Why tech workers are migrating to Sonoma County during the coronavirus pandemic
The future of work in Sonoma County is happening right now in a nondescript Healdsburg shopping center.
You can see it there at Craftwork, a coworking space opened in January in a converted old bank building. Inside it features exposed ceilings, modern decor, high-speed internet and a barista three days a week serving coffee and other drinks.
Founder Jim Heid thought it would give residents or those visiting the area a space to work. An accountant, marketing specialists and even an owner of upscale champagne bars have taken advantage of the ability to have a temporary place to connect to their jobs.
Since the coronavirus started sweeping through the region and country, more technology workers have started to show up. They come from familiar technology companies Google and Airbnb, as well as Walmart's virtual consignment store ThredUp. While working untethered from a home office during the pandemic, they are exploring options since their employers have extended working remotely and, in some cases, are considering committing to it on a more indefinite arrangement for many employees.
The movement has been accelerated by the recent remarks of executives of Big Tech in Silicon Valley who are considering a monumental change in the American workplace: allowing more of their employees to work from wherever on a permanent basis. Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey in May gave permission to workers at both of his San Francisco companies to work from home indefinitely, while Menlo Park's Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg said within a decade more than half of his workforce would be working from home. Mountain View's Google has told its 115,000 employees across the world they can work remotely through the end of the year.
These actions have prompted an enticing question to many people in the greater Bay Area: If you can live anywhere without having to be near your employer, why not bucolic Sonoma County?
'I think you're going to see some of the real estate in places like Healdsburg, Sonoma, maybe a little bit of Petaluma, starting to get eaten up by folks looking to eject because they like coming up here anyway,' said Robert Eyler, Sonoma State University economic professor who closely tracks workplace trends and the Sonoma County labor market. 'I see a wave of people renting in the city and the Bay Area core who don't see a reason to be down there anymore, and they will start looking up here in a onesie, twosie way because their jobs are portable.'
Attracting new residents
If this temporary trend takes hold broadly across many industries for years, it could have some profound ramifications for the county, analysts and business leaders said. The real estate market could be buoyed by those who don't blink at the April median price of a single-family home in the county — $659,975 — with their healthy six-figure salaries. Local bricks-and- mortar retailers, who have been hammered after three months of little to no business, will find themselves with a new clientele of disposable income to help boost revenue.
It also could flip on its head the traditional strategy of economic development — trying to land large and cutting-edge companies — such as the recent multicity bidding war to get the second headquarters for Amazon. Instead, the focus could turn to improving resources, such as readily available broadband internet and improved public transportation, to attract workers. The new strategy also could be to recruit smaller satellite commercial campuses for these workers if there are clusters of them.
Sonoma County, and most of the country right now, are in the middle of this grand, unexpected experiment forced by the COVID-19 epidemic on telecommuting with no idea of how extensive the workplace shift may be, Eyler said.
Area real estate agents have taken notice. Buyers are attracted to the area by more affordable home prices, a slower lifestyle pace, and the ability to commute into San Francisco if needed. Ross Liscum, a Santa Rosa real estate broker affiliated with Century 21 NorthBay Alliance, said last week he took a survey with his team and found 16 different clients who are looking to relocate to the county from the San Francisco area, with most of them telecommuting.
'I think this whole 2020 crisis is going basically going to create a whole new business model,' Liscum said. 'I think we will see a lot more people working from home. I think we will see a lot less people going into offices.'
Changing work spaces
Laurie Wood, community manager at Craftwork, which charges from $35 a day to $250 per month to work from its Healdsburg space, sees the shift occurring among office workers.