Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
We traditionally tend to think of working from home as a perk. You can do your laundry while you work. You can stay in pajamas and control your own thermostat. You can take the dog for a walk. But after being abruptly forced to work from home full time this year, a lot of people have discovered they don’t like it nearly as much as they thought they would.
Of course, working from home in the midst of a highly stressful global crisis is different from doing it in normal times—especially if you add in the stress of child care. But a surprising number of people have told me they’re shocked by how eager they are to return to their offices once it’s safe to do so.
One of the biggest themes I’ve heard is that people simply miss their co-workers, and they miss the ease of collaborating in person. This person’s feelings are typical:
I don’t miss going to the office everyday but do miss being there sometimes. There is more energy when collaborating with colleagues—do you know how difficult it is to white board on video?! I also miss the side chats, walking to get a coffee and so forth. We’re going to return just two days a week when appropriate to do so and I think that’s the right amount.
It’s even harder for people who didn’t get a chance to get to know their colleagues before the shutdown happened:
I switched jobs (same employer, different team, different area of practice) 3 months into working from home and the transition has not been the easiest. While I knew most people on my team socially already and everyone is available by IM (and phone if necessary), I wish I were able to just pop into someone’s office for a question. Simple requests to my assistant seem like such a hassle or burden because they come off as demanding over email, no matter how much I try to soften the language. I find myself having to be really careful with my messages because some of my coworkers don’t know me and my sense of humor that well. The team meetings, which I find usually fun, are such a drag because there’s no energy. I don’t miss my commute at all but seeing humans once or twice a week (and being able to buy lunch!) would be fantastic.
Others miss the structure that working from the office provided:
I didn’t think I would miss the office because I’m an introvert … until I was a few months deep into full-time WFH. I almost need the external accountability of going into the office. Otherwise I tend to procrastinate and lose focus, and as a result I’ve really seen my work quality dip and my stress level go up as the months have gone on. I recently got the opportunity to come back into the office on a part-time basis and I feel so much more productive and happy.
In some cases, the issues are more logistical, especially now that work-from-home arrangements have become more long term: a private area to work, a decent desk chair, adequate space for files. Not every living space is as easy to work in as offices are:
Working from home was great when it was an occasional convenience. It was just OK through most of the pandemic so far, while I was still thinking of it as temporary and looking forward to a return to “normalcy.” Now that it’s officially “permanent,” however, it blows. My house is pretty small and I’m not thrilled about having to permanently dedicate so much space to a full office setup. (I’ve been working on a laptop and external monitor, but my “full” setup is two monitors, a printer, office supplies, binders, etc.)
Even people who prefer working from home have found that it can be harder to fully separate work from the rest of their life when it’s all physically in one place:
I’m one who hated working from home until I was forced to, and now I love it. I’m lobbying my manager to let me stay this way full-time. However, one thing I dislike is that I am working a lot more. Before, I had a really excellent boundary between home and work. When I walked in my door, my brain switched to “home” mode.
Now I never get to fully do that switch. It’s just so easy to pop into my laptop and get a little more done, and then a little more, etc. My husband isn’t thrilled and neither am I, to be honest. And my boss must have subconsciously noted it because she used to be good about not bugging me after hours, but now she has no problem hitting me up at 6 p.m. because she knows I will be there. I know that’s on me for not enforcing boundaries, but who wants to say no to the boss during a pandemic? I don’t want to be the non–team player when the next round of layoffs happens.
Another person captured it well when they said, “It doesn’t feel so much like we’re ‘working at home’ right now but instead we’re ‘living at work.’ ”
And of course, one of the biggest impediments for people working from home right now—the impact of which has been enormous—is needing to simultaneously care for kids who are stuck there too:
It was great when I was working from home and my kids were in day care/camp. Now I have a kindergartner and a second grader who are 100% online and it’s no fun. For anyone involved. They don’t understand “important” and will pester me while on the phone. Meltdowns, loud noises, all normal kid stuff but it makes it really hard for me to work. I’m tech support and tutor, while managing a small remote team and responding to clients. I’m working odd hours to catch up, taking calls and meetings through Teams on my phone. I’m frustrated and short with my kids. I feel like I don’t get a break. I’m “on” from the moment the kids wake up until they go to bed, then I have to play catch up.
Basically, it feels like I’m failing everyone. I’m dropping balls at work and I’m not the patient, helpful mom I want to be. When all this is over, I will need a serious vacation to decompress.
For all these reasons, many people are really missing the office right now, but it would be an enormous mistake for employers to simply haul everyone back in full time whenever it’s safe.
That’s because I’m hearing from a roughly equal number of people who don’t miss the office at all and have seen their productivity and focus go up since they’ve been at home. This person speaks for a lot of others:
I very much missed it for the first three months, but at this point—I hope to never have to go back, at least for five days a week. The time I save on a commute, wasted time chatting just to chat, and sitting around waiting is just not worth it. Being able to work flexible hours (12 hour days when it’s super busy and a calmer day the next) is a huge benefit. Also being able to make lunch, spend time with the dog, it’s just a better quality of life and it works.
Smart employers will need to balance the needs of both those employees who have been more productive and satisfied at home and those who are miserable there. In many ways, this has been a massive, albeit imperfect, experiment in how well large-scale working from home can work, and whom it works for and whom it doesn’t for. This is all important data for companies to consider as they decide what their workplace looks like, and where it’s located, in the future.
One interesting option I’ve heard people hope for when it’s safe to return is a hybrid model: a few days a week in the office and a few days a week at home. They want the benefits of working from home—no commute, an easier time focusing without interruptions, and all the rest—plus the benefits of seeing colleagues in person some of the time. Employers would do well to include that in their plans.