Power the WiFi or the Fan? California Fires and Blackouts Test Home Offices

By Priya Anand | August 25, 2020

Silicon Valley workers previously enjoyed some of the most well-appointed offices in corporate America. Lunch was free, dry-cleaning was on site and the internet was lightning fast. Now that those workers have settled into their less glamorous home offices, they’re grappling with a trifecta of crises in California: wildfires, a heat wave and rolling power outages—not to mention a global pandemic.

West coast tech companies, among the first to tell workers to stay home in the early stages of the pandemic, are now working to keep their newly scattered workforces online. Steve Rahmn Jr., chief operating officer at Firebrand Safety Systems, which sells generators in Napa, Sonoma and Marin County, California, said several Bay Area employers are going so far as to cover the cost of installing generators in their employees’ homes to mitigate downtime from power outages.

“We do have a couple customers who, their employer has said, ‘We know you’re working from home, we want to pay for this at your house,'” Rahmn said.

Tech workers are among the most fortunate Californians. While many companies have laid people off, plenty of tech firms are flourishing as most of life, from work to retail to health, moves online. The travails of working from home are nowhere near as devastating as the fact that homes and businesses are burning down in the wildfires. But it shows how even the most privileged workers in California can’t escape the crises.

For those without home generators, the blackouts can thoroughly derail efforts at remote work. Most power outages tied to a recent heatwave in California were brief, but planned shutoffs by PG&E Corp. to prevent blazes as fire season intensifies—typically in the fall—could last for days.

Robyn Hannah, a PR director at Dynamic Signal, which sells technology that helps companies communicate with their employees, lost power at her home in South San Jose for about three days last week. At one point, a neighbor leaving the area gave her an Anker PowerHouse charging pack—advertised as having enough juice to charge smartphones a dozen times. She used it to turn on her WiFi, but it also led to some vexing tradeoffs.

“You’re doing a mental spot analysis of, ‘Do I power the WiFi the whole time? Or do I only use the power to fire up WiFi in a moment where I’m concentrated on sending all these emails?'” Hannah said. “Or is it better to use the power for when I’m running the fan at night sleeping?” It was, after all, 100 degrees.

Hannah stressed that she’s one of the lucky ones but said that the last week has been tricky: “Nobody wants to lose their job right now, and nobody wants to not pull their weight in making the company successful, because everything we all do matters for the health of our business.”

Even for people who kept their power, the struggles of remote work have become more acute as smoke from California’s more than 600 fires engulfed tech meccas like San Francisco. David Gouldin, a software developer at payments giant Stripe Inc., said he has spent the last several days at home with his wife and their three small children, keeping the windows shut and their three air purifiers running. He joked that they buy another one every year when fire season strikes.

Gouldin works from the home office he set up on a lower floor, where “I can literally hear my kids,” in the room above, he said. “I hear them banging and screaming as they’re going stir crazy.” Gouldin has cabin fever, he said, but he’s keeping his tribulations in perspective: “On every axis, we have it better than most. I still have my job. We still have our home. We’re able to make rent.”

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