Work-from-home is becoming permanent for many San Diegans. Is everyone on board?


After roughly 100 days camped out at dining room tables or propped up on pillows while Zooming from their beds, many white-collar workers across San Diego are slowly coming to a realization: working from home might actually be permanent.

Some think it’s because a post-pandemic world will never exist, and workers must be protected from health threats. Others say it’s more to do with business accounting, as saving money on rent is wise for any company in a shaky economy.

Either way, many businesses in San Diego are in the midst of difficult conversations about how and when they will return to the office — or whether they’ll permanently say goodbye to their office-centric lifestyle.

Some are already downsizing their square footage, while others have negotiated their way out of leases entirely.

“My clients that are small-to-medium-sized businesses, especially the tech companies, are continuing to work remotely,” said David Marino, a principal at the Hughes Marino commercial real estate brokerage firm. “And a good amount of clients with leases expiring this summer or fall are choosing to forgo office space altogether. They’re not coming back.”

For San Diego tech company Wildfire Systems, the financial benefit of abandoning their office space was too great to ignore. Before the pandemic struck, the startup was working out of an office in University Town Center. But in March, executives dropped the lease.

“We don’t have rent anymore and office incidental expenses went to zero,” said James Revell, vice president and co-founder of Wildfire.

Is permanent work-from-home a good thing for workers?

Lucas Fernandez, left, and his wife, Deicy, work from home while watching their children, Lucas Jr., 2, and Vienna, 7, at their La Mesa apartment.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Although working from home has long been celebrated as the ultimate employee perk, the news of a closing office space may not be welcome to all workers. In fact, it may not even be welcome to most. In a recent survey of over 800 employees, about 48 percent said they’d want to continue working from home in a post-pandemic world, according to Chicago-based consultancy The Grossman Group. That leaves a full half of remaining employees who haven’t bought into the work-from-home lifestyle.

A smaller survey conducted by the Union-Tribune through Twitter had similar results. Of 180 respondents, 55 percent said they’d love to keep working from home while 45 percent said they’d miss the office.

“Everyone’s home situation is different,” said Ryan Kuder, who’s currently working from home as head of startup group Techstars Anywhere. Kuder and his colleagues normally share a physical office space in Carlsbad. “Working from home might make things better or it might make things worse. Families who live in small homes or apartments don’t have the luxury of space. Not everyone has a quiet place they can go and be productive.”

Kuder, who has three children at home, said he’s mixed on his own opinion of work-from-home life. He likes spending more time with his kids, eating healthier food at home, and exercising whenever its most convenient. But, with his youngest in kindergarten, it can be tough to focus strictly on work.

“Being able to manage all those things together is hard,” he said. “It’s nice to have someplace to go to relieve yourself from all that.”

Not all workers share that opinion, however. Lucas Fernandez, a young venture associate at Simplexity Venture Studio Fund, said working at home with his 7-year-old and 2-year-old can be tough, but he far prefers it to working in an office. He and his wife, Deicy, now work out of a small La Mesa apartment living room.

Fernandez’s company, however, is providing him a mix of options. Simplexity is asking workers to come into the office twice a week, which allows Fernandez some time away from the home. Fernandez said he’d prefer to be strictly a remote worker at this point, because that would allow him to move his family to a more affordable real estate market.

Although Marino, the commercial real estate broker, has a stake in offices staying populated, he characterized the dilemma nicely.

“There is no single truth out there,” Marino said. “Some people are working just fine. Others are miserable.”

There’s more at stake than quiet space

In a photo from 2019, Flock Freight employees work out of their Solana Beach office.

In a photo from 2019, Flock Freight employees work out of their Solana Beach office.

(Courtesy of Flock Freight)

Jeff Lerner, the vice president of marketing for a fast-growing tech company called Flock Freight, said working from home is, operationally, perfectly fine. As a tech startup, Flock Freight experienced no logistical pain shifting to an all-remote work structure. He’s comfortable, he has the tools he needs, and the company’s productivity has actually been fantastic the past few months. The company’s software makes freight shipping more productive, and its product is suddenly highly meaningful while supply chains remain disrupted.

But Flock Freight has no intention of keeping its team fully remote.

“Plenty of people might be fine staying at home forever, but the vast majority of us want the interpersonal energy of being in the office together,” Lerner said. “We thrive off a high energy workplace where we have music playing, people on the phones, impromptu meetings and daily walks around Solana Beach. We miss that. It’s part of our culture. We’ve been extremely successful during work-from-home, but once the quarantine lifts we’ll be working in the office. It’s what suits us best.”

Miguel Koropecky, a senior product manager at tech giant Mitchell International, said he’s looking forward to the day when he might be able to return to the office at least a couple of days a week.

“We’re social animals at the end of the day, and being around people is nice,” Koropecky said. “Me and my dog got close over these past few months, but I miss my coworkers. Part of the satisfaction of work is being around the people you’re working with. Now, you only interact with people transactionally. Before it was a social experience. Now it’s all about the agenda.”

What’s a company to do?

Marketing consultant Marisa Cali sits at her socially-distanced desk at coworking space Downtown Works on May 19, 2020.

