Pandemic is reshaping Sonoma County’s business, moving office work to homes

For employers to engage in such changes beyond the pandemic, the decision must be considered now or in the near term, said Robert Eyler, an economist at Sonoma State University. Mixing home and office work “has to cut costs, increase income, or both for the employer to keep doing it.”

Eyler predicts it will take four years – until the end of 2023 – for the county to recover from its peak in pandemic job losses, which reached nearly 35,000 a year ago, which equates to more than 14% local unemployment.

As the economy regains health in 2024, businesses will face higher costs, labor shortages in some industries and an uncertain level of consumer spending, he said.

“There should be a real boost in the economy,” Eyler said. “The extent of this awakening is a big question. “

The post-pandemic future looks most promising for construction, manufacturing, healthcare and professional services, he said, while retail, restaurants, hotels, hair salons and manicure and fitness centers have a “deeper hole to pull out,” he said.

“But the result is clear: Working from home will be an integral part of our post-COVID economy,” a report from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research said.

New head office, home offices

Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments and publisher of The Press Democrat, said the newspaper’s office in downtown Santa Rosa was mostly vacant in March when around 150 people in news, advertising and accountants have converted to work where they live.

“We know we can do anything from home,” he said.

When the office reopens, perhaps by mid-year, the newspaper will assess the prospects for a hybrid operation, and accounting staff have already chosen to continue working from home, Falk said.

With the lease for the Mendocino Avenue building expiring at the end of 2022, Falk said the newspaper plans to go from 29,000 square feet to 12,000 to 15,000 square feet in another building.

He expects around 30% of employees to work from home, 30% to switch to hybrid work, and the rest to return to the office.

“I’m a little worried about the corporate culture (with limited interaction), but we’ll get there,” Falk said.

Dave Peterson, partner of Keegan and Coppin, a Santa Rosa real estate management and brokerage firm, dismissed the prospect of a “bloodbath in the office market” with “millions and millions” of vacant space for offices spread across the Bay Area, including Sonoma. County.

The future will be “different” as companies adjust to hybrid operations, but “I don’t believe for a second that the office is dead and won’t be back,” Peterson said in his March Market Snapshot.

The office vacancy rate in Santa Rosa and across the county increased by approximately 2% between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the fourth quarter of 2020.

Businesses “are now starting to see the light at the end of this very dark tunnel and are in a position where they now have to make decisions,” said Peterson.

Change for many sectors, not for all

Hybrid offices can go from a wide open floor plan to small rooms with two desks, one occupied by a worker three days a week, the other occupied by another person two days a week, said Keith Woods. , CEO of the North Coast, which has 1,100 members. Builders’ Exchange.

“People on the (construction) site will continue to throw hammers,” he said.

Sonoma County’s leisure and hospitality sector – which includes restaurants, bars and accommodation – has been hit hard by the pandemic, shedding nearly 7,000 jobs in the year following December 2019, a decrease of 27%.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to pre-COVID normalcy. It will be a new normal, ”said Joe Bartolomei, co-owner of the upscale 25-room Farmhouse Inn and Michelin-starred restaurant.

“We will pay more attention to hand washing, keeping a kind of distance between us and others,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to kiss.”

Bartolomei currently has 40 employees, half of his pre-pandemic staff, and plans to “run on lean until I know what the future holds,” he said. “We cannot make people work remotely. “

“Hopefully by midsummer we will almost all be out of it,” he said. “I feel like we are going in the right direction.

Wineries aspire to reopen their tasting rooms, which are essential to the industry and “the heart of Sonoma County tourism,” said Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, a business group of more than 250 establishments. wineries.

“Wine is a matter of people, wine is a matter of experience,” he said. Online wine sales have increased during the pandemic, but are “by no means making up” for losses due to the closure of tasting rooms. Outdoor wine tasting has been permitted since July.

Jose C. Birney