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Is a return-to-office really necessary?

In April of 2020, I would’ve done just about anything to return to the office. My apartment severely lacked the free coffee I had grown used to, and I was starting to go a little stir crazy. But here I am now, two years later, and I couldn’t imagine having a job that required me to go into the office on a regular basis, much less the five days a week that was standard for me pre-pandemic.


So what changed? Well, for one thing… the entire world.


I started my first post-college job in May of 2019. For ten months, I went into the office five days a week and booked a physical meeting room for every check-in, one-on-one, and sync. I would go to company events and happy hours and holiday parties. If I had a doctor’s appointment, I would work from home in the morning and come in at noon. And that morning at home seemed to put a kink in my entire week.


In the “before” times, working from home for me meant sitting cross-legged on my bed with my laptop in front of me, trying to get things done on one tiny little screen while my cat tried to step on my keyboard. 95% of my workday was from my desk in an office with two monitors, surrounded by other people doing the exact same thing. So trying to get anything done from my at-home setup felt impossible.


Now I know this wasn’t the case for everyone. Several of my coworkers worked from home fairly regularly. People with sick kids or dogs or long commutes or other legitimate reasons to stay home made the best of that flexibility to work from anywhere. We even had a few people on our team that lived out of state and worked from home full-time. But the trade-off to no commute and sweatpants all day was missing out on the company-funded happy hours, team outings, and friendships built with coworkers.


I remember wondering early in my career if I could ever make the transition to fully remote work. Sure, it would be nice to have the flexibility to move anywhere I wanted (somewhere warmer, preferably) – but was it worth it to give up the office environment I loved so much? I could honestly say it wasn’t. I had serious FOMO whenever I spent a half day at home, so I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I started missing out permanently.


And then March of 2020 hit. Suddenly, I was home indefinitely and expected to maintain the same level of productivity working from my bed as I did in the office. Even when I did pick up my monitors and supplies from my old desk, I was still trying to function at my dining room table with a roommate and a cat interrupting me at any given moment.


So, yeah, I wanted nothing more than a return to office plan.


But as the pandemic continued, I – along with the rest of the world – adapted. All of our regularly-scheduled meetings moved to Zoom. Sometimes we had virtual happy hours, sometimes we didn’t. I got my own place and converted the second bedroom into a workspace. I bought myself a desk and a chair and re-created the office environment ten feet from my bed. Sure, I still missed the in-office companionship of my coworkers, but I didn’t really feel like I was missing out since they were all home, too.


Companies that required employees to go into the office five days a week pre-pandemic argued that working from home would cause a decrease in productivity. Or maybe some working from home meant that others in the office perceived them to be unproductive. Even if that weren’t the case, nobody coming into the office meant company culture and relationships would suffer. And the whole world goes into an office, so why fix what isn’t broken?


But when the world was forced to move to this new working model, those hypotheses turned out to be false. More often than not, productivity stayed the same (or even increased), working relationships stayed strong if they wanted to, and company culture shifted but didn’t disappear. I can’t speak for everyone, but a job post highlighting team events, in-office snacks, and casual Fridays suddenly seems much less appealing than one that simply states “fully remote”.


So before implementing a mandatory return to office, try applying that same logic we used earlier: why fix what isn’t broken?


There will always be people who prefer to come into an office. Even I enjoy the occasional day of driving downtown and seeing my coworkers face-to-face – but that’s balanced with the inconvenience of lugging my laptop, cords, keyboard, mouse, and lunch through rush hour only to tear it all back down and set back up at home the next morning.


My routine is now done best from home, the same way I used to feel about being in the office. When I go into an office now, I feel like I’m sitting cross-legged on my bed with my laptop, and my productivity suffers.


As the world begins to open back up, I do love having the option to go into the office occasionally. But with that being said, office culture can never go back to pre-pandemic standards because we never will be pre-pandemic again. The world has changed. Employees changed right along with it. Now it’s your turn.


 
Adeleine Whitten | Professional, kind of
​​Adeleine Whitten

is a marketer by day and writer by night, weekend, and sometimes lunch break. You can often find her with a good book or in the Taco Bell drive-thru.

www.professionalkindof.com

 

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