By Zach Drucker
With vaccination rates steadily climbing and the number of COVID-19 cases trending downward in San Francisco, the City appears primed for the state’s June 15 reopening. This means that companies will have to make decisions—if they haven’t done so already—on what their return to work will look like. To help you navigate where most San Francisco companies stand on their office and reopening plans, sf.citi walks you through the varying return to work policies, as well the key obstacles and considerations influencing this important decision.
THE CURRENT STATE OF SAN FRANCISCO OFFICES
As anyone who has ventured downtown during the pandemic knows, most offices in San Francisco have sat completely dormant for well over a year. Of course, companies deemed essential businesses have been allowed to go back into the office for some time now, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the City’s office workers. That should slowly start to change, however, as San Francisco continues to progress through the COVID-19 tiers.
At the end of March, San Francisco moved into the orange tier, prompting several prominent employers in the City to announce the first phase of their office reopenings. This included two of the City’s largest private employers—Salesforce and Uber. Uber became one of the first San Francisco companies to reopen its office on March 29 at 20 percent capacity. Salesforce, on the other hand, will reopen in mid-May for vaccinated employees at 20 percent capacity. For the moment, employees at Uber and Salesforce are not required to come back to the office—the decision to do so is entirely voluntary. Both companies will ramp up office capacity over the next few months with Uber planning to fully reopen its office by September 13 and Salesforce gradually increasing its office to 75 percent capacity, though the dates for that expansion have not yet been determined and will depend heavily on local COVID-19 case numbers and positivity rates.
Since this announcement, San Francisco entered the yellow tier, the state’s least restrictive COVID-19 tier, on May 4. This means that offices can open at 50 percent capacity but are still required to follow physical distancing protocols and require employees—even those that have been vaccinated—to wear masks inside. It is important to note, however, that vaccinated employees do not count towards the capacity limit.
Many employers will gradually reopen their offices on a voluntary basis like Uber and Salesforce, but what will the office look like after the state’s June 15 reopening?
HOW SAN FRANCISCO EMPLOYERS PLAN TO REOPEN THEIR OFFICES
Thanks to the pandemic, the now ubiquitous work-from-home culture became cemented into many of our lives. This shift upended decades of tradition—for better or worse—that required workers to come into the office. It also debunked myths about productivity outside the workplace. Now as companies are receiving the go-ahead from San Francisco officials to start reopening offices, they must make the critical decision on how or if they plan to reintegrate employees into the workplace.
As it stands, employers have three main back-to-work models to choose from: primarily back in the office, remote-first, and a hybrid model in which workers split their time between home and the office. The specifics of each model will vary from company to company. When deciding which model works best for their company, employers must weigh the cost-benefit analysis of a number of factors, including productivity, company culture, type of work, and talent.
Another key factor employers cannot overlook is how difficult it will be to bring workers back into the office, especially when new scientific evidence suggests COVID-19 may never officially be “over.” Part of the difficulty is the fact that many employees like working remotely. A recent Harvard Business School study—one of many surveys gauging workers’ feelings about remote versus office work—found that 81 percent of respondents prefer either a hybrid or fully remote work model.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the work models below.
Primarily Back in the Office
For some companies, getting everyone back into the office is the ultimate goal. Companies requiring employees to handle sensitive information or participate in hands-on projects will certainly be at the forefront of sending employees back to the office full time.
While these companies are eager to return to the office, it turns out that the back-to-work model may be the most difficult and costly of the three models to implement. In order to safely bring back all employees, employers must outfit the office to meet the City’s health and safety office standards. This entails investing heavily in new technology and amenities, such as updated air filtration systems, smart sensors that can track density and perform contact tracing, and tools to create a contactless environment, to name a few.
Even if employers can fully adapt their offices to handle all of the new demands of the pandemic, most medium to large-sized companies will not immediately go from an empty office to 100 percent capacity. Instead, employers have opted for plans that increase their office capacity over time. This gives both employers and employees more time to prepare to reenter the workplace.
Given the complexities of returning to the office and the widespread appeal of remote work, many companies will pursue a hybrid model. In fact, the hybrid model is likely to be the most popular return-to-work option. While it can be customized to the needs of the company and its employees, a hybrid work model generally allows employees to split the work week between their home and office. The hybrid model acknowledges that workers can be productive outside the office without doing away with the office altogether.
