With the ‘roadmap’ to releasing lockdown in the UK now in place, attention in workplaces across the country is turning to the return to the office. This is something that I know has generated mixed feelings.
While some people are desperate to get back behind their desks, others are less keen to give up the extra time gained from not having to commute. And while some have safe, comfortable and (just about) big enough spaces to work in (even if that does mean shoehorning a desk into a bedroom/basement/living room), others are less secure in their domestic environment and long for the haven of the office.
Am I ready to go back to the office?
My feelings on this have been as mixed as those of the people around me. In working from home, I feel that I have gained time in some areas – the nursery run is so much less ominous and frantic and I love that I get to spend that extra time in the morning and evening when I would have been commuting with my little girl. I’ve also never been so on top of the housework! Yet I desperately miss my colleagues, exchanging ideas on projects in person and making decisions together. A face-to-face chat is so much nicer, and more efficient, than a chain of emails.
I know that my step count has plummeted without the commute and the incidental exercise that comes with running errands during the working day and meeting friends after work. This in turn has had a negative impact on my mental health – I really don’t like the idea that I’ve become such a sedentary person. This is compounded by the fact that I’m now approximately 300 years pregnant and the size of a small whale, which makes running (my go-to activity of choice) much less appealing and comfortable. But I am working harder to get out of the house for a walk or a run when I can. When the pools were open I was able to fit in a swim before work, which was amazing, and I hope something that will happen again as sports facilities reopen.
Working from home, I have found that I am more aware of my emotions on a day-to-day basis. I feel that this is largely as I have to sit with them, rather than having opportunities to be distracted by other people, places and spaces. I miss having colleagues and a commute to snap me out of a down spell, or to pep me up when I need that energy boost. Often if the energy at home feels flat, I have no means of improving it and tend to stew.
I also know that I am coming to this from a place of great privilege: I am safe in my own home, I could afford to heat it during the winter months and while the pandemic resulted in my losing one job I have found another and have been lucky enough to remain employed for most of the last twelve months. However, I know that during the time when I was worrying about redundancy and when I didn’t have the focus and motivation of a job, my anxiety levels rocketed and my mental health suffered. I think my new colleagues were quite taken aback by my enthusiasm at work when I started, but following the fear of unemployment, at a time when the news kept telling me how high unemployment figures were, I really struggled with the uncertainty that faced me. And starting a new job from home was actually easier in a lot of ways than going into the office. I had the comfort of familiar surroundings to counter the anxiety of new challenges and meeting new people.
What do others think?
I put the question of the pros and cons of Working from Home (WFH) out to my peers for their thoughts on the positive and negative impact on their mental and physical health and the results were fascinating. For many of us, we had never considered WFH has an option, and now we’ve had a taste of this would we go back to the office?
I’ve artificially split these up into ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, as each response had a nuanced mix of both, but I hope this demonstrates some common benefits and concerns that are running through many of our minds at the moment.
I hope that the below observations are helpful, reassuring and thought provoking.
Positive impacts on mental health
‘Over the past two and a half years, I have worked across two offices with a hot desking policy, which has meant nowhere to keep my papers and lugging laptop and paperwork around all day, which is tiring, so WFH has had a positive impact in this respect. Hot desking also meant much of my time was not spent next to my colleagues. Where I’ve benefitted working in offices is being in one set place, usually with colleagues you like, to talk about rubbish, gossip, let of steam, bounce ideas off etc. A supportive office is an amazing place to be […] However, I have also worked in quite toxic offices, and they make the working day painful and fill you with dread before you’ve even stepped into the office. WFH this is much less of a concern.’
A supportive office is an amazing place to be […] However, I have also worked in quite toxic offices, and they make the working day painful and fill you with dread before you’ve even stepped into the office.
‘WFH part-time since November after an extended period of furlough has been, and continues to be, something I enjoy and find beneficial to managing my workload. Working at a public attraction with colleagues in visitor-facing roles means that days on site often involve lots of interruptions and the need to be reactive. It can be hard to get tasks on that involve sustained concentration (like writing), so WFH has been great in that respect.’
