How SF tech giants are navigating a successful return to the office

‘Nostalgia for 2019 is misplaced’

By Jeff Elder

Examiner Staff Writer

The dazzling urban campuses that made San Francisco’s SoMa and Financial District neighborhoods the epicenter of technology remain nearly vacant as summer comes to a close, with the heralded “hybrid work” plans to re-open delayed by the delta variant of COVID-19. Around the empty office buildings, cafes and bars are shuttered, and serious economic impact continues.

Will the area ever return to its pre-pandemic density? Not likely, experts say. And that may be a good thing. Some companies are finding emerging solutions centered on flexible scheduling and staggered returns, boosting morale while maintaining safety as the pandemic drags on. A path forward is coming into focus.

In the meantime, downtown’s office buildings reveal an industry in transition.

Just 100 Salesforce employees are working in the company’s 61-story tower, San Francisco’s tallest building, three months after the company enthusiastically announced its re-opening. That’s down from several thousand before COVID-19.

The lobby of LinkedIn’s headquarters at 222 Second Street – also a beehive of activity pre-COVID – is often empty despite fliers on the windows proclaiming “SF is OPEN.” The company has pushed back some of its previously announced September re-opening dates. Twitter has closed its Market Street offices again after a brief, two-week return in July.

A message about working safely and comfortably on a TV at cybersecurity firm Okta’s San Francisco offices. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A message about working safely and comfortably on a TV at cybersecurity firm Okta’s San Francisco offices. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

While a grand re-opening of San Francisco’s urban tech campuses hasn’t happened, in part due to the delta surge, it was naive to think any kind of return to normal could happen at those offices, experts say. Instead, a new kind of tech center is slowly evolving – and it brings some surprising benefits to tech workers and other San Franciscans.

“Nostalgia for 2019 is misplaced,” Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist who has extensively researched the remote work shift during COVID, told The Examiner. “People are forgetting how expensive and crowded San Francisco was getting, how many people were being priced out.”

In a historically rare reversal, rents and density have dipped in The City. During COVID, the core of San Francisco’s downtown lost about 15% of businesses and a similar number of people to other cities and regions, Bloom and other researchers found in recent research based on change-of-address data.

And while the tech companies that remain may look shut down, inside them a new kind of tech workplace is being built that may be, in some ways, better than it was before.

Srikanth Seshadri works in an enclosed workspace on a mostly empty floor at cybersecurity company Okta’s San Francisco offices on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Srikanth Seshadri works in an enclosed workspace on a mostly empty floor at cybersecurity company Okta’s San Francisco offices on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

It’s easy to miss the evolution. On weekday mornings when Salesforce’s gleaming lobby once churned with employees, the security guards in the street-level ground floor now often outnumber the tech workers coming into work. Yet quiet, gradual progress is being made toward a return to public life in the tech center.

At the base of the Salesforce Tower, a gondola taking pedestrians from Mission Street to the leafy elevated landscaping of Salesforce Park was quietly switched back on a month ago after a year of inactivity. The boxy, glass-walled tram once again gives riders the slow-speed thrill of a 47-second ride up to the park. Get comfortable, the gondola’s journey and the return to The City’s tech campuses are both going to take a while. But they are both getting there, and the destination may be a pleasant surprise.

The Salesforce Tower gondola moves back down to street level from Salesforce Park on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The Salesforce Tower gondola moves back down to street level from Salesforce Park on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The question that faces tech companies now is this: How can they rebuild their on-premise workforce in a way that is safe, productive, and fulfilling to employees’ needs?

At Salesforce Tower, for instance, the bottlenecks caused by the wait for elevators to traverse its 61 floors must be addressed, Bloom says. The company has provided 100 employees who asked to return to the tower with an app to schedule when they are coming into the office, and the company has mapped out a strategy of how to return to all its worksites. A Salesforce Tower employee who asked not to be identified praised the company’s conscientious approach to bringing employees back to the office, including the cap on 100 employees.

Right across First Street from Salesforce Tower, the cybersecurity company Okta redesigned the 24th floor of its headquarters during COVID-19 to better serve hybrid work with an experiential approach borrowed from Apple Stores. The floor has fewer closed meeting rooms and permanent work stations, and more airy public meeting spaces. Employees coming in for a day now and then can store their gear in lockers, and drop into couches and chairs with built-in desks for face-to-face conversations.

Okta employees Sarah Shaheen and Srikanth Seshadri worked have many hours together on Zoom, but met in person for the first time Thursday on Okta’s open floor. “We said, ‘Hey, we should meet up. It’s been more than a year,’” said Seshadri.

Okta is factoring in employees’ schedules and needs for in-person work to build similar spaces at other locations. “A lot of things are in play during a return from remote work,” Okta’s head of dynamic work, Sam Fisher, told The Examiner. “It’s not just a matter of protecting health and safety, although that is obviously the main concern. But what does it mean for employees’ lives, and the community around the office?”

Employees Yoav Shilon, left, and Gabriel Rebane chat in a mostly empty section of workstations at cybersecurity firm Okta’s offices in San Francisco on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Employees Yoav Shilon, left, and Gabriel Rebane chat in a mostly empty section of workstations at cybersecurity firm Okta’s offices in San Francisco on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Some employees miss in-person work, she says, and some parents need to work in a professional atmosphere again. Some younger workers joined urban tech campuses to be part of a thriving community. Others want to work from home most of the time, but not to miss out on key events.

Okta, which has around 3,700 employees worldwide, is now back to about a quarter of its previous occupancy at its headquarters. Employees reserve a space at the office in advance online, and managers work to bring together the right employees in-person while avoiding overcrowding.

Fisher would like to see a 40% occupancy on a daily basis, based on employee comfort-level, and an emphasis on team-building, projects and events, she said. That doesn’t mean just letting people come back in or stay home whenever they want, but understanding when they want to, and why. “We need to understand what the office is to our people,” Fisher says. The process hasn’t been without setbacks. The delta variant meant returning to wearing masks and social distancing inside the office, making a return less inviting for some employees. But Okta’s data-gathering and careful planning in stages may be more realistic than hopes for a grand re-opening, experts say.

Dylan Sun works in an otherwise empty section at Okta on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Dylan Sun works in an otherwise empty section at Okta on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

That kind of patient rebuilding of the on-premise workforce may result in a better tech center in The City, Bloom, the Stanford economist, believes. People who like to work from home will still be able to do so, productivity is up, and even the departure of some workers and businesses from The City’s downtown has benefits.

“San Francisco is now less expensive and less crowded, and its tech workers are more productive. Those are good things,” Bloom says.

Examiner Staff Writer Jeff Elder worked for Salesforce from 2018-2019. He holds no stock and has no continuing affiliation with the company.

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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