Pandemic keeps disrupting Sonoma County employers’ on-site work plans

Mark Quattrocchi, founder and principal of Quattrocchi Kwok Architects in Santa Rosa, had the September return-to-office plan ready after input from employees.

That was the direction the company was headed, until the powerful delta variant of the coronavirus got in the way and presented a health risk too great for him, his partners and colleagues.

On Aug. 6, Quattrocchi announced to his team the menacing viral strain would spoil the company’s planned full reopening — and its 35th anniversary. Now, managers would continue allowing the 68 employees, 55 in Santa Rosa and the rest in Oakland, to work from home indefinitely.

At the virtual staff meeting, the company’s leader noted unceremoniously the architectural services firm started 35 years ago in August 1986.

“It was quite an anticlimactic way to celebrate such a milestone,” Quattrocchi told me.

And so goes the erratic business world as the global pandemic rolls on.

For anyone who thought during the May lull or in mid-June when California removed remaining public health restrictions on business and public life that this dreadful odyssey was over, think again.

Despite 71% of Sonoma County residents age 12 and older getting vaccination jabs for protection so far, the delta variant leads the way as COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths climb in a summer resurgence.

It has thrown a big monkey wrench into local companies’ workplace arrangements. Early September was when HR directors here and around the state had marked on their calendars to finally start summoning white-collar employees to the office. Now, those carefully crafted strategies, revised from previous summer reopening plans, are scrambled.

Like Quattrocchi Kwok, many companies are done for the moment trying to bet on when the pandemic that began in March 2020 will permit a safe return to the office for those who desire, or are required, to report to work in person.

Architect Quattrocchi told me he’s not sure if he’ll want the company to make another reopening attempt before 2022.

Medtronic, the global maker of medical devices like implantable heart stents and one of the largest employers in Sonoma County with just under 1,000 employees at two Santa Rosa sites, is marooned in the same boat.

“It depends on the delta variant,” company spokeswoman Wendy Dougherty said, in reply to when its area offices will welcome workers. “We were moving along (with planning for a return) then delta caused us to pause and rethink things.

“We want people to be able to return to the workplace safely. … It’s just not clear when that will be, given the delta variant.”

Based on my informal survey of the largest county employers, a few smaller ones and the leader of a big area business membership group, some combination of remote and office work appears to be the preferred option for white-collar employees — for who knows how long.

Leading the way with “hybrid” work schedules is Sonoma County, the area’s largest employer. Nearly 4,500 county workers returned to offices, for part of the week, in mid-June when California revived itself after more than a yearlong dormancy.

Matt Brown, a county spokesman, said he’s not aware of any talk of returning to a fully remote working environment.

Keysight Technologies, among the county’s biggest employers with 1,530 people, operates with half of them working off-site.

The electronics test equipment and software maker has not set a date for the entire staff to resume work on the Santa Rosa campus, but it is monitoring the “COVID-19 situation,” said Hamish Gray, senior vice president.

Same goes for Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa, a top-10 U.S. wine producer led by its flagship brand Kendall-Jackson. Half of the 1,150-member team in Sonoma County — winemakers and vineyard, cellar and tasting room workers, among others — is present on-site, while the other half remains at home on the job.

Galen McCorkle, a company spokeswoman, also said a full return date is “TBD at this point” contingent on the lingering coronavirus.

Exchange Bank, the Santa Rosa-based regional banking company, remains in a hybrid, flexible mode, too, with its county workforce of nearly 400.

Branch employees who interact directly with customers never stopped working in the pandemic. There are those who have returned to the office on a rotating basis, while others continue working from home.

At the bulk of local small businesses employing 20 or fewer workers, a major cog of the county’s labor market, employees are back in offices or at worksites — save for those exceptions who have requested accommodations for things like child care, said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.

Among the chamber’s 660 business members, the industries relying most heavily on remote work are those providing professional services, such as accounting, law and architectural firms.

Pisenti & Brinker, an accounting firm with Santa Rosa and Petaluma offices, is one of them.

James Perez, the managing partner, told me the 100 employees across both offices were asked to gradually start shifting from remote work to a return to the workplace by the end of August. Certain workers were granted permission to work at home for another month or two because of obligations with their children.

Most of those working in Santa Rosa have gone back to the office, but less than half of the Petaluma team has returned.

Noting the volatile pandemic circumstances, Perez said if the coronavirus continues surging in the community, the firm “might back off” its goal of returning the large majority of employees to the office this month.

Another Petaluma small business backtracked, after switching in June from a full remote work environment to a flex agreement among employees to come into the office two days a week.

Due to a vaccinated employee’s exposure to the coronavirus and the county’s increasing level of transmission of the highly contagious disease, the company recently told all employees remote work is again the sole option.

UC Berkeley business professor Homa Bahrami was not surprised companies in Sonoma County are delaying office returns or rolling back to predominantly remote work.

She noted bellwether technology companies like Amazon, Google and Apple have delayed office returns until 2022.

For companies and their workplace planning, the pandemic has caused a “one step forward, two steps back” approach, said Bahrami, faculty director of the Haas business school’s Center for Executive Education at UC Berkeley and a distinguished teaching fellow in the business school.

Eventually, she thinks businesses that are “digital natives,” such as LinkedIn, likely will opt for some kind of permanent remote work policy.

Indeed, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky posted Aug. 4 on the social media platform that those among the company’s 16,000 workers who want to permanently work remotely can do that.

The biggest factor she expects to lead to an eventual workplace return will be “cultural dilution” that has occurred in companies during the pandemic.

Although employees have proven themselves productive working remotely for over a year, Bahrami, an expert in organizational flexibility and leadership development, said business leaders eventually will face a tough challenge: Workers no longer have emotional connections to employers and their colleagues, and should we therefore demand a return to the office to remedy that?

“How important is that cultural glue to the success of the business,” she said, managers must reconcile.

Companies shouldn’t overly worry about workers’ viewpoints of the office because many view work as a “social center” and ultimately will opt to return when it’s safe, she said.

On the other hand, Bahrami said the “bond between employee and employer has shifted forever, I think.” In the post-pandemic business world, she said, many people are going to consider their relationships with employers “more transactional” than anything else.

For now, the pandemic still doesn’t adhere to business planning. Veteran architect Quattrocchi received a stark reminder of that as the latest nationally known variant scotched his company’s carefully drafted blueprint for going back to its offices.

“The delta variant definitely has thrown us a curveball,” he told me. “It’s like everything else with COVID, so why not.”

Send your tips and ideas as this column chronicles the local economic post-pandemic recovery to Call or text 215-237-4448. Or you can message @BiznewsPaulB on Twitter.

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