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Data suggests region nearing ‘new normal’

Caroline Mills now goes into her San Jose office at accounting giant Ernst & Young whenever her team agrees they want to — and sometimes when the company puts on the Wednesday happy hour featuring beer, wine and Asian-fusion food-truck treats. That weekly grub-and-gab session did not exist before the pandemic, nor was a fund to pay for dog-sitting, or company-paid parking. Office attendance, for audit staffer Mills, was also not “very optional,” as it is today.

“They’re definitely trying to keep us happy,” said Mills, 25, of Mountain View, “and keep employing us.”

Despite a recent swell in coronavirus infections, a strong majority of Bay Area employers say they have started refilling offices. And half say they have arrived at their target mix of remote and office-based employment, suggesting the region is approaching a “new normal” of hybrid workplaces, according to the Bay Area Council, which represents hundreds of employers, including Silicon Valley technology giants.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA - May 12: People walk in downtown Mountain View, Calif., during lunch hour on May 12, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – May 12: People walk in downtown Mountain View, Calif., during lunch hour on May 12, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

The group’s most recent survey of companies showed that while previous COVID surges led most businesses to roll back their plans for in-office work, that’s changed, even as local case numbers tick up. More than 80% of employers said in April they were bringing workers back, compared to 68% in March and 56% in February.

Charts show the percentage of Bay Area employers saying how many days per week they want workers in the office under the 'new normal'; and how the Bay Area compares to other U.S.metros in the number of workers returning to the offices as of May 11 2022.“Unless there’s some massive spike in COVID cases with some crazy variant … I feel like we’re starting to enter a state of new normalcy,” said council research manager Abby Raisz.

The council’s data shows that most of the region’s employers have embraced hybrid work, at a time when overhead can be slashed by cutting office space, and with workers now accustomed to the benefits of remote employment.

Many Bay Area employees said they have missed their colleagues and the opportunities to socialize and collaborate in person. But walking through those doors Monday through Friday? The answer is usually an emphatic “nope.”

“I could never go back to working full-time in offices again,” said Michael Stellfox of San Jose, a manager at San Francisco technology startup Threekit, where the workforce will soon return to the office — once a month. Doing his job from home, he said, “saves me so much time before and after work.”

Stellfox, 30, said he now has abundant time for exercise, doing laundry, and cooking. “The quality of life is much better,” he said, adding that he believes his company also benefits, as he puts in more hours than he would if he had to commute up to two hours a day.

About half of Bay Area employers told the council in April they planned to have workers — those not essential on-site — spend three days per week in the office under a “new normal.” One-fifth landed on two days. Some 17% said they wanted workers in four days, and the percentage saying they wanted a return to full-time office work was the same as the share who want a fully remote workforce: 4%.

Even three days is too much for a group of Apple employees whose letter of revolt to executives at the Cupertino iPhone maker has gained more than 1,000 signatures from current and former Apple workers, the group reported. Ian Goodfellow, a prominent Apple artificial intelligence executive, is quitting over the recently delayed mandate, according to a tweet from The Verge reporter Zoë Schiffer, who cited a note from him to staff.

The Bay Area has fewer workers going back to the office than other major U.S. metropolitan areas, according to data from Kastle, which makes technology for secure building access. Strict health orders put many Bay Area businesses out of operation or led them to downsize, and up to 45% of the region’s jobs can be done remotely. Many of those positions are in tech, said the council’s Raisz.

Google has chosen a three-days-a-week model, but Pei Li, a hardware engineer for the digital-advertising titan, said his employment remains “mostly flexible,” and he expects to be in regularly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “I personally prefer being flexible,” said Li, 32, who works in Sunnyvale but lives in Union City. “We don’t need to waste time on commuting, and there’s a lower risk of COVID.”

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA - May 12: Pei Li, a hardware engineer at Google, talks during an interview in downtown Mountain View, Calif., on May 12, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – May 12: Pei Li, a hardware engineer at Google, talks during an interview in downtown Mountain View, Calif., on May 12, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

TikTok systems engineer Steven Guo also enjoys the lack of a rigid workplace schedule. He comes to the office in Mountain View from Daly City whenever the job requires, which is usually a day or two per week, he said. “I get more time with family, while taking care of the work at the same time,” said Guo, 31.

Palo Alto environmental non-profit Acterra cut its office footprint in half during the pandemic, doubled its full-time staff to 14, and working at the office is now voluntary, said executive director Lauren Weston. After the pandemic shuttered her husband’s business in San Francisco, the couple moved to Madera, a 2.5 hour drive from Weston’s workplace, in a region where housing prices are much lower than the expensive Bay Area. She comes to the office every two or three weeks and stays nearby for two or three days. That schedule has been a good test for the organization as a whole, she said.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA - May 12: Lauren Weston, the executive director at Acterra, talks during an interview in downtown Mountain View, Calif., on May 12, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – May 12: Lauren Weston, the executive director at Acterra, talks during an interview in downtown Mountain View, Calif., on May 12, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

“If it didn’t work for me, it wouldn’t work for everyone else,” she said. A flexible workplace is an asset for recruitment in a field where salaries are not especially high, Weston added.

For some Bay Area employers, the widespread shift to remote work has meant that if they cannot afford to pay the region’s prevailing wages, they can hire people who work in less-costly areas, noted Robert Christopher, CEO of a small San Jose legal-affairs startup that employs people in various U.S. locations. Still, he said, video meetings can make communication harder, as it’s more difficult to read body language. “You have to work harder to interpret and understand things,” said Christopher, 68, of Morgan Hill.

Christopher said he appreciates getting together with his workers now on an “as needed” basis. Li, of Google, said when he’s face-to-face with colleagues, “It feels like we have a stronger friendship … and people can talk normally, not like you need to schedule a meeting.” Guo, of TikTok, also believes in-person meetings often improve communication and efficiency.



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