‘In some ways, communication has improved since we started WFH because everyone is more conscious of being physically separated. We now have a bi-weekly Zoom team meeting, where previously we only met in person once every six to eight weeks. We also have a monthly national team meeting, which previously happened once a year!’
‘For me before COVID, working from home was usually coupled with some kind of home emergency (stressful) or waiting for large items to be delivered (tedious) and was usually coupled with an uncomfortable working environment – laptop on kitchen table and the sense that my bosses were checking up on me – i.e. random calls that could have been an email. However, on realising that the COVID situation was going to last beyond 6-weeks, I have now set up a makeshift office in my spare room which has made all the difference. I have developed a routine, and ability to have a hot lunch and a walk has been brilliant. I carve out an hour for lunchtime and don’t feel guilty about it.’
‘WFH I feel more freedom in how I work and set my day up and if I need a break, I can take it without judgement. I’ve missed working with certain colleagues but have the excuse of working from home to escape others!’
WFH I feel more freedom in how I work and set my day up and if I need a break, I can take it without judgement.
‘WFH is amazing and has hugely pushed forward flexible working and an acceptance of a non-corporate environment; kids coming in and out, not wearing make-up, wearing a sweatshirt.’
‘WFH is highly time efficient, way more economical and I like that I’m able to wear more comfortable clothes.’
‘Not having that very visible “drop and dash” for the train at 5 on the dot every day to get the kids is a big positive of WFH.’
‘WFH I have had the opportunity to spend a lot more time with my family […] I have also enjoyed not having to commute to work, the rushed hours in the morning to get ready and to take the train on time and to have to travel for two hours every day; time that I have been able to spend in different ways, for example, being able to spend with my daughter. I have also saved around £130/month of travel expenses. I also think that both my individual and team work is much more effective, due to not having to travel for meetings, etc. and having the chance to meet with anyone in London with just ‘one click’ by having online meetings.’
‘I would argue that WFH during this period has shown that we, the workforce can be trusted to work from home and deliver as required. Moreover, that old ways of working are not necessary e.g. the lengthy board meetings dragging people together from different places in London, printing reams of papers no-one reads, setting up teas and coffees no one drinks etc. However, what it does require is that Senior Management change their ways of doing things, ‘catch up’ meetings are not the only forum for keeping an eye on your colleague’s work – you can use more agile forms of management.’
Negative impacts on mental heath
‘I think the main impact of WFH on my mental health has been the lack of joy. I miss the office chatter, but most of all I miss the laughter. There’s a silence and intensity to working in constant isolation, which allows for little fun. Stressful situations are also much tougher to get through without colleagues sitting next to you, giving a perspective to problems that you lose when you’re on your own.’
I miss the office chatter, but most of all I miss the laughter. There’s a silence and intensity to working in constant isolation, which allows for little fun.
‘WFH wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I thought it would be pure freedom – from commuting, from clock-watching, interruptions and over-involved bosses. But it also means a fatal blurring of the boundaries between our professional and personal lives. Home doesn’t feel so homely when it’s also your office. It is almost impossible to create a fully separate working space even if you have a dedicated home office; after all, when you need to pop to the loo or grab a coffee it’s your own bathroom or kitchen you retreat to. If you have a heavy workload, its physical presence in your house dogs you when you’re meant to be unwinding, and makes spending time on the little things – just chilling out with a magazine, “pottering”, seem a little more wasteful. After all, you wouldn’t “potter” in your company’s offices. It’s worse if you use the same computer, and/or table, for both work and play. The spectre of work seeps into every area of your home life, and obviously for the past year, there hasn’t been much other life.’
The spectre of work seeps into every area of your home life, and obviously for the past year, there hasn’t been much other life.
