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In post-pandemic workplace reshuffle, some in Sonoma County switch career paths

In Sonoma County and across the country, scores of workers have voluntarily left behind jobs in recent months, a trend that has forced employers to make difficult decisions about the post-pandemic workplace.|

Kim and Dave Lockhart were living in Santa Monica when the pandemic began, working in the Los Angeles area where they thought they had to be to advance their careers in the movie industry.

Last summer, the couple and their young son, Jack, fled the spreading coronavirus in that urban setting for a safer haven in Sonoma County, where his parents have a cabin he’s visited since childhood.

Their intention was to wait out the pandemic with his family in Guerneville, said Kim Lockhart, part of the creative content team in the marketing department at Sony Pictures.

Then the completely unexpected occurred.

The Lockharts, both 47, found out that River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe in Healdsburg was for sale. They stopped by the shuttered business and got a tour of the kayak, paddle board and canoe rental operation on Healdsburg Avenue along the Russian River.

For the remainder of last summer, they worked alongside the crew that had operated the company, then in November they bought the small business. Earlier this month, they moved into their own home and became county residents. As first-time business owners, they’re still learning the ropes at River’s Edge from experienced staff they rehired.

“Once COVID happened and everything blew up, we stepped back and reflected on what makes us happy,” she said. “So, we decided to buy the business rather than buy a house in LA. It was an opportunity to do work that’s important and fulfilling our desire to be out in nature.”

In doing so, the Lockharts joined many in the workforce in Northern California and around the country who used the pandemic to reevaluate the balance between their careers and personal lives. Most everything at home and in public was disrupted or upended over the past year, prompting broad introspection, according to experts in workplace strategy and organizational behavior.

That’s led to a massive wave of job changes.

To be sure, not all remote workers the past 12 to 15 months are starting their own businesses. However, most white-collar employees have proved themselves to be productive working at home. And now most are not willing to give up their flexible work arrangements to return to the office, despite the waning pandemic.

As a result, millions of U.S. workers across a wide range of occupations and pay levels have voluntarily left behind positions in recent months, a trend that has forced employers to make difficult decisions about the post-pandemic workplace model they choose. Nearly 4 million people quit their jobs in April, the most on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Flexibility in demand

Many employers have been trying to overcome a talent shortage by offering people more money. Mark Allen, chair of the master of science human resources program at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School and an expert in talent management and strategic workforce planning, said that might work in the lower-paying leisure and hospitality industry but it’s not a game-changer for most people.

For companies, “the most valuable currency today is not money, but flexibility,” Allen said. “Employers need to offer workers what they want … flexibility,” as well as incentives to continue developing their careers.

From a recruitment standpoint, traditional expectations of reporting daily to the office is “going to be a deal breaker for a lot of people,” he said.

According to a recent survey by FlexJobs, an online site for remote jobs and career management information, 58% of workers said if an employer is inflexible they would look for another job and 40% would consider quitting. This survey of people who have been working remotely in the pandemic showed that 65% of them prefer to keep that work arrangement.

Is this demand for greater employer flexibility merely part of a short-term transition from pandemic lockdown to an ultimate return to the office?

“I don’t think post-pandemic we’ll go back to what it was like in late 2019 or early 2020,” said UC Berkeley business professor Homa Bahrami, explaining that she thinks the ongoing evolution of the workplace is fundamental rather than transitional.

“I think there’s a fundamental shift in society. I don’t see the workforce of the future being like it was pre-pandemic.”

As they reshuffle priorities, Bahrami, who for many years has studied future organizational trends, said many people are making career decisions according to the following mantra: “Life is too short. How do I want to spend it?”

While working remotely, many people’s lives went from being centered on work to revolving around family. At the same time, workers are thinking about future employability and seeking to expand their skills, experts say. Some feel stale and bored and so companies are increasingly looking at rotating people among different roles.

Also, women are reexamining their work options. Many are asking themselves whether it’s best to continue working full-time to move up the corporate ladder or opting to work as a contractor part-time.

The Berkeley business professor does think hiring eventually will get easier for employers, as more people apply for the plethora of job openings. Now, though, companies and workers continue rethinking what they’re doing, and reflecting on the future of work.

“I see this as a huge inflection point in the workforce similar to what we experienced after World War I,” said Bahrami, faculty director of the Haas business school’s Center for Executive Education at UC Berkeley and a distinguished teaching fellow in the business school.

