Working from home represents a growing business and lifestyle trend in Sonoma County

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- In 2017, there were an estimated 10,623 people working from home full-time, compared with 7,276 in 2005.

- Median annual income for county residents who work from home is $75,000, compared with $58,150 for those who commute to work less than 90 minutes each way daily.

- County residents who work from home comprise 5.8% of the 183,155 full-time local workforce 18 and older.

Source: U.S. Census data analysis by Apartment List

Before his son Maverick was born two weeks ago, business owner Andrew Meyer, 34, had all the space he needed for his home office in the second bedroom of the west Santa Rosa duplex he shares with his wife Stephanie — an interior designer who also works from home.

Stephanie, 33, kept her office in the kitchen/dining room, while Meyer’s two computers now are surrounded by a crib, rocking chair and nursery wall decorations.

“I have a little stand-up desk up against the side of the room and the nursery is around that,” he said. “I get some grief for not giving up the office.”

Meyer, who co-owns a Santa Rosa company that operates several Northern California senior living centers, said he hopes to continue doing business remotely from his son’s nursery. Stephanie will juggle caring for their baby, while running her Aesthete Vagabond Co. from another room.

That may be easier said than done.

During Maverick’s frequent daytime naps, the Meyers are hoping to turn on their computers, answer emails, pore over budgets and make the quietest of phone calls. The two millennials are among an estimated more than 10,000 Sonoma County residents who work from home, a segment of the workforce that has grown significantly in the past 10 to 15 years. The growing trend is driven by changing work and lifestyle preferences, advanced communication technology, and a dearth of affordable housing in one of the country’s hottest job markets.

From 2005 to 2017, the number of county residents who work full-time from home went from 7,276 to 10,623, a 46% increase, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Apartment List, an online marketplace connecting renters with apartment listings. Nationally, the number of people working at home increased by 76% during that period.

Chris Salviati, a housing economist for Apartment List, said the trend is mirrored by a simultaneous increase during the same 12-year period in “super commuters” — those who commute 90 minutes or more each way to their jobs. Though some of the county’s estimated 8,150 super commuters also may be working one day or more weekly from home, those who work from home full-time have for the most part abandoned the daily drudgery of getting into a car, bus or train to get to work.

“We expect that trend to continue into the future as technology makes it a lot easier for people to work from home,” Salviati said.

It’s not surprising that the Bay Area, both a hub for finance, software and technology jobs and one of the nation’s most expensive places to live, has a plethora of people who work from home, he said. Working from home, like super commuting, is in many ways a response to those two forces.

“It is extremely difficult to find affordable housing close to where the job centers are,” Salviati said. “Working remotely may allow you to live in a place that is more affordable.”

For some, the circumstances that led to a home office began with a major change in the office building.

For years, Wayne Wilson, 64, commuted to his advisory technical consultant job in San Francisco from his home just off Adobe Road on the east side of Petaluma. Six or seven years ago, Wilson’s employer, a large software maker headquartered in Houston, moved its San Francisco offices to Pleasanton.

- In 2017, there were an estimated 10,623 people working from home full-time, compared with 7,276 in 2005.

- Median annual income for county residents who work from home is $75,000, compared with $58,150 for those who commute to work less than 90 minutes each way daily.

- County residents who work from home comprise 5.8% of the 183,155 full-time local workforce 18 and older.

Source: U.S. Census data analysis by Apartment List

Many of his co-workers already lived in the East Bay so the move was ideal. But for Wilson, who grew up in the North Bay, it would have meant an even longer commute, something he said he could not bear.

“I informed them that I would have to start working from home or have to leave the company,” Wilson said.

“The job that I’m doing is unique enough and I’m well thought of enough they they wanted to keep me on.”

The biggest challenge to setting up a home office, he said, was finding adequate broadband internet access where he lives. Video conferencing using web utilities such as Webex and Skype mean that he doesn’t have to be face-to-face with his customers. He spends 90 percent of his work time in his home office, a converted bedroom with a desk, multiple computers and two phone lines.

The background sound in his office is often his dog snoring under the desk. Although the benefits are many, Wilson said the virtual world is in some ways a colder place. He misses personal interaction with clients and colleagues, and the friendships that sometimes develop from business relationships.

“This loss of the personal relationships that grow out of teamwork even means that I will probably have to plan my own retirement party,” Wilson wrote in an email. “No big luncheon with my co-workers. No presentation of the proverbial gold watch. I’m at home.”

Al Lerma, director of business development and innovation for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said working from home is a trade-off between greater flexibility and losing a certain amount of human interaction. Still, he said the trend is clearly on the rise, and today’s tight labor market is giving some workers the leverage they need to create the work environment they want and can afford.

“It’s a negotiating point now,” Lerma said. “Employees are asking themselves, ‘Can I work three days in the office and two at home, save on child care, save on commuting expenses?’”

Working from home, however, is not for everyone.

Until about four months ago, Dennis Szelestey, 55, of Santa Rosa worked as a database programmer and administrator for a pharmaceutical company in Maryland. He’s now doing similar work for American AgCredit on Aviation Boulevard, just 11 miles from his home office in Bennett Valley.

Szelestey, who came to Sonoma County in 2013, said working remotely has its benefits, such as eliminating commuting, saving money on office attire, being home when the plumber arrives and, oddly, being easier to find than when he was in the office.

But the lack of personal interaction is difficult for him.

“There would be times when I would not hear anything for a couple of days at a time and it was strange to say the least,” Szelestey said in an email. ”It’s difficult to stay in sync with what is going on at the office without the face-to-face interaction.”

Stephen Shore of Forestville, a retired chiropractor who now teaches online courses for a large research university on the East Coast, said he also misses human interaction. But the compromise is worth it.

“I have a killer commute,” he said. “I get up, I trip over my dog, I go to the bathroom, come out of the bathroom put on yesterday’s clothes, get my dog and take him for his first day’s walk.”

After coffee, Shore checks his emails and goes into his online classroom to begin a slew of virtual interactions with his students that includes discussing assigned readings and evaluating and marking up student papers.

Jen Vertz of Sebastopol started working from home after she lost her job at the local Whole Foods, where she did chalkboard signs, social media and graphic design for newspaper advertisements, brochures and small store signs.

With the small severance payment she got, Vertz started her own business called Sign Country Marketing, specializing in chalkboard art for local businesses, social media services, marketing materials and graphic and website design.

On fair weather days, her outdoor office consists of a folding table in a breezeway of her Sebastopol home. A rocking chair is situated behind her, next to a small table with plants. Her dog, a Golden Labrador Retriever named Harley, sits comfortably under the table as she works.

“He’s one of the best things about working from home. ... (He) loves being my little helper,” Vertz said in an email.

Lerma, of the county economic development board, said those who don’t own their businesses but work for a company, often must contend with an employer’s attitudes about working from home. Employers sometimes think employees get less done at home and spend time doing personal things instead of working.

Those attitudes are changing among employers, though. And in some cases, allowing people to work from home can save businesses expenses, such as leasing office space, utilities and maintenance.

“Tech is what’s enabling people to do that, reducing the cost of doing business,” he said of working away from the traditional office.

The Meyers’ Santa Rosa home represents the workplace of the future, with multiple business and personal activities — living space, two businesses, a nursery and eventually a day care center — all under one roof.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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