‘It’s always tempting to do a bit more work once the kids are in bed and the volume of work resulting from every issue needing an email, Skype or a meeting is trickier to manage. I am also aware of the impact on the morale of the team I manage. Some people have been impacted than others due to financial and emotional pressures and there is a residual anxiety about the return to the office.’
‘I am definitely missing socialising at work: the informal problem solving and impromptu chats that smooth the way for great working relationships. And I really, really miss letting off steam and socialising with colleagues after a busy day.’
‘I don’t like working all day in the same room that I then go to sleep in: I don’t think it helps my sleep quality and the monotony of having the same environment the whole time is pretty dull. I also miss social interactions with work colleagues and clients.’
‘I think that there is some general expectation that people can work longer hours, it feels to me that it’s generally understood that people have more flexibility to work later and that seems to be ok and accepted by many colleagues, as they don’t have to commute to come back home. I also miss the contact with colleagues at work, meeting people in the office, lunches and coffee and chats with colleagues.’
‘For me it’s working in the same room that I, in theory, also relax in, which is impacting my ability to switch off from work because my workstation is always visible. My sleep has massively been impacted too.’
‘The whole team are missing out on the little “passing by your desk” chats, and the natural over-hearing of what other people are working on, issues they’ve come up against etc., resulting in more confusion, miscommunication and formal meetings. Morale is also lower in team members who’ve never been into the office.’
‘Many of us are working longer hours because the working day bleeds into home life because you can’t physically step away from one into the other.’
‘For me, being furloughed for 6 months and then made redundant last year and only starting work again in December, by which time the rest of the world had worked out how to use Teams and share screens etc., was a real blow to my confidence. It felt like going back to work after maternity leave all over again but without the excitement of being able to leave the house and wear clean clothes.’
‘I work longer hours from home as the lack of a commute means I start earlier and there’s no natural trigger to stop working.’
Positive impact on physical health
‘I love the flexibility to drop off and pick up the kids from nursery. We take them in by bike so get at least one bit of outdoor exercise a day. It’s also nice to just impulsively get up and go for a walk round the block or pop to the shops for fresh air/change of scene, to think, without having to explain myself to anyone. Because I used to work one day from home already I already was quite well set up and understand need to set and hold my own boundaries and protect for self-care by blocking time off in my work diary for exercise etc.’
‘I liked being able to take better care of my physical health and diet at home and it’s easier to get the washing etc. done!’
Negative impacts on physical health
‘I live in a small flat so physically I have become almost sedentary 9-5, with perhaps 15 minutes outside at lunchtime. I’ve really missed the incidental exercise of the commute, the lunch run, the flights of stairs, the walk to the kettle (rather than the three steps!), the accidentally hitting 10k steps without trying.’
I’ve really missed the incidental exercise of the commute, the lunch run, the flights of stairs, the walk to the kettle (rather than the three steps!), the accidentally hitting 10k steps without trying.
‘My back is suffering from sitting on a dining chair all day, but I did manage to persuade my employer to buy me a really fancy, vertical mouse.’
‘I definitely miss my around 50 to 60 minute walks as part of my daily journey from home to the office, time I had to listen to music and that helped me to keep myself more fit; I rarely do any exercise now during the week time, other than 5min walk to drop my daughter to the nursery, hence I do exercise much less.’
‘I find I do less exercise unless I consciously make the effort.’
‘I really miss cycling or running to work; as now I barely get time to do any exercise during the week. I also miss the time to think clearly, which you do on a running or cycling commute. Physically, my husband has suffered more than me from being too sedentary because he regularly sits on back to back calls from 9am to 6pm.’
‘I’ve struggled more with the physical side as although I don’t exercise and never really will, only recently has it dawned on me how much walking I used to do between meetings. Not doing that has really taken its toll on my back and physical well-being.’
‘I find that without the daily commute to the office and wandering around the office to speak to people, make tea, lunch etc. I’m not as active and have lost stamina!’
I would love to hear more from you about your thoughts on WFH and whether you will be going back into the office soon and what you think the future of office working should look like.