Return to… what, exactly?

My employer invited employees back to the office* last week. I’ve been back in a shared workspace more in the last two weeks than in the last two months combined. And this time, with many more coworkers. It feels a bit like returning to school after summer vacation… fun for a few days, but don’t you end up hanging out with your real friends outside of “school”?

After asking me how I was feeling about returning to the office, a not-a-corporate-employee friend shared her observations: throughout the pandemic, many of us were more productive at home (yes) with deeper social connections. Going back to the office, at least in the short term, feels like the inverse (less productive, shallow interactions) is returning.

My own reservations about returning to the office fit exactly into the more/less and deeper/shallower continuums. If our social interactions are more frequent and time consuming (my experience so far) and work slows down, will employers be comfortable with the trade off between preserving an office-based culture with a return to lower productivity rates? And will the workforce overall “let” employers make those decisions?

Almost two weeks in to a “normal” office schedule, and I’m already feeling more behind and less productive than when working from home. I’m certain some of this can be chalked up to needing to get into the groove of a new work routine. In the office, I’m interrupted more, loose 20 minutes at a time to drop-in chats, and can’t let my mind wander over lunch or even walking to the restroom – other employees are everywhere! (My introvert is showing, isn’t it?)

I’m also noticing the return of surface social interactions: “how was your weekend?” replacing honest responses to “how are you doing?” that seemed to be more likely when someone was in their own home and wouldn’t be overheard by others. I’m still having connecting conversations with coworkers… virtually.

A few coworkers joked that the first few days back in the office were time to “focus on building culture” and that we’d get real work done later. I hope we find a new hybrid routine that works rather than trying to return to a pre-pandemic “normal”.

In the meantime, I’m keeping an eye on how my work gets done and how relationships grow, recognizing that the way things were may not be the way things should be. One way I’m doing this is protecting blocks of time to get work done each week – at home.

I’ll check back in a few weeks – maybe I’ll feel differently when my routine settles in?

*It’s not back to work! We’ve all been working…more than ever.


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