In that postwar period a century ago, there was a huge expansion in American industry and a large influx of women in manufacturing jobs. Before then, many of those jobs were held by men. The war pulled the country out of a recession and ushered in a postwar economic boom that lasted almost four years.

Today, men and women have had a “shift of perspective” when it comes to their careers and for many, Bahrami said, it ends with the conclusion: “I want something different.”

From server to masseuse

Trishia Davis, 48, of Sebastopol, is one of a large group who counts herself as a former hospitality employee. After 30 years working on and off as a server, Davis has moved on — as hard as it was for her to let go of food and drink service work.

She loved waiting tables and striving to make people happy with their dining experiences. But she got tired of the industry, its unpredictability and long hours, no vacations or sick days and the slice of overbearing customers.

Even in the pandemic, she said there were customers “extra fussy” and unhappy about parking, the weather, having to order food with alcoholic beverages, and more.

Davis got furloughed from her last server position at Golden State Cider in December 2020.

After a few job interviews in the nonprofit sector didn’t pan out, she decided to pursue a few months of training to fulfill a lifelong passion of working with animals. She’s now catering to the needs of clients’ dogs and cats as an animal massage therapist in her own business called Tigers and Wolves.

“I’ve always had a drive to improve the lives of animals,” Davis said, explaining that in recent years she helped transport rescue dogs and cats from the Central Valley to Sonoma County and find good homes for them here. “I can pull a 10-hour drive and save 16 lives.”

The Tulare County native, who moved to Sonoma County after graduating from high school, doesn’t yet know if she can make a living at her new occupation. But it satisfies the aspiration Davis has had since age 5 to be a veterinarian.

Workplace culture tested

Now that the worst of the pandemic appears to be over, Allen, the Pepperdine professor in Los Angeles and consultant to blue chip corporations, thinks companies will remain in flux, evaluating and adjusting workplace arrangements for at least 12 months. Then most will “land in some hybrid arrangement,” between remote work and reporting to the office, he said.

It could be difficult for employers, he said, to manage and maintain a healthy workplace culture with everyone engaged, while staff continues working remotely.

Although worker productivity has increased, “emotional connectivity” at most companies has been weakened, UC Berkeley’s Bahrami said, and there’s been some “cultural dilution,” particularly among hires that came aboard at the onset of the pandemic and in the throes of it.

“Nobody knows what that’s going to look like,” Allen said of the successful workplace culture of the future, in a hybrid or remote working environment. The key is for companies to “consciously manage it on a daily basis.”

He has taught at Pepperdine for 25 years and spoken around the world to business and education groups on workforce training and executive development topics.

Allen is an expert on talent management and is also a faculty member at the Human Capital Institute in New York, an organization providing human resources professionals with continuing education.

He said he’s “100% certain” there won’t be a complete return to the pre-pandemic workplace.

‘A moving target’

In the Bay Area, Bahrami said many residents are evaluating whether they should stay or go based on cost of living, compensation and career prospects in California and in other states.

Among the technology industry, in which she has done research on leadership and workplace strategy in Silicon Valley for 30 years, there’s a full spectrum of post-pandemic approaches playing out, she said.

Twitter, on the one hand, is allowing everyone the option to work remotely forever. Amazon contends it’s vital for the staff to get back into the office.

“It’s a moving target,” said Bahrami, an author and expert in leadership development and organizational flexibility. “It’s literally like shifting sands.”

At River’s Edge in Healdsburg, Kim and Dave Lockhart had tons of sand trucked in to convert an area previously used for parking into a sandy beach for a live music venue along the water.

In their first summer of operations, she’s handling administrative duties while continuing to work for Sony. Her husband is focused on customer service: doing everything from loading kayaks to planning and arranging the weekend live music performances. As an independent film producer, he has background in live music production.

Although the responsibilities of running a business are overwhelming, the Lockharts are embracing the challenges. Now the novice kayak rental business partners are contending with the drought causing shallow water in the river.

“It was always a dream to live up here, so when we saw the business available we saw the dream could possibly come true,” Kim Lockhart said.

“We didn’t know this was possible until COVID hit and turned everything upside down.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Bomberger at 707-521-5246 or paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BiznewsPaulB.

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