Saturday, February 20, 2021

The impact of the Remote Work switch reaches far beyond the engineers no longer at their desks

Eater San Francisco is running a long article that explores all the enormous shifts and changes that are underway: 10,000 Salesforce Employees Never Have to Buy Lunch Downtown Again.

As the article describes, this isn't just "ping-pong tables and snacks;" it stretches much farther and will re-shape the city and, eventually, the entire Bay Area.

“People would take a little detour after they got off the bus and come and get coffee before they went into their office,” describes Crabbe. “It wasn’t solely Salesforce. There’s a whole economic ecosystem there with all of the companies in that area. There are banks, lawyers, architects, all kinds of people. … And there are people who live down there. The East Cut is a neighborhood. For me, that’s the most heartbreaking thing: We don’t get to see our regulars taking their kids to the rooftop park. We really miss that community. And yes, a lot of it was commuters, but not all of it.”

I haven't been back to the East Cut, where I spent 50 hours a week for 3.5 years, for nearly a year now, and I can only imagine how much it has changed. But people still live there; they can tell us what it's like now:

“It’s completely desolate,” says Keeling. “In the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the park itself, there’s nothing going on. ... It’s going to decimate food retail and other food businesses.” Observing the “gargantuan” tech offices, he fears empty towers and vacant storefronts, juxtaposed with all of the people who need homes in San Francisco. “Looking at all those empty towers, it’s staggering. You have these oversized shafts of glass and steel with no one inside them. It’s eerie.”

And it's not just the East Cut. The entire city will be re-formed, as Eater SF describe in a related article: Off the Grid Is Unlikely to Relaunch Any of Its Food Truck Events in 2021

Apart from its marquee weekend events, the company has focused almost all of its efforts on food truck hubs providing lunch for office workers in San Francisco’s downtown areas — over time, those proved to be much more reliable sources of business for the trucks that participated, Cohen says: “About 75 percent of our public market spaces were serving business lunch needs more so than suburban market needs.”

With office workers continuing to work from home for the foreseeable future, those markets were essentially dead in the water. And because Off the Grid is such a power player within the Bay Area mobile food landscape, its virtual disappearance from the scene has had massive ripple effects for local food trucks and pop-up vendors, many of whom were forced to rebuild their entire business model from scratch in order to survive.

Some of this business will indeed re-form, since people need to eat, after all.

But when people are spread out all over the place, where do the food trucks go to find their audience? Some areas are still being active:

it’s likely that the company will look to launch additional locations in more residential areas once we head into the spring and summer — not “markets,” but “food spots,” like the ones currently running in Alameda, Serramonte, and SFO, that function only as takeout pickup locations for a small number of trucks. One advantage of these more modest locations is that participating trucks only have to pay a flat fee, instead of giving the 10 percent cut of their sales that Off the Grid typically charges on top of the fee.

It isn't just food trucks and Michael Mina restaurants that are affected, of course; these are just some of the core topics that Eater SF pay attention to. But the same sorts of transformations are affected every other part of life in San Francisco, and every other part of life throughout the Bay Area.

At some point, a new normal will emerge. San Francisco will surely remain one of the great tourist destinations of the world, with its year-round climate, its spectacular scenery, and its easy access to the rest of the West Coast.

And I don't believe, in my inner heart, that Remote Work is really viable as a long-term approach. Sure, there have been a few successes, such as GitLab, GitHub, Atlassian, Red Hat, etc.

But software development, in the large, which is what the companies in San Francisco do, whether they be straight-up tech companies like Facebook or Twitter, or financial companies such as Charles Schwab or BlackRock, or even entertainment companies such as Lucasfilms or Pixar, is fundamentally and crucially a social activity, requiring enormous interactivity among its participants.

We may be (slowly) improving at holding 15-person Zoom meetings from our bedrooms, but the productivity levels are far from what you achieve with a handful of engineers, a couple boxes of pizza, and a whiteboard that fills the entire wall.

A colleague of mine said to me the other day: "I feel completely adrift; I don't understand how to be effective. In the office, when I got stuck, I'd just get up, stretch my legs, walk around, and ask people questions. Before long, I figured out what was blocking me, and I was back in gear again. Now, I just stay stuck."

How do you form teams, and launch projects? How do you make new connections in other parts of your company? How do you identify and recruit new employees? How do you run a college intern program? All of these activities have for many decades depended on large groups of talented individuals gathering in shared spaces to collaborate.

Some of this never actually changed during 2020: friends I know who worked at early-stage startups say that these companies mostly continued as they were, with a small unfurnished space in some non-descript office building, a bunch of folding tables and Office Depot chairs, and extension cords littering every inch of the floor. That activity will surely continue, but the vast majority of the people in tech industry don't work in those startups, they work in the mega-corps.

We're all trying to re-learn all the skills that we've developed over years of experience, all the techniques that we acquired at school, but this is slow, slow going (and the schools are all closed, too!)

The world is changing, but it will take us a long time to get back to the level of dynamism and activity that we were at in 2019.

And, for now, the hub of that innovation and creativity sits empty and idle, while people are practicing getting onto their conference calls and declaring that "I'm not a cat".

1 comment:

  1. Not only is working at home bad for business productivity, it's bad for social health as well. People need face-to-face contact!