At the beginning of the pandemic there was certainly a kind of euphoria – at least for professional service workers – that we were never going to want to go back to the office, that our lives would never be the same again. However, it is important to remember that the extent of that initial excitement really depended on your personal situation. For people with children under the age of 10, who were home schooling, and working mothers in particular, it was extremely challenging. And then for people living alongside their families in small apartments, without the space to set up a home office, or for those without access to a high-quality internet connection, remote working presented other problems.
But as we moved beyond the first phase of the pandemic, things changed and even those professional service workers who had enthusiastically embraced remote working discovered that the traditional separation of office and home life had more benefits than perhaps they had previously realised.
For example, many employees were initially pleased that they no longer had to commute to the office. But the trend we have seen since is that people’s working days just got longer – and by roughly the same amount of time that they used to spend on their commute. Many people, if they didn’t have especially long or stressful journeys to work, found that they even missed their daily commute. They realised commuting can offer a period of transition: a liminal space between their home and working lives. We may not realise it when we’re stuck in traffic or crammed on to a busy train, but the psychological boundaries that travelling to and from the office create are very important for us.
People’s working days got longer – and by roughly the same amount of time that they used to spend on their commute
We have also seen how much harder it is for managers to manage people effectively outside an office environment. We have seen a lot of data showing how much more time managers have spent during the pandemic checking in with their staff in ways that are necessarily more intentional and deliberate. In some ways that’s a good thing because it is more systematic. But it’s also exhausting.
Other people have grown to miss the office because it is a space that allows them to become slightly different people. A workplace environment gives us an opportunity to separate our family and workplace personas. Whereas when we’re working from home both of those personas are to some extent on display. One of the under-appreciated benefits of the office is that it allows people to just show up each day and present themselves in the way they would like to appear. Workers have control over their appearance and also feel more in control of the narrative that surrounds them while they’re at work.
So, for all those people starting to return to the office, I think these will be two of the biggest pluses: the reintroduction of psychological boundaries between their work and home life; and having greater control over how they are perceived by others.
We are now in a very interesting phase because until recently during the pandemic we haven’t really had a choice. People have been forced to stay away from the office and to work from home regardless of whether it suited them. But as life hopefully now returns to a more normal pattern, I think we’re going to see people taking stock of how working in the office and working from home suits them as individuals.
We have this great opportunity to be very intentional about how we manage our time and our working lives from now on. But each individual worker has to put a great deal of thought into it, and consider the type of work that they’re doing, and the collaboration across a team that that work requires. The key will be giving people more autonomy over how and when they work from home, and how and when they work in the office. In my experience, people tend to have a good sense of where they are most effective. I don’t think you’re going to have people working from home indefinitely if it’s making them less productive and less visible to their teams. Some people just know that they are happier and more effective working remotely, whereas others know that they are more effective working in an office.
Before Covid-19, the prevailing view of offices was largely negative. And there are certainly valid criticisms you can make about the number of distractions in an open-plan office and, of course, the negative psychological impact of a long or stressful daily commute.
However, one of the really interesting features of office life is that people barely notice its benefits. They are there, beneath the surface, but can be hard to see. But now that millions of people have spent a year or more working remotely, they are beginning to miss the office and appreciate those benefits, perhaps for the first time. I would argue that the most important of these is regular social interaction. This is vital to human psychological wellbeing, even though we often take it for granted because it’s so embedded in our daily lives. Working over the past year in a more isolated way, away from the office, has revealed the importance of these seemingly inconsequential social interactions in two key ways.
First, the natural efficiency of being near colleagues. Communicating with other people is usually quicker and easier face-to-face. You might call out to a colleague sitting at a nearby desk or share a brief conversation with someone you bumped into in the corridor and in just two sentences you can bring them up to speed on an issue which allows them to move forward. This natural flow of information among members of a team becomes far slower and more complicated if you are communicating via asynchronous email or having to arrange multiple video calls.
Second, being around other human beings is good for us in and of itself. It is funny how people are always telling themselves that their lives would be perfect if only they could move to a gorgeous new location, like a desert island, to “get away from it all”. Whereas a lot of what actually makes their lives worth living are the people they happen to know and rub shoulders with in their everyday lives. Thanks to our evolution as a species, humans are psychologically designed to be around other people. And that doesn’t just mean your friends and family. A year of working remotely has taught us the value of going to the shops, of dropping into the library, of stopping to chat with a neighbour. These small social interactions with people you aren’t particularly close to can make a big psychological difference to your health and wellbeing. Working in an office environment provides dozens of these minor interactions every day, which is why, when they are removed from the company of colleagues for prolonged periods of time, people essentially become lonely. They may not describe it in quite those terms, but human beings typically start to feel low and demotivated when they are isolated from others.
A year of working remotely has taught us the value of going to the shops, of dropping into the library, of stopping to chat with a neighbour
My hope is that the experiences of the past year have taught us that neither extreme is good for us in the long term. Working solely in an office, especially an open-plan one, can stop us from bringing a sufficient level of focus to tasks that require deep concentration. By the same token, it just isn’t true that an isolated individual working alone in a darkened room whose only social interactions are virtual will be endlessly productive and fulfilled. The opportunity now, as normality hopefully returns, is for us to recognise the benefits of both working environments. As an employee, you’ve got the office and then you’ve got your home. And perhaps the dream scenario is that whichever workplace creates the best environment for you to complete the specific task you have to do at that time, then that’s where you work – with the freedom and flexibility to change the pattern when you need to, even if that means coming in to the office halfway through the day.
Some tasks require a quiet solitary focus. Others benefit from collaboration and feedback. But working in an office also has more profound benefits: it allows us to be surrounded by other people and to find our place in a rhythm that is bigger than we are, both of which are good for us as human beings.
Nancy Rothbard biography
Nancy Rothbard is the David Pottruck Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she chairs the Management Department. She studies and teaches on subjects including corporate culture, work motivation and work-life balance. In addition to academic articles, she has authored several case studies for Harvard Business School.
Oliver Burkeman biography
Oliver Burkeman is a bestselling author and journalist who writes on psychology, productivity and happiness. His work has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Psychologies and New Philosopher. Burkeman’s new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, is out in August.
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