Why tech workers are migrating to Sonoma County during the coronavirus pandemic

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 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.

'They have already started migrating here,' Wood said.

They include David Theodore, a security engineer who works for a South Bay technology firm and is working remotely for the rest of the year. Theodore, who spoke on condition his employer not be identified because he's not authorized by the company to speak to the media, is staying with his wife at a rental property outside of Healdsburg as they test out different locales that will include Santa Cruz and Lake Tahoe area.

'My drive for work is alongside a creek with redwoods and then out into vineyards and then right into this quiet, little boutique wine town,' he said. 'I take a 25- to 30-minute drive to work (at Craftwork) and it's beautiful. It's not 25 to 30 minutes going 1 mile on Interstate 280 like a parking lot.'

Skip Brand could be the poster child of the workplace migration movement, as he worked and lived in Silicon Valley. He had stints at Yahoo and as CEO of Martini Media, a digital marketing company based in San Francisco. Fifteen years ago, he bought a 800-square-foot home in Healdsburg and five years ago, he left the sector and started his Healdsburg Running Co. store. 'I wanted to find somewhere where I could retire and could pursue my passion,' Brand said.

Seeking quality of life

Yet, given the greater acceptance of telecommuting, this new wave during the pandemic is more broad-based with younger people who are not in management and are not looking for a large property with a vineyard, but rather a comfy space where they can go put a paddleboard on the Russian River or climb in Sonoma Coast State Park. 'A lot of the (old) appeal was I want to have my own grapes,' Brand said. 'I think now it's where is a better quality of life? Where can I run? Where can I surf? Where I swim?'

When he worked at Yahoo in the early 2000s, Brand and a few co-workers worked from a small office in Healdsburg — owned by a family member of one of his colleagues — on a Friday to get an early start on the weekend. 'That was scary for Yahoo because they were like we don't want to lose all of our executives and everybody on Fridays,' he said. The practice was later curbed when 40 or so workers wanted to show up on one Friday.

Brand said he's encouraged by the latest influx of visitors in his store and thinks it could help revitalize small towns if 'the tourist may become your neighbor.' That could be a boon for places such as Healdsburg, where employment opportunities are mostly limited to wine and hospitality, and high school graduates leave and typically don't come back.

'My belief is this change may make it more available for small towns to fill a vacancy,' said Brand, a board member of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Future of office space

The telecommuting surge also is coinciding with another trend during the pandemic, the future of a company's office space with less workers. That's especially the case in tech where firms like Google and Facebook earlier this century built large campuses, and Salesforce recently completed a large office tower in San Francisco to house their employees.

'I believe the economy in Sonoma County will get more diverse, we will have more tech up here than ever before. Why? It's because you don't have to be in the headquarters,' Brand said.

Eyler said he could see smaller, satellite campuses for certain large companies springing up if there are significant clusters of workers. That could benefit places like Sonoma Village complex in Rohnert Park that are underutilized. 'Instead of having 20,000 people in a 1-mile radius, now you are going to have 20,000 people in a 100-mile radius and you are going to have these pockets of people all over the place,' Eyler said.

The decision of whether these recent moves will be more like a temporary working vacation or a permanent change in the workplace will be determined by workers like Theodore along with their employers, especially since tech companies typically had been more flexible on telecommuting than other sectors. Workers at different companies have been comparing notes, he said.

'I would like to have some face time (with my colleagues), but I don't want it all the time,' Theodore said. 'There is something in the creative process that is missed over a video chat.'

He and his wife are now considering whether to explore living somewhere else in Sonoma County — possibly with a longer lease — as he likes to mountain bike and surf.

'I'm living the best of both worlds I feel like here,' Theodore said. 'I have fast internet. I can go out for lunch and eat at a four-star restaurant and grab a sandwich to go. I take a bike ride every night. … And if it's hot, I can jump in the Russian River.'

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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