How is office life changing in tech? What’s the future of hybrid work? How will tech companies build culture and retain talent in 2022? These are some of the questions we think about every day on the Workplace beat at Protocol. We talk to plenty of experts and executives, but who better to ask than the people on the ground?
Enter our new series, Ask a Tech Worker.
I’ve been going out at lunchtime to chat with tech company employees I run into in San Francisco’s (still fairly empty) Financial District about how work is changing for them. For our first edition, I wanted to learn how commutes have shifted during the pandemic, so I started with a simple question: How’d you get to work today?
As I build out this series, I’d love to hear from you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you have for San Francisco’s tech workers. And if you see me out at lunchtime, don’t be shy.
Remote workers may scoff: “What commute?” But tech employees choosing to head to the office despite the omicron variant of COVID-19 are once again braving shuttles, highways and — yes — public transportation.
In downtown San Francisco, which is better served by public transit than most of the Bay Area — certainly more so than car-centric Silicon Valley — several tech workers told me between mid-December and early January that they’re taking BART trains and Muni buses to get to their semi-open offices. The idea that riding transit could expose them to COVID-19 wasn’t a big concern for these workers.
“Everyone’s pretty much wearing their masks on the BART, so it doesn’t really change my commute too much,” said Sai Muktevi, who joined Salesforce in a support role during the pandemic.
More than one-third of U.S. adults are uncomfortable with the idea of returning to the office, according to a January survey by Morning Consult. But for those who are ready, private tech shuttles have been up and running for months. Facebook (now Meta) started running some of its shuttles in June, when it reopened its offices at half capacity. The shuttles still operate at limited capacity for health reasons, Meta spokesperson Tracy Clayton told Protocol.
Remote work remains common, and public transit seems to be a sticking point for many Bay Area employers. Weekday BART ridership to downtown San Francisco is still at 22% to 26% of pre-pandemic levels, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last month.
“Pretty consistently, about 45% to 50% of people are ‘somewhat concerned’ about COVID safety on transit,” said Gwen Litvak, senior vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council. Since April, the business association has been surveying hundreds of local employers across sectors about whether their employees are taking transit during the pandemic. (Tech companies have only made up 3% to 5% of the survey respondents.)
Tech, of course, is a sector where many workers — including Muktevi — still have the option to work from home full time. Despite this flexibility, Muktevi chooses to make the 49-minute trek from the East Bay suburbs to Salesforce’s San Francisco office about twice a week.
For Muktevi, the office is important for networking as he looks for opportunities to transfer into a different department at Salesforce. The office has a special draw for early-career tech workers eager to set boundaries between work and home or to find mentorship and camaraderie. A big draw of heading to the office is having a critical mass of colleagues at the office, either to collaborate or for an event.
“You make plans to go out on the weekend with your friends, and if a lot of people are going, then you’re going to go out,” Muktevi said Tuesday. “That’s kind of how commuting to work has become.”
Joe Fernandes, a quality program manager at Fitbit, also took BART to work before he moved to San Francisco during the pandemic. Now he walks to the office, where he goes in two or three times a week, he said last month. Still, like many offices, it’s a bit of a ghost town.
“I see a couple people here and there,” Fernandes said. “I think some come in a couple days.”
Rochell Lopez has been taking BART every day and said she’s never had “any issues” taking the train from West Oakland during the pandemic. Lopez comes in by necessity: As an office manager at Flickr, she can’t work from home. When I met her in mid-December, she said she’d been hired to get the office ready to reopen by clearing 18-month-old items out of the kitchen, setting back-to-office safety guidelines, reorganizing the office layout and testing IT and conference room equipment.
Unlike many downtown offices, Flickr has a parking lot, so some employees drive, she said. Others take Caltrain. “This company has always promoted remote work,” Lopez said. Two-thirds of Lopez’s colleagues said in a recent survey that they wanted to come back to the office, she added.
Nick Shiya, a director in WeWork’s real estate group, also said in mid-December that he’d continued taking a 15-minute Muni bus ride to the office three or four days a week.
“I think if you’re comfortable taking public transit, [COVID] doesn’t rise to your level of concern,” Shiya said.