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December 31, 2020 10:26 am

‘Israeli Airport Security Confiscated Our Passports and Took Us Straight to “Corona-Hostels,”’ Recounts Returning Tech Exec

avatar by Maayan Manela / CTech

An Israeli worker stands outside the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem that was converted to receive coronavirus patients, March 19, 2020. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

CTech – After Israeli tourists returned from the UK last week, passengers were carted off their flight and taken directly to hotels, known as corona-hostels, to be quarantined. Israel has entered another lockdown, due to fears over a new Covid-19 (coronavirus) strain believed to have originated in Britain. Calcalist spoke with Ofer Bengal, the CEO of Redis Labs, who was one of the passengers whisked off to a Jerusalem hotel, where he was holed up and attempted to work remotely.

“Suddenly people covered head-to-toe in white coats, like in the movies, got on the plane. They put us on buses heading straight to Jerusalem, and then put us in quarantine. They confiscated our passports and returned them only once we were already in the hotel. It was shocking, I can’t describe it, it was like in the worst countries out there. It was like a science fiction movie,” Bengal recounted. The founder and CEO of Redis Labs Inc., an Israeli startup that has recently reached unicorn-status, described his harrowing return to Israel from London, where he went “to get some air” after nine months of working from his home in Tel Aviv.

“In February, we started working from home like the rest of the world, and since then we’ve been stuck inside four walls. We work harder from home and accomplish more than we do in the office, and I often find myself working 24-hour long days. I can work just as easily from London as I can at home in Tel Aviv. That’s why I flew to London, to spend a month there, but once we heard that they were starting to vaccinate people in Israel and with London going into a total lockdown, we got on the first flight back to Israel,” he said.

During a Zoom video call on Wednesday from the Jerusalem hotel where he has been residing for the past nine days, he spoke of the conditions, the difficulty of being confined, and the necessity of managing his company remotely, even while in such conditions. On Wednesday, the Israeli government decided to release the passengers from the hotels, and discharge them to their homes after being subjected to heavy criticism in the media. Bengal was sent home.

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“The decision to send us to quarantine in hotels stems from the government’s inability to enforce its decisions. Instead of dishing out serious fines for those who violate quarantines, they took people and put them in a sort of jail. I think that’s against the law, because you can’t take someone and put them in jail without first giving them a proper trial. I have no complaints about the hotels themselves because they weren’t prepared. They didn’t have enough time to prepare, so the rooms were dirty, I can’t blame them or the hotel staff, who made great efforts. The main problem is that we can’t leave our rooms, it’s a type of jail. Until you experience it, you can’t really understand what it means when they say ‘don’t leave your room,’” he said.

Are the conditions in the hotels really as bad as they say?

“First of all, the food was disgusting. It looked inedible, but it improved over time. You aren’t expecting to get gourmet meals, but this clearly wasn’t hotel food. Everything was in plastic packaging, just like in the military. It wasn’t something that I would want to eat for a long time, but on the other hand, you can survive off it. We order one meal a day from an outside restaurant, so we make do.”

And while you’re stuck in this situation, you continue to run your company?

“As long as there is an internet connection, there isn’t really any difference between working in the office or in the hotel, and you can do anything you need to, whether that’s holding meetings, discussions, emails — it’s all normal. In February, we decided that all 450 of our employees would start working from home, We have 160 employees in Israel and an identical amount in Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California, and in other areas as well, in London and Mumbai, India we are now recruiting an additional 100 employees.”

Life made easier

“In a certain sense, it made life much easier for a number of people, myself included. Prior to the pandemic, I would divide my time between Silicon Valley and Israel, and spend at least 10 days there every month. It’s a really demanding business, that requires jet lag and long weary flights, and I’d do it all every month. Once the pandemic started, everything was canceled, so in that way, my life became much easier,” Bengal said.

“On the other hand, I work longer hours per day compared to beforehand, because boundaries are blurred. When you go to the office, there are boundaries, there’s a set hour that you need to be home by to see your family. When you work from home, there aren’t any boundaries, especially when half of your company is in the US and your conversations with those in California only start at 6 pm Israel time. Our work easily spills over into the late-night and early-morning hours in Israel. I work every day from 9 am to 11 pm or midnight. While it’s good for business, it’s not so great for your personal life. I discovered, at least for myself, that I can work from home. It’s something that a year ago I thought was impossible. I was used to thinking that in order to ensure that employees work, you need to see them and they need to see you, you must have meetings and relay information face-to-face. Suddenly, it turns out that you can work remotely, and don’t need to constantly supervise your employees.”

Can you say now that you’ve “seen the light” when it comes to working from home? You’ve become a supporter.

“To a certain extent, yes. We never really worked from home prior to the pandemic. In the past, when such ideas came up from our human resources department to maybe give people the attractive option of working from home once a week — since we’re in a very competitive market and everyone wants to spoil their employees a bit — I was against it. I thought it would decrease work output. We are all at work to work hard, and make our company succeed. All of our employees are shareholders, so once the company succeeds, so do we. At that time, it didn’t seem like such a cool option, but of course, everything that happened during the pandemic completely changed my mind. Today, it’s clear that working from home is possible and trustworthy, and even after we exit the pandemic working — least in the high tech sector — will look completely different. There will be a combination of working from home and in the office.”

Will you continue working from home?

“I assume that I will take advantage of that option, and part of the time will work from home. I also think that I won’t fly as often as once a month. I can’t completely avoid it, I still need to show my face too, but I won’t fly as often.”

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