Bay Area employers are carefully making back-to-office plans: study

If you’re wondering what plans or concerns Bay Area employers have about bringing staff back to the office, you’re not alone.

In fact, one area business group is in the midst of a six-month-long study to gauge the pace employers are bringing workers back into the office now that the pandemic is fading, and how public transit may influence that decision.

“We are working with employers from all nine counties in the Bay Area, in all industries and of all sizes,” said Kelly Obranowicz, policy and regulatory counsel for the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business advocacy group. The survey, which began in April and will conclude in September, applies to employers whose office workers were deemed nonessential while pandemic restrictions were in place. The monthly results also help inform the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and its regional transit agencies about when demand for public transportation may return, and the factors involved in the timing.

The most recent survey results, from June, found that 58% of 226 responding employers said their employees are still working remotely 100% of the time, Obranowicz noted. And 90% of the respondents targeted October as when they plan to have at least some employees return to the office. The longest timeframe for that transition stretched out to another year, according to the June findings.

In the North Bay, however, a number of businesses aren’t waiting any longer.

The Santa Rosa Metro Chamber on July 15 brought its workers back to the office, according to Peter Rumble, CEO and president.

“I know that a number of employers over the last several weeks have begun to phase their employees in,” Rumble said. “I think it’s a fairly gradual thing.”

Rumble said he’s not aware of transportation issues factoring into Sonoma County employers’ return-to-work decisions, but said the Bay Area Council’s efforts also are important from an economic development perspective. He called the organization’s work “tremendous and useful.”

To that end, another aspect of the council’s study concerns how Bay Area employers’ return-to-work plans may be impacted by ongoing health concerns, according to Obranowicz.

“We have seen improvement, definitely in the question where we asked specifically, ‘Are you concerned about COVID safety on transit?’” Obranowicz said. “When we first started administering the survey in early April, we had 30% of employers who were ‘very concerned’ about COVID safety on transit.”

In this most recent survey, the number of respondents stating they’re ‘very concerned,’ dropped to 15%, she noted.

“That being said, unfortunately, in June still 43% of employers were ‘somewhat concerned,’” Obranowicz said. “So we're not to the point yet where employers don't think it's an issue.”

There has been progress though in luring people back to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or the SMART train, according to a June 23 article in The Press Democrat. SMART has been dropping fare prices as it has expanded service, according to the reporting, and recently offered free fares to celebrate its fourth anniversary of operations. The efforts have paid off, as the rail service on that June day transported 931 passengers, its highest level of ridership since the pandemic began, agency spokesperson Matt Stevens told the outlet.

And there’s another layer on the transportation front that could potentially raise some flags down the road.

The Bay Area Council’s Economic Institute last month released a report showing Bay Bridge traffic has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, according to toll tag data, said Greer Cowan, research analyst.

“What is surprising and potentially concerning is that traffic has returned while a large swathe of the San Francisco workforce is still working remotely, particularly those that work in offices,” Cowan said. “As offices continue to open and companies implement hybrid work structures, it will be interesting to watch commuters’ choices between driving and public transit.”

San Rafael-based BioMarin Pharmaceutical, which develops and commercializes therapies for rare genetic diseases, has been able to offer some employees flexible schedules, according to Debra Charlesworth, vice president of corporate communications at the biotechnology company.

“While our business model requires a level of on-site operations and collaboration to be successful, we are also providing many of our employees with flexibility in where, when and how they work,” Charlesworth said. “This flexibility will also help to alleviate traffic congestion and other challenges that impact the ongoing progress and vitality of the Bay Area.”

How often employers may eventually expect their employees to travel to the office in what the Bay Area Council calls “the next normal,” is another piece of the puzzle the organization is trying to understand, Obranowicz said.

“That’s where we're seeing some interesting shifts” from the five days per week norm pre-pandemic, Obranowicz said. “We’re really looking at more of a three-day average now with how employers are responding to this.”

But Rumble proposes an alternative solution for Bay Area employers who remain hesitant for workers to make the trek back to the office.

“Understanding the traffic flow, or the commute flow, is an opportunity to potentially attract employers to Sonoma County,” Rumble said, “who may find that they're better served, or are providing a better environment, for their employees by locating an office closer to where they live.”

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