Why I’ve returned to the office
7 min read

Why I’ve returned to the office

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Why I’ve returned to the office

A song to read by: "Bound," Wed, Blood Orange

What I’m reading: "Geek Love," by Katherine Dunn

The office

Sometime over the summer Adweek opened its Manhattan office to vaccinated employees, and I immediately started going in. For the first few weeks, my resolve was pretty shaky — if I overslept just five minutes, I would say “Tomorrow then!” and go back to sleep. One time I rode the train in the wrong direction for five stops, so I just went back home.

But after a month of these fits and starts, I finally made it into the office three days in a row — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — and have continued that routine since. In total, I have only been on this schedule for maybe two months, but it has brightened my mood immeasurably. More than anything else, going back into work has made my life finally feel normal again.

But, I labored over whether or not I should write this piece, because the last thing I want to do is sound preachy or like a corporate plant.

If you have a medical, socioeconomic or otherwise legitimate concern that makes returning to the office unsafe or untenable for you at this juncture, please feel free to ignore this. And if you prefer distributed work, whether historically or since the pandemic forced it upon you, I am incredibly happy for you; I hope you are able to stay in that position for as long as you would like. I also do not intend this newsletter to address questions of worker productivity or remote management or any other issue best left to the Harvard Business Review.

Instead, my intended audience is anyone who, like me, had always planned to return to the office but had simply not yet begun the reintegration process.

For me, that hesitance stemmed from the fact that I enjoyed the many comforts of working from home and felt that the inertia required to return to the office, and the sacrifices that return would entail, was simply not worth it, at least not yet. The pros outweighed the cons.

I also felt like in the vast flotsam of think pieces swirling around the internet about returning to work, very few seemed to speak worker to worker, or really about anything other than productivity. Some covered anxiety, while others discussed the acclimation process.

But few seemed to come from people who simply had wanted to return to work and now had. And in my experience, the tradeoff has proven more than worth it. So, if you are on the fence about returning to the office, here are some insights from the other side.

No more loneliness

At this point in my life, I simply do not want to work alone all day in my house. I understand a lot of introverts apparently enjoy this, but I found it incredibly lonely. At the end of the work day, I would often see my girlfriend or friends, but the net sum of interactions still felt unfulfilling; I could not get over the feeling that I was spending the majority of my days in my bedroom.

I wanted to eat lunch with people, exchange pleasantries with the building staff and ask coworkers about their weekend plans. From a sociological perspective, these kinds of loose-tie relationships are actually incredibly important — they are how you get introduced to new ideas and jostled out of the worn-in grooves of your life. But they are also just, to me, what real life feels like.

Yes, there are plenty of awkward moments where I turn the other way rather than introduce myself to an unfamiliar coworker, but those moments accrue and, over time, guilt forces me to say hello to them. The discomfort serves a purpose!

I also have strong feelings that veer more into the abstract — people should be part of a community, friction can be beneficial, the internet is not real life — though those are personal, and I would not force them on anyone.

But put simply, even on days when I hardly speak to anyone in the office, being amongst a crowd of commuters, standing in a lunch line, smiling politely at someone as I walk by them — these things have made me feel like part of a larger whole again, and I was never going to get that working from home.

The sooner back, the easier the adjustment

Every day you work from home, the more entrenched the routines become in your life. I am not a behavioral psychologist, but I think I can say that with some confidence. If the idea of returning to work seems daunting now, it will likely only grow more daunting over time.

So, like a kind of opportunity cost, every day you stay home becomes one more day it will take to feel normal again. The sooner you begin reversing the process, the sooner you will feel at ease again.

I have long thought that we, as a post-pandemic society, would need as many months to return to normalcy as we spent in abnormality. Few people believed that 2021 would feel immediately like 2019, but I suspected that we would spend most of the year simply undoing what the year prior had done.

My brief time back in the office has reinforced that idea, but the same concept holds true either way: If you aim to go back eventually, it makes sense to start going back as soon as you can.

Time to acclimate

As I mentioned above, breaking out of my work-from-home routine and returning to work was really challenging. It changes everything about your day-to-day life, from the need to pack a lunch, to scheduling gym visits at different times, to the chores you have to do over the weekend. It really overhauls everything.

And if you, like me, started a new job (or two or three) over the pandemic, you are not just restarting a routine; you are building one from scratch! As a result, it will take you several weeks, if not months, to get everything back into place. You will be exhausted and have less free time, and many parts of the process will be frustrating.

But, if your employer is going to snap its fingers one day and say, “Okay, everyone back to the office starting January 1,” wouldn’t you rather begin that adjustment period now? It will be hard either way, but if you start earlier you will have more leniency and feel way less pressure.

I kid you not — every day for almost three weeks straight I told my roommate I was going into the office the next day, and every day he came home and found me working. It became a running joke that I was “going into the office tomorrow, this time for sure.”

Do yourself a favor and start that process early, be patient with yourself and give yourself plenty of time. Build up incrementally. It will be worth it, I promise.

The perks of being a commuter

Commutes can suck, but they do have their perks.

Whatever it is, whether a podcast, a playlist, a newsletter, an extra cup of coffee or some other little creature comfort that you have not yet recovered, getting back that tiny little treat can make the morning feel like a distinct time of day again, rather than just the few moments that precede you opening your laptop.

Back when I drove in to work, I loved listening to music in my car with my windows down. Ever since I started taking public transit, I have an extra hour (roundtrip) to read. I have been devouring books lately, all thanks to the subway, a habit that makes me feel so much more life myself.

The trip in to work breaks your day into more distinct parts, which also leads to, for me at least, a stronger sense of work-life balance. That my work space and living space are once again distinct has been one of the greatest boons for my mental health.

A return to routine

This is straight out of a philosophy 101 course, but I find it true: The “free time” I gained while working from home really just became time that I now needed to find a purpose for. The abundance of choice quickly became a stressor, as it often does.

Returning to work, and all its attendant logistical to-dos, has given me back a solid structure of places I need to be and things I need to do. The schedule simply becomes the scaffolding upon which I build the rest of my life, and something I no longer need to devise for myself.

This might be the Type A in me showing, but I vastly prefer to schedule the bulk of my life and then luxuriate in the free moments. Going back to work has given me an external form of structure, and that has given me a sense of comfort that I imagine must have its roots in some primordial tic of evolution.

A big piece of the puzzle

Finally, no matter how complicated the return to work will be, everyone knows that it is one of the final bosses of the pandemic. The last 18 months have been a parade of different limbos, but the uncertainty over the workplace is one of the last remaining unknowns.

By going in, being proactive and beginning the work of sorting it out, you are starting a process that you know needs to be accomplished for normalcy to ever fully return. Much of the literature that has been written about the process casts it as a workforce issue, but the important part of it is profoundly personal.

Once you feel like you are back at work, even if work is not fully back, you can cross that lingering unknown off your list. It becomes less obstacle on the road to recovery.

Some good readin'

— I wrote this last week and thought it was really good. The limit between editorial and commerce does not exist! (Adweek)

— When people get excited about the idea of platforms paying for journalism, show them this! (Press Gazette)

— Narcissism is not art! (Spike Art)

— The best profile I've read so far about the people most responsible for the erosion of local news. (The Atlantic)

— If you ever trash talk recipes in front of me, you will regret it! They are not crutches for cooks; they are stories of cultures. (Columbia Journalism Review)

Cover image: "A Cotton Office in New Orleans," by Edgar Degas