It’s not all doom and gloom out there.
That’s how BlueSnap chief executive Ralph Dangelmaier sums up the general mood among tech chief executives in the Boston area. The COVID-19 pandemic and its stark economic repercussions dominate the headlines. But Dangelmaier and many of his peers are looking ahead and see a brighter future.
When the Mass Technology Leadership Council surveyed Dangelmaier and more than 30 other top tech executives this month, the group found a somewhat surprising result: One-third are still hiring amid the pandemic, and only about one-fifth are exploring or implementing layoffs.
It might be easy for Dangelmaier to be upbeat. (Yes, he’s among those who are hiring.) After all, he runs an online/digital payments firm, and revenue is actually up this month compared to the same time a year ago, as businesses seek “corona-free” ways of handling payments and invoices. But most of the respondents are not as lucky: The vast majority (91 percent) are seeing some kind of decreased demand for their products and services, and nearly half (42 percent) are experiencing significant declines.
With such a small sample, the MassTLC poll is by no means scientific. But it does provide a useful snapshot of an important sector in the state’s economy. For the most part, software firms are generally well equipped to shift into work-from-home mode, and could chug along after Governor Charlie Baker closed nonessential workplaces across the state last month.
Maybe that’s one reason why many of these executives still seemed optimistic about an economic recovery, even as revenue lurches downward. More than 40 percent expect an economic recovery to begin by the end of September, although more than one-third expect it to begin much later — in 2021 or beyond. Nearly 90 percent expect office work, meetings, and events to resume by September.
So who’s hiring, and how are they pulling it off in the social distancing era? RxAdvance, a pharmacy benefits manager, is sticking to ambitious hiring goals. Chief executive Ravi Ika said he plans to double his office space and staff in Southborough by mid-2021, adding roughly 250 jobs to the 200 people based there now. For now, Ika put the final steps in the hiring process on hold, until face-to-face meetings with candidates can be arranged; he has always met new hires in person in the past. But he said he may decide to move ahead with some offers this month anyway to avoid losing good candidates.
Chief executive Yogesh Gupta at Progress Software isn’t waiting around. The company hired new employees in HR and communications during the last two weeks, filling open positions, and someone in the M&A team, a new role — all after interviews via videoconference. Progress has kept all 1,600 employees during this time, he said, including its 500 in Massachusetts. He thinks the economy might not start to recover until the end of 2020 or in 2021. But when it does, he wants to be ready.
Tom Hopcroft, chief executive at MassTLC, said many of his group’s members are trying to do anything they can to avoid layoffs by paring expenses in other ways, such as pulling back on 401(k) matches or food purchases.
The MassTLC polling also revealed some changes that tech executives see on the horizon. They envision a heavier reliance on remote work, particularly for employees who are uncomfortable taking public transit or are otherwise concerned about their health. A number of them expect antibody tests, masks, and (eventually) vaccinations to be part of the mix after offices reopen. Desks may be farther apart, and fist bumps could replace handshakes.
Sam King, chief executive at cybersecurity firm Veracode in Burlington, said she expects fewer big company meetings. But they won’t go away completely. We are social beings, she said, and people value in-person interactions with their colleagues.
The shift to remote work went smoothly for Vecna’s 85-person workforce, chief executive Debbie Theobald said. The company makes products and software for the health care sector, and for now only three Vecna employees are still commuting to work at the firm’s manufacturing plant in Woburn.
If Baker’s workplace shutdown ends on May 4, without another extension, Theobald said she hopes to have workers returning to the firm’s Burlington office in phases starting after the following weekend. But she wonders if Vecna might have a smaller office presence going forward.
Dangelmaier is bullish about BlueSnap’s prospects, but he’s not necessarily bullish about the shift to remote work. What may have seemed like a novelty at first will start to get tiring for many people. Kids will continue to interrupt Zoom calls and get in the way of deadlines. Even the most technically savvy executive would be hard-pressed to develop a workaround for that one.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.