The benefit of hybrid work is that it allows employees to choose the work environment in which they feel the most productive and which is best suited to their lifestyle (reducing long commutes, prioritizing childcare responsibilities, etc.). In our own survey of 80 sf.citi community members, more than half (53 percent) of employer respondents said they will be going back to the office in some version of a hybrid model, which was by far the most popular response.
And yes, like the “primarily back in the office” model, the hybrid model still requires companies to be hyper-focused on hygiene and invest in technologies to create the safest work environment possible—but at a much smaller scale.
For a number of companies, the shift to remote work during the pandemic revealed that the office is not essential for doing business, thereby giving rise to the remote-first model. In this model, it is assumed that employees are primarily working outside of the corporate office and only come into the office when necessary. On the business side, employers will need to retool their communications, processes, culture, and much more to fit a remote setting. It will also require creating an environment that puts everyone on a level playing field. But as the past year has shown, being fully remote can still produce great results.
Perhaps more than other cities, San Francisco, has seen a number of companies announce their intention to be remote first, including Box, Brex, Coinbase, Okta, Pinterest, Twitter, Upwork, and VMware. This marks a monumental shift from 2018 when only 3.6 percent of the U.S. workforce worked from home according to Global Workplace Analytics. Unsurprisingly, 22 percent of employer respondents said that their company plans to adopt a remote-first policy.
Combination of Multiple Models
The last option companies can embrace is some combination of all three work models listed above. Quite a few companies, for example, are offering the option to work permanently remote on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, remote work has become such a hot commodity that some workers are willing to take a pay cut to do so. You can bet that, regardless of what policy they choose, companies will be willing to grant exceptions in order to retain and attract top tech talent.
RETURN TO WORK DELAYS IN SAN FRANCISCO
Despite receiving the City’s green light to reopen offices, few companies have rushed to do so. Some companies, as we mentioned, will slowly ramp up their office capacity while others are planning to wait until the fall or even next year to begin bringing workers back. Still, other employers would rather ensure that they have prepared their office, their employees, and their work systems to succeed in a post-pandemic world before reopening.
In our survey, respondents shared a variety of obstacles and challenges delaying their return to the office. One of the most cited challenges was making sure that building features and office layout meet COVID-19 health and safety standards. We also heard concerns about the limited capacity of public transportation systems, which have cut lines due to the rise of telecommuting and the pandemic-inspired distrust of public spaces. And in an issue affecting parents of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) students, the Board of Education still does not have a plan to send children to school by the fall—and from the reports, it could be a while before they have one. Without a formalized plan on how to bring students back into the classroom, employers will be hard-pressed to ask parents to return to the office while their kids remain at home.
These are only a few of the many issues and details that employers must sift through in order to safely and effectively reopen their offices. Another major roadblock stalling office reopening is divided opinion about vaccinations. Can employers require their employees to be fully vaccinated in order to return to work?
According to federal law, it allows employers to ask employees about their vaccination status or to see proof of vaccination. The federal law, though, is less clear when it comes to a vaccine mandate in this current climate and will be an ongoing discussion amongst federal lawmakers going forward. In the meantime, employers should look for guidance from local officials or…maybe, try taking the “carrot” approach with vaccinations by incentivizing workers with gift cards or paid time off.
WORKERS WILL—EVENTUALLY—COME BACK TO THE OFFICE IN SAN FRANCISCO
Ever since the pandemic forced many workers into a remote setting, it became clear that the office we once knew was unlikely to return to its pre-pandemic dominance. Not only did employers have to adapt the workplace to accommodate new health and safety concerns, but the pandemic gave employees a taste for a more flexible, remote-friendly work style. Now it’s difficult to take that flexibility away. We are suddenly seeing companies reverse long-held beliefs about offices and workplace structures and embrace customizable back-to-work models that best fit their needs—and the new needs of their employees. What’s undeniable is that companies have had to adapt and post-pandemic offices will look very different. The real question is whether cities like San Francisco can adapt to our new reality as well.