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July 30, 2020

Return to the Office: Masks, Screens and No Coffee!

Lucy Bishop


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©© GettyImages/Miodrag Ignjatovic

I'll be honest here, at the time of writing my last blog, Mood Swings and Monotony in Lockdown, I'd pretty much lost the will to live! I was genuinely amazed I managed to write and submit the blog on time.

So, feeling low on energy, I did the sensible thing and booked myself a week off.

At first, I was apprehensive about whether it was really worth it. I'm home all the time anyway (along with the rest of the population), so I thought I may as well be working. Nothing's really open properly, so there's not much to do. Would there really be any point? Would it make any difference?

But as the week went on, I felt something heavy lift away. That burden of juggling work with childcare, along with those persistent germ-related worries, suddenly felt more distant: more manageable, somehow. I finally switched off. I don't think I realized just how exhausted I'd been.

I felt more myself, able once again to really enjoy spending time with my family. Sure, there wasn't anything particularly exciting going on, but when the most thrilling event of late has been flying ant day, it's really just a matter of perspective, when you think about it.

We still found stuff to do: walks in the woods, gardening... we even watched a movie from start to end (a feat surely on par with climbing Mt Everest, as parents of young children will know!).

Return to the Office – Already?

Feeling refreshed and revived, I logged back onto work last week keen to see what I'd missed. Trawling through my emails, one leaped out immediately – a notice about plans to re-open our U.K. offices.

My first reaction was, "What? Already? But I'm not ready!"

Funny how after months of longing for some semblance of normality to return, it finally does and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. Because the thing is, it's not going to be the office that I remember. That office from the good old days (also known as January).

The Post-Lockdown Office

First off, we'll return to a workplace that will be restricted to 30 percent capacity. So chances are I won't be going in frequently – at least not at first.

There'll be a one-way system that we'll have to follow when we enter the office or need to leave our desks for any reason. We'll have to wear masks unless we're at our desks. Communal spaces will be cordoned off, so no eating lunch together. And (the biggest blow for me) we can't use the coffee or tea-making facilities, to prevent germ-sharing (eugh).

This led to my second reaction: "No coffee? I'm a parent. Are you out of your mind? I'm going to crash and burn within the first hour."

"It's OK," I reasoned. "There's a Costa down the road. Or I can take a thermos. Can you get Starbucks on Deliveroo at the office?"

Goodbye Lockdown (Sort Of)

So that's it then. Lockdown is over or at least mostly over. (I'll be glad if it means I can finally stop using the word "lockdown.")

Except it's not really the end is it? Not in my mind prison, which still plummets into panic mode whenever it has a spare second.

My mind is shrieking, "What about the dreaded 'second wave'? What do we do when the cold and flu season comes round again? What if someone coughs in the office? Will we all need to get tested? Will I have to do that horrid 'swab-up-nose' test every time I have a cold?"

Sure, there're the practical things workplaces can do to help people return to the office safely, and those are great and completely necessary. But there’s still The Fear. After all, I've felt relatively safe in my home haven for the past few months, and leaving it to go mix with other real human people (not virtual ones) is a tad scary.

Do People Want to Return to the Office?

Which leads us to the big question: do people really want to go back to the office?

Some people already have. But for those of us who haven't, who are now used to working from a sofa, and have settled into a new home-working routine, is the prospect of a return to the office a welcome relief or yet another, concerning disruption?

According to a survey by U.K.-based nursery provider, Bright Horizons, only 13 percent of parents surveyed want to go back to a pre-pandemic way of working. While almost half (48 percent) of those who worked in offices before lockdown said they were considering asking for more remote working.

Moreover, 53 percent believe the added flexibility of remote working would increase their productivity, while 58 percent said it would increase their loyalty to their employers.

Remote Working: the Pros

So what can we take away from these results? Well, first off – remote working works! Zoom team meetings – easy! Zoom fatigue – I'm over it (I've got coffee... at least at home). Working with kids at home – well, nothing's ever perfect.

Let's face it, we always knew that remote working was "the future." Lockdown just sped the process up. In fact, we've become so good at remote working, that many of us (in particular parents) don't want to go back to the "old normal."

Then there are the business benefits – low operating costs, greater flexibility for workers, less traffic on the roads, a greater focus on goals rather than on hours clocked up.

Remote Working: the Cons

But what about the office? It used to be a space full of activity, chatter, laughter, and buzz. And now? Will it be like lockdown supermarkets when we go back – everyone wearing masks, closeted in that eerie stunned silence? Or will we find a way to make it fun somehow?

I'll be honest, the post-lockdown office doesn't fill me with excitement. At the same time, I'm aware that the longer I spend away from it, the more I'm drifting from certain colleagues.

I don't mean my team mates, who I've stayed in regular contact with throughout lockdown. But rather colleagues from other teams. People who I'd chat with informally, sometimes about work, sometimes about nothing in particular. But who I nonetheless enjoyed talking to and, often, learned a great deal from, particularly about the successes and challenges that other teams were experiencing.

Sometimes these cross-team conversations sparked new ideas or solutions. Sometimes they even ended in new friendships: the discovery of shared interests or hobbies.

These conversations just don't happen anymore and I genuinely worry that, if remote working becomes a permanent fixture, there would be certain colleagues or even certain teams who I just wouldn't engage with anymore.

The "New Normal"

So, yes, practically, remote working works! But, emotionally, perhaps not, in the long term. Nonetheless, for many of us, remote working is now a way of life. It's firmly embedded in our day-to-day routine, and breaking from that once again will be hard.

Forget post-lockdown, we may now be entering the post-office era!

What do you think about the return to the office? Have you missed being away or would you rather continue to work remotely? Let us know your thoughts, below.

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