Hybrid work dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?

SF tech workers wrestle over whether to go back to the office

Many San Francisco tech workers have faced a dilemma over the past several months: Whether to crank out work in a tiny and isolated home office, or venture into work not knowing who will be there, or how productive they can be there.

If they stay home, they get more done. But are they missing out on an office culture that is resuming? This is the San Francisco tech industry in the fall of 2021, where the enlightened options of choice and flexibility around where you work are deceptively complicated.

Ashley Waxman spent much of the pandemic in a 700-square-foot Cow Hollow apartment with her husband. “It’s hard to shut off,” she told The Examiner of remote work. “You work in the same space where you eat, where you work out, where you have Zoom happy hours.”

Waxman found she had to mindfully detach from work. “I got a lot more into meditation.”

But Waxman said she appreciates her employer, the San Francisco work-management company Asana, adding structure to hybrid work to synchronize when workers go into work, when they stay home, and — interestingly for a productivity company — when they shut down and don’t work.

“I know it’s OK not to be as productive on some days, because the focus is on in-person collaboration,” said Waxman, Asana’s head of employer brand.

Asana is working with a Stanford University economist who has surveyed 2,500 employees from more than 100 companies monthly throughout the pandemic to give shape to a structured hybrid workplace that could help define the future of work. The goal? The productivity and convenience of remote work coupled with the collaboration and shared culture of in-person work.

That winning combination comes through management providing more structure and strategy about when to come into the office. That means less flexibility, but also less pressure on employees to decide where to work.

And there’s an added bonus: Mandatory no-meeting and no-working days that prevent a “rat race to the bottom.”

For now, a policy of letting employees decide when to come into the office is still the recommendation of the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But there are hidden dangers in leaving where to work entirely up to employees. Nick Bloom, a Stanford economist who has tracked COVID-19 remote work through surveys and interviews with 2,500 U.S. workers, sees unlimited employee choice as leading to serious problems. High among those issues: Inadvertent discrimination.

Working moms prefer at least some remote work, Bloom’s data shows. Career-oriented, single, young men want to be back in the office. Promotions often go to in-person workers, data shows. “This leads to a rat race to the bottom,” Bloom told The Examiner, in which workers vie for “face time” with bosses, regardless of whether it’s productive — which it often isn’t.

“It puts pressure on colleagues, and leads to a kind of prisoner’s dilemma,” Bloom said, referencing the social theory that competitors can sink to self-destructive behavior out of mistrust. “It’s like doping in sport.”

Introverts and disabled workers also prefer remote work. A policy that allows employees to return whenever they want may lead to a company culture dominated by outgoing young men, even if others are doing most of the work from home, Bloom has found.

A flexible work plan based entirely on employee choice also leads to almost all workers staying home on Monday and Friday, and flooding the office on Wednesday, Bloom has found. More than four out of five employees (82%) want to work in the office on Wednesday, Bloom’s monthly survey of 2,500 found. Just over a third (36%) want to work on-site on Friday. As a result, companies need a large office space — especially to accommodate social distancing — that is almost never fully used.

And perhaps most importantly, what Bloom calls “mixed mode” — some workers on-premise, others at home, with no predictability — is inefficient. You never know who will be in-person and who will be remote for meetings or events. Even getting started with important events can be a chore, as in-person workers cause audio feedback on Zoom calls, and remote workers struggle to understand what is happening on-site.

“I’m concerned about full choice,” Bloom said. Instead, he believes a structured approach in which employees are mostly in the office several days a week – Monday, Tuesday and Thursday – and at home Wednesday and Friday brings a cohesiveness and the ability to plan. That works very well because companies get the benefit of collaborative work in the office, the productivity of remote work, and structure that lets employees know what to expect.

And if no one, including bosses, is allowed to come in on certain days, such as Fridays, there’s no peer pressure to show up when others are. “You want a set-up where people don’t feel left behind,” he said.

Bloom said Asana’s approach is giving employees structure and the benefits of both in-person and remote work— and preventing the “rat race to the bottom” of peer pressure to go in, just to be seen.

“We’ve tried to design our return with a lot of intention,” Catherine Avendano, Asana’s head of employee communications and experience told The Examiner. “We started talking about it really early on.”

For now, Asana still makes office attendance voluntary. Avendano said 100-200 employees are in the company’s new Folsom Street headquarters each day, and that is entirely optional at this point. But increasingly synchronizing employee schedules to make the most of both on-premise work and remote work is a priority for the company, which helps organizations manage projects with a collaborative online platform for managing tasks and schedules.

“Some of our people live in small places in San Francisco,” Avendano said. “That can make it hard to be productive at home. At the same time, coming back into the office is a big adjustment. It’s going to be a transition. We want to give people a chance to reacclimate.”

Productivity, hailed as a great — and unexpected — result of remote work, is not a matter of how many emails employees send or meetings they attend, she said. “We want to look at the quality of decision-making. This is about more than how many tasks do we get done.”

Waxman, who has now moved into a larger home, said Asana’s approach is giving her some assurance that she is connected to the company’s mission. That brings peace of mind many remote working situations have lacked.

And wondering from afar what everyone else is doing is put to rest when the company has a mandatory day off, she said. “It makes a huge difference knowing that everyone has a day off at the same time.”


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