Last week I returned to an office for the first time in 53 weeks. 53 weeks is a long time in which to build up new habits and new routines. 53 Mondays and the start to the week, 53 pressured Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 53 wind-down Fridays and the transition to the weekend in the same physical space as the rest of the week.
Similarly to a huge proportion of knowledge workers, my new working week is going to be a mix of home and office working. Some weeks I will go to the office for a day or two, other weeks I will max out with 3.5 days as the Friday morning will be in the office and the Friday afternoon will be a celebratory lunch with my PA!
Getting ready for my first day felt like my first day at high school. Packing my bag, getting a packed lunch ready, checking and re-checking to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything.
As I left the house for the car I returned 3 times for things I had left behind. I used to fly all over the world at a moments notice but lockdown has left me so out of practice I can’t leave the house with any sense of organisation.
Clothes are another nightmare. I hadn’t realised that my “work” clothes were such a well run routine until I had to rebuild this habit. Instead of just getting dressed I agonised over what to wear. The rules have changed. Things feel more informal and I have lost my confidence. Pulling together bag, shoes, jacket and jewellery left me mentally exhausted. I know change makes us feel consciously incompetent but do I really have to be this incompetent?!
I got to the office after taking a wrong turn and a 3 mile loop to get back onto the right road. I was met at the parking garage by the landlord with the garage remote control so I had to look like a professional, which meant I couldn’t put my head in my hands and cry which was my preferred option.
Once I was sat at my desk the shock of the new environment, and the number of new people I had met in 45 minutes left me mentally exhausted. Looking back, it was only about 5 people that I met, but compared to my Dad and my dog as my social circle, this was overcrowding!
For the first hour at my desk, there was a lot of staring at the wall and not much actual work, but things picked up as the day progressed. As I left, I felt the pleasure of packing up and formally ending the day. Tiring, but the start of something new.
When I arrived at my parking spot, I sat and cried, exhilarated by the miracle of leaving the house, finding my way and feeling a little like my old self. At lunch I sat outside with other hot deskers having a non domestic conversation. Working from home, lunch is dominated by domestic issues. Blocked sinks and running out of milk, but in the office the chat is about clients won, new opportunities and looming deadlines. It feels as if I am very slowly finding my tribe again.
Only 1 day in the office this week because of the Easter holiday. The reality of having two spaces to work in has hit home. A book I need is on my desk at home, so this is a reminder I need to be very well organised, a pressure that is absent when working from home the whole time.
Do not underestimate the shock of the commute – more people and lots more decisions than walking downstairs to your dining room requires. It is taking me just under an hour to settle from arriving at my desk to working productively at the moment. I really hope to get that down to a shorter time but for now, just accepting that my brain is processing more stimuli in one morning getting to the office than in a month of home working is OK.
One thing I question as more of us start to return to some kind of office routine, even for a few days a week is the concept of bringing my whole self to work. During April through to about June last year, I remember the embarrassment some people had about showing their home as their background. Others were worried about family members interrupting them. I remember our kindness to one another, accepting that in the immediate crisis, not everything would run smoothly. Over time, this has settled into a pattern of acceptance, which I enjoy. It makes me feel more human.
However, I have started to wonder whether I am going to maintain my understanding and patience of others circumstances? And are people going to maintain it with me? During the lockdowns we have had interruptions from the dog, babies, people at the door and we have accepted this as the new norm. But are we as understanding when we are in an office environment? Are we ready to get used to people talking to us with masks on if they are in the office?
My answer is to remind myself on office days that I might be in a more professional office today, but tomorrow I will be back at home trying to stop the dog interrupting my meeting. Has made me think that there needs to be a sub-set of virtual leadership skills called kindness that has to be debated by every team to set its own boundaries of acceptable working.
It has only been a couple of weeks, but my office days are starting to feel like my guilty secret! I love having a quiet breakfast in a café before the start of the day. My discretionary spend has increased not only on food outside the home but using my lunchtimes to buy things because I am near shops – not because I absolutely need things but because they are there. It feels such a treat to have a bit of time being “normal” – I am really beginning to feel more “me” than I do on working from home days.
This extends into my dress sense; I am definitely putting more effort into my personal presentation. It seems more worth it somehow. When it is me and the dog and he pretty relaxed about what I wear, but when you are passing other professionals in the street or when you arrive in your office, looking like it is Saturday morning, and I am going to slob about watching a film doesn’t make me feel energised.
Another norm for me is that I have dug out my wheelie trolley, last seen hurtling through airports as I rushed for my plane. This is driven by my quest for organisation as now I need to schlep my stuff from one office to another, having the same bag, with the chargers and the stationery in it saves a lot of time.
I am starting to enjoy the end of the day. After a full day in the office, it feels great to close my laptop, and pack my bag. It creates a finality to the working day that is definitely having an impact on my home life. On the drive home, I think through things I achieved, and search out the positives so that I don’t get caught up blaming myself for all the things not yet done. When I arrive home I feel ready for an evening of family activities, time for me and time for my friends.
There is a different feel to these evenings than the days I work from home, where the end of the working day feels less defined, and work continues late into the evening as I remember things I need to do. Some time in the office is definitely giving me mental health benefits, but similarly I appreciate the flexibility of days working from home when I can include interruptions that make life run more smoothly – getting food out of the freezer hours before it needs to be cooked, taking my Dad to a medical appointment etc
For my final week of this diary, I wanted to try and draw a few conclusions from my experiences:
Organisation – over the weeks, I have had to organise myself so that I have what I need where I need it. This means I have to think ahead a little more on the tasks I will be doing in each location. It is more effort, but there are benefits on sifting through my week on a Sunday night and working out what I will be doing.
Environment – I have invested in setting up my office space, duplicating things that are now the norm because the money saved in not buying two headphones or two printers is far outweighed by the annoyance of not having them. Taking time to ensure the basics of office life are also near to hand has made me feel settled and I think has reinforced the message that I am at a place of work.
People – I know the neuroscience between social connection and mental health, so this should not be a surprise, but informal contact in the office, seeing others when I buy a coffee have created a feeling of connection and normality that I did not know was missing until I got it back. One of the things that helped me a lot this week was a brief conversation with someone struggling with a similar deadline issue to myself. We exchanged a couple of ideas at the coffee machine (masks on) and went on our separate ways, but it was a powerful reminder that my problem was not unique, which reduced its power over me.
Balance – splitting my time enables me to have the best of both worlds. My split week gives me the benefits of a professional working environment, which I am sure has increased my work rate. Being at home some days gives me the benefits of being able to manage household issues. I can brief the electrician on the rewiring, I can drop my Dad at the pharmacy. These small fixes have lessened the pervasive stress that I am never where I should be. I cannot quantify what that stress was doing to me, but I am pretty sure it diminished my mental health.
In the future, we may look back at this period of home-working and then adoption of a hybrid approach as anomalies as we return to full-time 9-5, Monday to Friday but I really hope not.