There has been a significant change in my life over the past few months: after more than three years, I made the transition from working from home to working primarily in an office setting. The transition was challenging at first, but I’m glad I made it. More on that to come.
When most of my coworkers and I began working exclusively from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it fit me very well. If I didn’t have to spend so much time getting ready for work and commuting, I could devote more time to the things that bring me joy, like hanging out with my loved ones, exploring new places, and engaging in my favorite hobbies. Compared to my time in the office, I actually got more done. Obviously, I was able to save more money and devote more resources to my interests than I would have if I had worked from the office.
My wife and I welcomed our first child in 2021, and being able to work from home allowed me to be there in the baby’s early life. After my wife’s maternity leave ended, she returned to work, and I was flexible to pick up and drop off our baby with the nanny as needed.
But there was a drawback to this new reality. Often, I’ll have to babysit until my wife gets home from work, so I’ll have to put in extra hours in the evening to make up for the time I lose during the day. Sometimes, after a particularly sleepless night with the baby, I’d have to check in for work a little bit later than usual, which meant that I had to stay longer hours, and with the babysitting and everything else, I’d easily lose sight of how much longer I needed to work before I could finally call it a day. The boundaries between my job and free time have blurred during the day.
This routine allowed my wife and me very little quality time in the evenings before we went to bed. Reading, writing, and other pastimes also took a back seat. (As a point of comparison, I read forty books in 2020 and fewer than five in 2022.) Each day starts to look like the last. The toll this schedule took on my productivity (and sanity) was too high.
Whether it was because of my packed schedule or because I was sick of spending so much time at home over the course of three years, I began to consider the possibility of working from somewhere else. I know that if I could just get away for a few days, I’d feel a lot better and be able to get a lot more done. Going to a coffee shop in the area and putting in a couple hours of work there would lift my spirits.
I’ve talked to a few other people who work from home, and they’ve expressed similar feelings of exhaustion and a need for change. It dawned on me that I wasn’t imagining things and that I wasn’t alone in this. One of them got so bad that he seriously considered leaving a decent IT career to pursue a completely different profession without even thinking it through.
Another person took a more sensible approach: he rented office space near his home for his business even though he was a freelancer and didn’t need a corporate place. A little office with just the essentials—a desk, a chair, a whiteboard, and some paper. Every day, he would get ready for work as if he were going to an office and reporting to coworkers. He felt better about himself and was more motivated to work after leaving his flat.
Thankfully, I was able to avoid the hassle of finding and securing a rental on my own. My employer has recently started to encourage office returns. Before, I was a strong proponent of working remotely, but I eventually agreed to spend most of my time in the office. On July 3rd, I returned to work from the office. After three months of working primarily in the office, here are my impressions.
After working from home for so long, it’s nice to interact with other people again. Over a cup of coffee, I am exposed to a wealth of fresh perspectives and ideas. After all, we’re social creatures, and interacting with others is crucial to our well-being.
But we are not here to chit-chat over coffee all day (believe it or not). In-person collaboration strengthens team bonds, which in turn boosts both the team’s output and each member’s individual output. Talking about something face-to-face is also much simpler than doing so via a virtual platform like Teams or Zoom. Especially if you have a pressing issue at work that needs to be addressed and ideas for fixing it need to be discussed.
Pitching an idea to someone in person or coming up with the new idea is considerably simpler in my opinion than doing so via Slack or Teams; for instance, I stop by the desk of the person with whom I would like to discuss the idea and say, “Hey, do you have a minute? I would like to talk with you about problem X. What do you think about idea Y?” Then we brainstorm the ideas back and forth, grab a whiteboard if we need it, and often come up with a solution in 10 minutes that would usually take at least a day over the Slack.
Working remotely means missing out on information that is being discussed verbally, “across the table”, when others are in the office and you are not. Companies often try to impose certain forms of information sharing, but it’s not simple to convey to them because it’s not always clear what data ought to be shared and what shouldn’t. When I am in the office, I often receive small bits of information that, when taken out of context, seem irrelevant but turn out to be useful in some situations later.
When I worked from home, I missed hearing particular news about the business and the company from people in the office. Some things are never shared with everyone in meetings or through emails. Also, when I regularly show up to work with people who make important decisions, I have a better chance of learning about exciting new projects and opportunities within the company.
While this was once usual for working remotely, things have changed. My home office isn’t all neat and tidy (I wouldn’t dare show you my “working desk”), and when the kids are around, there’s always some disturbance coming from the other room, so it became increasingly difficult to focus.
