When COVID-19 jolted Silicon Valley's famously disruptive work culture in March 2020, the shakeup was swift, dramatic and grossly uneven.
For Palo Alto's tech workers, attorneys and executives, Zoom calls and Slack chats from home quickly became the new norm, even as nurses, cashiers, cooks, delivery workers and other "essential" employees continued to endure the health risks of reporting for duty in the midst of a pandemic.
Two years later, as the pandemic is starting to morph into a more enduring but less lethal endemic phase, these work habits are proving difficult to shake, with recent surveys suggesting that most of the employees who have been able to work from home have little desire to return to the office on a full-time basis.
The staying power of remote work was highlighted in an April 2021 study by Stanford University Professor Nicholas Bloom, Jose Maria Barrero of Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico and Steven J. Davis from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. Their paper, titled "Why Working From Home Will Stick," was based on surveys with 30,000 people over the course of the pandemic. Responses suggested that 20% of employee work days will be done from home post-pandemic, compared to just 5% before the pandemic.
The researchers also found that perceptions about working from home had improved over the course of the pandemic for two-thirds of the survey respondents, while less than 7% reported any deterioration in their working conditions.
The "hybrid" model has become even more accepted by employees and employers alike in the 10 months since that study. A February survey by the WFH Research, a collaboration by Bloom, Barrero and Davis, showed that in January 2021 employers had planned to allow between 1.5 and 1.6 days of remote work per week. That steadily and gradually rose to 2.1 days by the February 2022 survey, the latest available.
Furthermore, 53.7% of the survey's unemployed respondents said they would either prefer jobs with a work-from-home option (37.1%) or would only consider such jobs (16.7%).
In Palo Alto, like elsewhere, tech workers and "professional office" employees are driving the work-from-home trend. The city's main employment hub, Stanford Research Park, employed about 30,000 workers before the pandemic. Last year, the number of employees working at the research park stood at about 3,000, Tiffany Griego, managing director of Stanford Research Park, told this news organization.
To be sure, some companies require an on-site presence. About 15% of the roughly 150 companies at the research park are in the "life sciences" industry, and their engineers, scientists and lab technicians continued to commute to the city over the course of the pandemic.
By contrast, the software companies and cloud-computing, law and consulting firms are still for the most part working remotely and trying to figure out their next steps, Griego said.
Despite these uncertainties, Griego said Stanford is preparing to ramp up its transportation offerings to support those that choose to return. Its SRP GO program, which provides shuttle, carpool services and other multimodal transportation options for research park employees, is set to ramp up as more workers reenter the workplace. Next month, the research park will open a transportation hub to offer all employees a variety of options of getting to and from work as it scales up its SRP GO program.
"We're ready to work with companies to figure out what the hybrid mode will look like," Griego said.
For tech workers in Palo Alto and elsewhere, this will likely mean more flexibility and further inducements to return to the office. A recent New York Times Magazine article cited the 1.7% unemployment rate in the tech industry (compared to 4% in the general economy) and observed that "along with microchips, toilet paper and COVID-19 tests, tech workers will be recalled as one of the great, pressing shortages of this pandemic."
But even tech workers will soon be returning to the office, at least on a part-time basis. Google and Apple, for instance, are preparing to welcome their employees back to the office on April 4 and April 11, respectively. Sundar Pinchai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, and Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, have each indicated that they ultimately want most of their employees to work from the office three days per week, though the Google model will also allow employees to apply for fully remote work, according to a blog post that Pinchai authored last May.
Less high-profile companies are also preparing for a return to the office, though not everyone is mandating it. VMware, the cloud computing company that is the largest employer at Stanford Research Park, has reopened its offices, but its employees can choose whether to work in the office full-time, part-time or fully remotely, the company's Chief Technology Officer Kit Colbert wrote in a March 1 blog post.
In addition to flexibility, some companies are offering new amenities to lure workers to the corporate campus. SAP, an enterprise-software giant with an office at Stanford Research Park, offered a glimpse at what the new workplace will look like last month, when it issued a statement that touted some of the new "must-have" services that offices need to provide. These include things like a "virtual concierge" that allows workers to order food, drinks or anything they want and have them delivered to their office.
"Most buildings have coffee break stations and amenities like that inside," Johnny Clemmons, SAP's global industry director and chief engineer said in the statement. "But there are certain people who just want what they want. Whatever services that an individual might want or need — whether it's personal or business — can be ordered and delivered from an app."
While tech is hardly the only work segment in Silicon Valley, its dominance in the economy has only increased during the pandemic. Last month, the nonprofit Joint Venture Silicon Valley released its annual "Silicon Valley Index," which tracks trends in employment, population and education. According to the report, the share of Silicon Valley workforce in tech jobs gradually grew from 24% in 2009 to 26% in 2019 before rising abruptly to 29% in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of jobs in the "accommodation and food services" industry in the middle of 2021 remained 25% below the mid-2019 levels. Other sectors also saw significant losses from the pre-pandemic era: 16% in nonprofits, 27% in personal services; and 8% in "community infrastructure and services."
