Pandemic reshapes Sonoma County business, shifting office work into homes
Workplace shutdown orders during the coronavirus pandemic have spawned a global business trend that some of Sonoma County’s largest and smallest employers have adopted: mixing work from home with time at the office or forgoing the office entirely.
Sonoma County government, the area’s largest employer, has had more than half of its 4,400 employees working partially or fully from home during the pandemic and plans to continue that option into the post-pandemic era.
In early February, 2,380 county employees — about 54% of the workforce — logged telework hours, about the same number as in early May 2020.
“The county anticipates telework will be a new way of work into the future, and is working on a more permanent telework policy,” human resources director Christina Cramer said in an email.
Going forward, the county may reap some cost savings from the continued operation of what’s known as a “hybrid office” — accommodating work from home and at company sites — but the extent of fiscal gain remains unknown, she said. Departments will be left to figure out the right balance of remote work and “full service delivery post COVID,” Cramer said.
Keeping workers at home
Hybrid offices have established themselves as a new feature of the post-pandemic business world, according to a BBC report on a May survey that showed 55% of U.S. workers want a mixture of home and office working.
Hybrid offices are catching on in Sonoma County, while educators and health care providers plan to extend online strategies borne of necessity during the pandemic.
More than three-fourths of Santa Rosa’s nearly 1,500 city employees have duties that cannot be performed remotely, but City Manager Sean McGlynn said he is considering the possibility of work-from-home or hybrid options.
“There likely won’t be a significant cost savings,” he said, because so much of the workforce must operate on-site or in the field.
But any remote work option “would be in alignment with the city’s climate action goals” and could benefit employees’ “work-life balance and overall morale,” McGlynn said.
The Climate Center, a Santa Rosa-based environmental nonprofit with 18 employees, had already decided to give up its office and work entirely from home, with in-person staff and board meetings twice a year. One officer lives in the Lake Tahoe region.
“We have found that video conferencing has been a very effective means of communicating with one another, with policymakers and with donors and potential donors,” said Ellie Cohen, the CEO.
One “silver lining” to the pandemic, according to climate observers: working from home curbed greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes.
Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at UC Berkeley, said ground transportation emissions decreased by 40% worldwide mainly because of working from home.
Rebooting the office
At the other end of the spectrum, Keysight Technologies, the county’s second largest private employer, plans to bring most of its 1,500 employees back to their sprawling Fountaingrove site.
“Our culture has a special DNA of sharing, collaboration, high performance, passion and innovation that thrives when we work together in person,” Hamish Gray, senior vice president of corporate services, said in an email, quoting company chairman and CEO Ron Nersesian.
Keysight was the first local company to close operations in early March 2020, when an employee who sailed on a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship from Mexico to San Francisco was the first local person to test positive for COVID-19.
The company reopened four days later after a thorough cleaning, and on March 17 the county ordered residents to stay home and limited all but essential business and government operations. A year later, after nearly 30,000 corornavirus cases and more than 300 deaths, the county embraced its clearest advancement in reopening, though most office-based operations remain limited.
Scientists and public health officials have said COVID-19 will fade with the progress of mass vaccination, but “no one seems to know when that will be,” said Sheba-Person Whitley, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Businesses are yearning for “some sense of normalcy,” she said, noting that “so much of our local economy depends on gatherings,” underscoring the importance of restaurants, wineries, breweries, hotels and shopping that make up the backbone of the hospitality industry.
Person-Whitley said she has heard from some businesses considering hybrid work sites to reduce their office footprint, lowering rent and utility expenses.