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.

“Some small users are ready to get out of their homes, and thus (that’s) why (we) are marketing the small offices,” she said.

Seagate Properties, which owns 3.5 million square feet of commercial and multifamily space in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Colorado, has seen similar differences between large and small tenants in plans for reoccupying office buildings.

“For larger tenants, most are not planning full occupancy until July, August, September,” said Dennis Fisco, a principal of the San Rafael-based real estate company, whose North Bay holdings are concentrated in Marin County, with some in Sonoma County. “For smaller tenants, we’re starting to see them come back to the office.”

Currently, only 10% to 15% of Seagate’s office space is in use across its portfolio, but that’s ticked up 1 to 2 percentage points in the past month, Fisco said. That’s based on key-card data and head counts taken by security and property management staff.

A number of the smaller office tenants are rethinking how much space they need, with some asking for the space to be reconfigured to accommodate use by in-office and remote workers on a rotating basis.

The hybrid model was known as “hoteling” in the dot-com era of startups, when headcount grew faster than office space, is coming back into vogue as the hybrid model of space use. But since the pandemic, this model has taken on the new onus for companies that they need to sanitize workstations between users.

Downsizing the corporate footprint

Sonoma Media Investments, owner of the Business Journal, has been having roughly 150 editorial, administrative and sales staff working remotely since March 2020, and the company could start bringing back staff to the downtown Santa Rosa office around the middle of this year, according to The Press Democrat, also published by SMI.

The firm also is planning to reduce its office space use, from 29,000 square feet at 427 Mendocino Ave. currently to less than half that when the lease expires at the end of next year, the paper reported. At that time, less than one-third of the staff would continue working from home, another 30% would work in the office — to be located in a different building — and the remainder would return to working on-site full time.

Bank retail hours resume, but HQ work continues remotely

Bank of Marin has been developing its reopening plan for its offices in seven Bay Area “that will ensure above all things the health and safety of our employees and our customers,” according to Tim Myers, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

That has included monitoring state and county guidance for “essential” businesses such as financial institutions. Bank of Marin’s retail branches have been staffed but working reduced hours, and where possible the institution has had workers working remotely, mainly those based at the Novato corporate office at 504 Redwood Blvd.

All the counties where the bank operates have moved into the orange tier reopening tier in the past month. The top two tiers allow offices to operate indoors with modifications such as social distancing, face covering and sanitation, while office uses in counties in the lowest tiers, purple and red, still only can operate remotely. The only Bay Area county still in the lower two tiers at press time was Solano.

State health officials removed the indoor capacity caps for offices in the orange and yellow tiers when equity-adjusted total vaccinations topped 4 million statewide earlier this month.

Bank of Marin’s reopening plan includes a move back to normal business hours for its branch offices — 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — as of Monday. But the plan for the reopening of the Novato headquarters is still in progress.

“Once we feel we have the necessary guidance, we will finalize our plan for getting our remote work employees back to their offices as appropriate,” Myers wrote.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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