Russell Hancock, CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, highlighted the significant inequality in the region's work experiences over the course of the pandemic. Hispanic residents, he noted in his introductory letter, are much more likely to have jobs that cannot be done remotely and may not offer sick leave. Furthermore, job losses fell disproportionately by race and ethnicity, Hancock noted, leaving poverty rates for African Americans at double that of Asian or White residents.
"Is tech a pathway to equity? Certainly not yet," Hancock wrote. "White (non-Hispanic or Latino) workers make up 30% of the total civilian workforce, but in tech they account for 60% of the leadership roles and more than 40% of the technical roles. Hispanic or Latino workers account for 24% of the total workforce, but they represent only 8% of employees at Silicon Valley's 20 largest tech companies."
For many workers in Palo Alto, particularly those in the "essential" categories, the benefits of remote working largely don't exist.
Consider child care. In the early days of the pandemic, executives and board members at nonprofit Palo Alto Community Child Care scrambled to figure out how to safely and effectively provide child care services to the hundreds of families who depend on their services. The nonprofit employs about 100 care providers at 15 sites throughout the city and serves children who range in age from infancy to fifth grade.
"We've had to pivot so many times that it's hard for me to think of what we were before and what we are now," said Melissa Roth, the nonprofit's senior program coordinator.
When schools switched to remote learning, PACCC set up workstations for children and helped them log on to classes and complete their school work, Roth said. When they moved to hybrid, the nonprofit created pods so students could work together, even though that meant that staff could no longer take days off or bring in substitutes (doing so would create an added risk, Roth said).
Though the nonprofit normally operates year-round, its leaders agreed to add some closure periods to give staff a chance to recuperate.
"We adjusted and did specific closures during school time — at Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and during spring break and during the summer, so we can close and staff can have some time to rejuvenate and relax," Roth said in an interview.
Early in the pandemic, the nonprofit grappled with unclear public health guidelines: Even though its employees are "essential workers" they did not fall within the initial directives. The center also faced a shortage of personal protective equipment. After the economic shutdown in March 2020, it took the nonprofit's administrative staff about two months to get a hold of enough supplies and establish clear guidance to allow a safe reopening, Roth said.
Some of the changes in PACCC's operations are set to outlive the pandemic. Even though caretakers work on site, administrative staff can work remotely. The rise of Zoom has also made it easier for child care providers to interact with the parents they serve.
"We actually found that through being able to move to Zoom, we're able to collaborate more with each other," Roth said. "Our parent conferences have had higher participation rates because people have been able to log off from home or work rather than having to come in."
For other Palo Alto employees, conditions have changed but have not necessarily eased. Kathy Stormberg, a nurse in the radiology department at Stanford Hospital and Clinics, said that as the number of COVID-19 cases has declined in recent months, the hospital has seen an increase in patients coming in for procedures that they had deferred over the course of the pandemic.
Stormberg, who serves as vice president of Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement (CRONA), the union representing nurses at Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, said the nurses have "acquired the calluses of experience" over the course of the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, some nurses had to stay in hotels or in RVs out of fear of exposing their families to what was then an unknown disease. Others stripped down immediately when they got home and threw all their clothes in the laundry. The workforce got past those terrifying times and acquired valuable experiences, but many haven't fully recovered.
"You adapt and adjust, but it stays with you," Stormberg said.
CRONA is now in the process of negotiating for a new contract with Stanford (the current agreement expires at the end of this month) and the pandemic experience is shaping the nurses' priorities for the new contract. This includes increasing the ability of nurses to get time off and to get mental health support, she said.
"We heard from so many nurses who said they reached out for mental health support through the employee assistance program and were told it would take weeks if not months to be put in touch with a counselor," Stormberg said.
In many cases, the counselors on the list that the nurses were given never returned calls or informed them that the practice was full and they were not taking any patients, Stormberg said. Given the stress of the job, the union's major theme in negotiations is "making nursing more sustainable."
Their workplace has also changed during the pandemic, though in ways that are markedly different from Google, Apple and SAP. Because of social-distancing rules, break rooms no longer have chairs and people can't congregate or eat lunch together, Stormberg said.
With many people coming back for delayed care, nurses remain extremely busy and, in many cases, stressed out, she said. Last November, the union put out a survey asking its members how likely they are to consider leaving nursing within five years. More than 40% said they would, Stormberg said.
"Mandates may have been lifted for other areas, but they're not lifted for us. When I go to work, it's still a pandemic world," she said. "When I'm off work and go to restaurants and see people with masks off, it feels surreal. It's not my reality."
Palo Alto Online is marking two years of the COVID-19 pandemic this week. If you missed any parts of our series, see the More Stories box, above.