Marketing consultant Marisa Cali sits at her socially-distanced desk at coworking space Downtown Works on May 19, 2020.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When employees have vastly different opinions on returning to the office, what’s a company to do? Not providing office space for those who feel they need it is a human resources concern. Some employees feel they’re not being fairly compensated for having to provide their own office space and worry that they’ll increase their rent significantly to gain access to more space.

So far, the consensus among managers is to consider a hybrid work-from-home model in which some workers can use the office space, if they so choose, and others can continue working from home. This allows the company to reduce its square-footage of office space (if they can get out of their lease or sublease part of their space).

That’s the plan of many larger companies, including big tech giants like Facebook and Twitter. Here in San Diego, Mitchell International is also considering a hybrid model, but whether they’ll reduce square-footage is unknown, Koropecky said.

Of course, considering the economic climate, finances may be the deciding factor for most businesses on whether or not they’ll abandon office space altogether. Companies like Flock Freight, which is partially backed by Google (and just raised $50 million in February), are well-capitalized and can afford to think about culture and employee satisfaction.

Smaller or less financially stable companies might come up with different, more affordable solutions. Wildfire, for example, got rid of its office space, but still considered the workplace preferences of its employees.

“For those who didn’t have space to work from home, or didn’t want to, we’d consider paying for a hotdesk situation at a coworking space,” said Revell, the company’s co-founder. “We’re not spending any money on office space or travel, so a few hundred dollars a month to cover that isn’t a concern.”

Bonnie Shaw, who is president of a small communications company called Clearpoint Agency, said she has one employee who’s not happy working from home.

“She’s young and single, and she doesn’t have family at home,” Shaw said. “We told her if she doesn’t like working from home indefinitely, we can look into getting her a coworking space. She feels like she needs more of that.”

Addressing social loss is important for retention

San Diego tech startup Trust & Will works remotely on a Zoom call.

San Diego tech startup Trust & Will works remotely on a Zoom call.

(Courtesy of Trust & Will)

Even if companies eliminating office space offer their workers a desk at a coworking facility, it doesn’t necessarily solve Koropecky’s issue: the loss of interpersonal relationships at work.

Kuder said it’s a problem that will face many managers and one that he’s given a lot of thought due to his work leading “virtual” startup programs.

“When people come into the office every day, they bump into each other at the coffee pot,” he said. “They have little conversations about their kids, their weekends. Managers need to be intentional about creating those opportunities online. Reserve 10 minutes of a Zoom meeting to catch up on casual stuff.”

Kuder goes a bit further than that with Techstars Anywhere. The company does “virtual coffee” dates, where they match people up for one-on-one Zoom calls over coffee. They also plan non-work-related presentations, like a recent Zoom workshop where a Techstars participant taught her colleagues how to cook an Indian dish.

Flock Freight does “virtual happy hours” during which they’re not allowed to talk about business, and created a Slack channel called “Office Life,” in which co-workers post pictures of their pets, their kids, or sometimes humorous work-from-home setups.

Lerner said it’s important to him to help maintain the social threads of Flock Freight, because it’s a big factor in employee retention and commitment.

“If you’re not having fun, getting along with your coworkers and going to occasional lunch or happy hour, it’s a lot harder to be ‘all in’ on a job,” Lerner said.

Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher at McGill University, told the Union-Tribune last year that social connections at work are tied closely to retention in academic literature.

“When people feel socially connected at work, it has a large impact on our mood, our well-being, and our ability to cope with stress and burnout,” Kirmayer said. “When people are happier at work and more satisfied, it translates to better retention and fewer sick days.”

Managing burnout through PTO and services

Lucas Fernandez, left, and his wife, Deicy, work from home while watching their children, Lucas Jr., 2, and Vienna, 7.

Lucas Fernandez, left, and his wife, Deicy, work from home while watching their children, Lucas Jr., 2, and Vienna, 7, at their La Mesa apartment.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Even if a company does all of the above to boost social connections, burnout might still happen.

“The inability to extract work life from home life is challenging,” said Kuder. That’s perpetuated, he said, by the COVID-19 shutdown and resulting isolation.

Koropecky, who’s still working on a laptop from his dining room table, said there are times he doesn’t even know it’s time for dinner until his work things are being cleared from the table.

“You’re always connected,” Koropecky said. “Before, I wouldn’t typically respond to a message until I got into the office. Now, if someone reaches out to me at 7:30 in the morning, I’m like, ‘I guess my day is starting now.’”

Revell said the issue has already risen at Wildfire Systems, where the company has instituted a flexible paid time off policy.

“We pretty much said, ‘Take it whenever you need it,’” Revell said.

Some employees might need more than time off. Fernandez said he’d like to see more companies offering coverage for mental health services for staffers, or paying for access to online therapists or meditation through apps like Headspace and Calm.

After all, there’s a lot more going on in the world than a loss of comfortable desk space.

“We all need to understand the dynamic and be empathetic to our colleagues,” Kuder said. “That’s my takeaway.”

Hughes Marino has represented the Union-Tribune as a commercial broker.





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