Some North Bay employers test reopening offices as pandemic numbers ease, while others take cautious route
SVB Financial Group, a 4,400-employee company that owns Silicon Valley Bank, is tentatively looking at reopening its offices worldwide in July. But that’s coming a lot sooner for its Premium Wine Division’s base of operations in downtown Napa.
It’s part of a trial run that started in early April at reopening a few offices to work out the kinks with the detailed state and federal protocols for operating an office safely during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Rob McMillan, division founder and an executive vice president at the San Jose-based financial institution.
Since mid-March 2020, all but four of the roughly 20 Napa-based personnel have been working remotely from their homes scattered across the North Coast. The division’s workforce totals 35, with a contingent based in Oregon to serve vintners and wine grape growers in the Pacific Northwest.
“Everyone in our organization is excited about reopening,” McMillan said as he was traveling from his pandemic home office to an appointment. “Working from home has its upsides, but it has a lot of downsides. Part of work is enjoying your colleagues, getting to know them better. I told people, ‘I got my second shot, and now I’m living dangerously: I want to shake someone's hand and go out to dinner and sit inside.’”
A newly released poll commissioned by the Bay Area Council business group found that just over half (51%) of the respondents considered a return to working in the office as risky, with about 1 in 5 calling it “very unsafe.” The survey reached 1,000 registered voters in the nine-county region in late March and had a margin of error of 3.1%.
Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties had administered at least one dose of the vaccines to half their 16-and-older populations by press time, according to state figures. Solano and Lake counties had reached over 40% of theirs.
Part of Silicon Valley Bank’s eagerness to get the Napa lending office open is the North Coast wine business is rapidly emerging from a year of multiple openings and closings of its tasting rooms to visitors as pandemic restrictions are eased following improvements in case metrics and distribution of the vaccine. McMillan is optimistic that the accelerated reopening of the U.S. and global economies will lead to 12 to 18 months of improving demand for wine.
“There is opportunity to see some growth in the North Coast, but there is still some ways to go,” he said. “We have to hire people. Before COVID, one of the biggest things the industry had to face is to find people work in vineyards and tasting rooms.”
In the past month, all the key North Coast wine-producing counties — Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and most recently Lake — have moved to the orange, second-least-restrictive tier of California’s four-level reopening plan. That tier allows winery tasting rooms to reopen indoors at 25% capacity, improved from the outside-only operations permitted in the lower red and purple tiers.
But back at Silicon Valley Bank’s Napa offices, in what used to be the menswear department of the former McCaulou's department store, the floorplan was configured with sit-stand desks and an open floorplan — without private offices.
“For the first time in my career, in last few years I have not had an office assigned to me,” he said. “When I need an office, we have software program we log into and sign up for an office. That probably will remain in some form or fashion when we resume normal operations.”
That has been the wave of office space planning in recent decades. That may suit the post-COVID-19 workplace well, McMillan said.
In a closely followed move, Salesforce on April 12 announced its plan for a phased return of employees to U.S. offices, starting in May with its new San Francisco tower. While all U.S. workers are allowed to continue working remotely through the end of this year, the goal is for a ramped-up reopening, with some “volunteer vaccinated cohorts” in Bay Area offices.
Other big Bay Area tech employers Facebook, Apple and Google have revealed similarly phased returns to their campuses and offices.
Salesforce also noted that a hybrid remote-and-office work environment, its “success from anywhere” program started in the pandemic, will continue beyond the pandemic, based on its studies from its offices that already have opened around the world.
Smaller tenants return to the office
Indecision among small and large companies about their office usage plans is causing a “large glut” of bigger spaces to become available, according to Cathy D’Angelo Holmes of Coldwell Banker Commercial Brokers of the Valley. But the market for spaces with hundreds or a few thousand square feet is heating up in Napa Valley, particularly for wine-related and law firms.