to four days a week. Last week, he canceled all of his travel through March, trips that would have taken him to Southern California, Seattle, Chicago and Texas. Now he's at home in Los Gatos with his wife and two school-age boys. 

On Thursday morning, Webb was on a video chat with a customer in the energy space who's also a mother of three. 

"She had three screaming kids behind her while she was trying to ask questions," Webb said. "Everyone is in the same situation. Everyone has empathy. Everyone is looking for innovative and creative ways to stay active."

Keeping active for Webb means maintaining his exercise schedule. He built a home gym in his garage, with weights, stretching gear and a punching bag. He's also playing ping-pong with his kids, and the Peloton bike is on the way. 

The gym in Jeff Webb's garage
Jeff Webb

For work, Webb said he's spending more time than usual searching for prospects because some of the chief security officers he was supposed to visit have pushed off meetings in order to focus on the crisis in front of them. 

Like so much of the tech world, he's living on Zoom, sometimes talking to people who aren't accustomed to video calls and don't want to turn on the camera. Webb, whose wife, Audrey, works with the Zoom public relations team, said that it's important to get virtual face time, even if your kid may do something embarrassing in the background.

"That's the one thing people need to have, is that really personal approach," said Webb. "At the end of the day, you have to see people's facial expressions to be able to read if what you're positioning is coming across the correct way. It's really hard to read people on the phone."

WATCH: San Francisco to require people to stay home except for essential needs

San Francisco to require people to stay home except for essential needs
San Francisco to require people to stay home except for essential needs