San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
‘Out of sight, out of mind’: Staying home after office reopens carries career risk
As offices slowly reopen in the Bay Area, many workers are not rushing back to their cubicles, opting to continue working remotely now and into the future.
Even with vaccines becoming increasingly available some only plan to go in part time, if at all, having adapted to the commute times multiplied by zero and the other perks of being at home.
The “hybrid” work model covers a variety of arrangements for where employees of a company can work — from people coming in full time and others staying fully at home to people coming in when they want to.
Many companies whose workers were driven to working from home during the shelterinplace orders plan to adopt some form of hybrid work as offices reopen, while
others have made remote working permanent.
But staying home risks some workers and their contributions becoming less visible than that of inperson workers, experts have said. CEOs from companies including Zillow and Gitlab have warned of the potential for the hybrid work situation to create first and secondclass workers in a company, a problem with no quick fix despite plenty of technology at hand.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Mitchell Marks, professor emeritus of leadership at San Francisco State University, who is also an organizational psychologist. “The person who is in the office is more likely to be regarded as someone who is a team player and someone who is committed.”
Being physically present also creates more opportunities for the spontaneous runins that build relationships and create opportunities for advancement, he said, adding that a company’s industry and culture can determine how remote workers are treated.
Not all companies plan to offer total flexibility. Search giant Google has said employees will need permission to work from home for more than 14 days a year starting in the fall. Requiring people to show up inperson could also be used as a disciplinary cudgel or a way to keep an eye on less trusted or productive workers.
A former employee at aerospace defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale said they were forced out of the company after refusing to return to inperson work, despite being able to do their job remotely.
The employee said disagreements with management over job duties and eventually their performance led to their being asked to return to the office, and eventually a disciplinary process that resulted in their leaving the company under duress.
“You show face in the office, you get brownie points, even in the age of the COVID,” said the individual, who signed a confidentiality agreement and was granted anonymity in accordance with The Chronicle’s policy on confidential sources. “If you refuse, they look down on you.” Lockheed spokesman Mark Lewis said, to his knowledge, the company has allowed employees to remain at home if their job duties allowed it and they asked not to come in, or had a medical reason not to. He also pointed to steps the company has taken to protect people working at its facilities during the pandemic.
Companies like San Francisco paypermile car insurance tech company Metromile are planning to let employees return to the office in the coming months, but are being deliberate about letting employees choose their own schedules while focusing on staying connected regardless of location.
Hybrid schedules for the company’s workers will likely see different members of a team cycle in and out of the office at different times. The company doesn’t plan to require anyone to come back, said Chief People Officer Mark Gundacker, and many employees are expected to stay remote with people now scattered across two dozen states.
Gundacker said he wants to leave it up to employees and teams when they choose to come in, if they do at all. He said previous companywide surveys have shown more than half of employees want to stay remote for good.
Regular checkins with managers along with every meeting having a Zoom call built in will be part of making sure that the distributed workforce is connected with people in the office and vice versa, Gundacker said.
Giving employees the option to stay remote is also a way to keep people from jumping to another company that allows more flexibility, particularly for tech workers. A recent anonymous survey, by Blind, of 3,000 professionals, including many at tech companies including Google, Twitter and Apple, found that over a third said they would quit their jobs if work from home ended at their company. It underscores how important the ability to work remotely, at least sometimes, has become for many workers.
For Metromile employees like executive assistant Rira Raisi, previous jobs required going to the office “In order to prove we were working.”
Raisi, who has been making trips to the company’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco to sort mail and prepare for the reopening, said work is now weighted less on where you are than “How willing are you to take on a new task, to take on new projects? How much do you care?”
Another Metromile employee, Ashok Madhavi, works in data engineering. He was hired during the pandemic and has never met his coworkers in person. With a family at home that includes an infant son he does not want to take the risk of commuting into San Francisco on public transit from Newark.
“I don’t fear that if I don’t go to the office people might see me differently,” he said.
Programs like one that randomly pairs employees like Madhavi up for video chat with coworkers have helped foster connections, but it’s still not the same as being there with coworkers, Madhavi said. “You don’t take coffee breaks together, you don’t eat lunch together, you don’t see them every day,” he said
Other companies have been working on ways to recreate some of the social aspects of the office, if not the office itself.
Workvivo emulates an internal social media site for companies, complete with photos, groups, feeds and other aspects designed to make employees feel connected to a company and the people they work with, no matter where they are.
“If you don’t have the emotional connection, then it’s a very transactional thing for me to jump from one organization to the next,” said CEO and cofounder John Goulding.
Around cofounder and CEO Dominik Balogh said his company, a remote team since before the pandemic, has tried to more directly recreate the feel of the office in the hybrid setting with virtual conference rooms or video game rooms where people can drop in to and chat and play. “How do you make sure that people feel not left out, even if they’re remote?” he said.
Still, for some workers like Metromile chief actuary Alice Robinson, “There is no substitute for seeing each other in person.” Robinson said she plans to go in once a week on days when people on her team will be there. “The main reason to go in is to build a connection.”