In the office, most people are already focused on something they are doing. People who are chatting are usually in the break room or talking quietly so as not to bother other people.
There was a period when I couldn’t have any focus in the office; it was during the first week or two when I came back. I hadn’t seen many of my coworkers in a long while, and we all had a lot to catch up on. Once that was taken care of, I could, if necessary, work uninterrupted for several hours.
When I was working from home, I found it difficult to determine a strict work schedule. If I stayed longer for a lunch break, I felt guilty about taking time away from my work, and I would wind up putting in extra hours more than officially needed. This feeling led me to stay active on work-related networks even after working hours and answer some inquiries that could easily be answered tomorrow. That is how I would make things right with myself and eliminate any further feelings of guilt.
This kind of “always-present” mode affects human well-being negatively. We need time for rest and recovery from work, but if we hijack that time with thoughts about work or the work itself, then we won’t be able to function properly in the long run. That also means we won’t be able to operate at our best level at work. This is a big reason why I switched to working from the office.
Before I returned to the office, I set a strict rule with myself: if you’ll be going to the office, use it to do your work there. When you get out of it, that is when your work and work-related thoughts should stop. The exceptions can be urgent interventions, but those are pretty rare anyway. And I still comply with this approach. When I get home, I don’t use my laptop for work; I use it only for personal, non-work-related tasks. Since work alerts are a major distraction for me, I’ve set up my phone to turn off them after 4 p.m.
This rule has helped me overcome the feeling I constantly had when I was working from home—the feeling that I was not working enough hours.
Since I don’t live in close proximity to my workplace, the commute is the most inconvenient part of going to work each day. A drive in one direction may take as little as fifteen to twenty minutes. During rush hour, when the majority of people are on their way to work, it can take up to 50 minutes. If I can, I try to get to the office early and beat the rush. To get home after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it takes me anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.
At the very least, I spend about 45 minutes a day commuting. That might have been tolerable in the past, but now that I have a family I’d rather be with, every moment counts.
Given that I have no choice but to spend some portion of each day commuting, I’ve found some productive ways to pass the time: I call loved ones to see how they’re doing, and then I listen to audiobooks and podcasts. It’s a minimum of 45 minutes per day, which is enough for a quality podcast episode by a favorite author.
Commuting to work takes not only time but also money. Gas prices rose by more than 50% compared to the pre-pandemic period, and parking prices rose by about 20% during the same time period. Food in cafes and restaurants is also more expensive now than it was previously. And we require more new clothes than when working from home.
Most of these things are necessities anyway, but when working from home, we don’t commute to work every day, so we pay less for gas, we don’t need monthly parking near the office building, and we don’t go out for breakfast. We did all of that when we were working from the office before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the prices went up, and we know there is a way to avoid these costs and save more money while still being productive.
I get up around 6 a.m. to go to work. I make an effort to maintain a regular sleep schedule, but even so, after four or five days in the office, I still feel exhausted. It typically shows up more after work and in the evenings than during the workday. What affects this the most is deeply focused work in the office and not taking enough breaks to recover from it. (Planning my focused work better and having more mini breaks is something I plan to improve on in the next period). When working from home after longer periods of such work, I would take a power nap and feel much better during the rest of the day.
Even now, I spend some days a month working from home, and I try to put them in between days of working from the office. Having more time for sleep in the morning and avoiding commuting hassles makes me less tired during the day and helps avoid exhaustion.
Although the company offers flexible working hours, I personally try to arrive as early as possible when working from the office for the reasons mentioned above. When working from home, I don’t have to think about the traffic, and I can have more time to sleep in the morning before checking in for work.
When working from home during the day, it is much simpler to take care of certain personal matters. I’ve had to take my wife or child to the doctor on a few occasions, and working from home saves me time as opposed to leaving the office and then returning.
Many people have strong opinions about whether it is better to work from home or in an office, and I have heard and read many of these arguments. Yes, I am guilty of participating in a few of them. I currently believe that this is not a topic for debate, as a person’s preference for where they should work depends largely on the person themselves, their personal circumstances, and their social standing. The favored work mode might change once more in response to the change in those preferences. It’s crucial to regularly review work mode and be fully aware of how it impacts personal and professional life.
Working in an office has its benefits, but for me, the most important right now is being able to separate my work life from my personal life. That’s why I’m open to discussing the other issues that make going to the office less than ideal. I still work from home a few days a month, but I make an effort to finish all significant work while I’m in the office. Right now, I really enjoy this combination. Who knows? Perhaps in the upcoming period, priorities and other things will shift, and the work style will follow suit.