Back in the Office
Twelve Things I Learned Working in an Office Again After Two Years Remote
It’s happened: After over two years of working remotely and learning how to make remote teams successful, I took a new job and I’m back “in the office”. I traded my well-equipped home office with all of its privacy and the benefits of personal surroundings for a desk in an open office at a growing local startup, which is fortunately only three miles from my house.
I was expecting this transition to be quite an adjustment and while it was in some ways, old muscle memory set in and I quickly settled into the new routine. However, there are quite a few things I learned along the way:
I was lonely at home!
It hadn’t really occurred to me with this clarity, but yes, in retrospect, I was often lonely working from home. While my days, or rather the mornings through early afternoons, had often been filled with lots of online meetings, it turns out (big surprise!) that those are not the same as real human contact where you look people in the face and interact in person. I know, I know, you can and should use cameras for online meetings and they help, but let’s face it: It’s not the same thing.
After working from home all day, I found myself getting stir-crazy in the house and wanting to be around people. Being in the new office and surrounded by people definitely affects my emotional state in a positive manner. It’s easy to take for granted and forget what regular social interactions do for us humans. We are social creatures.
More collaboration and fewer meetings
When you work with remote team members on an Agile team, you need (unless you practice Virtual Co-Location) to find and reserve time slots to work through problems and questions, further complicated by different time zones. Meetings with calendar invites and the associated scheduling Tetris are born.
In the office, where you’re hopefully co-located, it’s obviously easier to collaborate. You might be able to just turn your head and talk to your neighbor, roll your chair over to their desk, and figure stuff out. Or you walk over to the nearest whiteboard together to brainstorm and solution.
You may also overhear conversations, pick up what’s going on around you, and maybe spontaneously join in (osmotic communications). It’s interesting how much you can “absorb” and be exposed to just by being around people who work on the same stuff you do.
I also have more impromptu conversations: People walk by my desk and we engage in a dialogue, I run into people in the lunchroom and ask them a quick question that’s been on my mind, and I can quickly just walk into someone’s office for a quick chat if needed.
Despite Slack and similar tools, this is harder to replicate in a virtual environment. You might just need to schedule a meeting, even if it’s short. Or you end up typing a lot (to make things worse, I’m not a fast typer) to have the same conversation online. But it still won’t be as rich as in person, especially when you can quickly switch to drawing something up on a whiteboard.
Talking about which: I missed whiteboarding
I’m a visual guy, what can I say. Humans, in my experience, have an easier time getting on the same page using visuals — and they’re easier to remember than the written word. Complex problems are hard to solve without something to look at. And since we’re often involved with UX and UI-type solutions, what’s better than a quick sketch?
In the last two years, I got quite good at using a diagramming app to quickly draw up stuff during meetings. The team appreciated it. But nothing beats true whiteboarding with team members drawing up something, erasing it, refining it, passing the pen around, and starring at the same big information radiator during this creative process. The group sketching thing never really worked remotely, despite all the tools at our disposal. I really did miss whiteboarding and its effectiveness as a great collaboration and solutioning tool.
My worlds collide less
When I worked from home, it was sometimes hard to separate my work life from my personal life. The separation was blurry and fluid at best. If you work and play in the same place, it all becomes one and the same. Working with different time zones also pushed the boundaries as I was taking early as well as late meetings. The Seinfeld fans among us know what happens when our worlds collide…
Working from the office, the environment itself sends clear signals: This is where I work. I get home — this is where I play and take care of personal stuff. Without this separation and clear indicators, it was harder to keep things apart. Now, when I reach home, it’s easier to leave work behind and focus on the other part of my life. Yes, remotees can employ certain tricks and techniques to manage “modes”, but one’s surroundings are hard to beat as natural cues.
I miss my short naps
It’s no secret any more that selective napping has to ability to restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes. Working from home, when meetings calmed down in the early afternoon or I had just a few minutes of downtime, I really appreciated the ability to perform a quick 15-minute mental reboot and clear my head. (I am fortunately blessed with the innate ability to fall asleep really quickly.)
Being in the office, dozing off is usually frowned upon, even if just for 15 minutes and for restorative purposes. Therefore I had to say goodbye to regular mental resets; instead, the office-provided cold brew might have to suffice for a jolt of energy until such time that my new employer decides to invest in sleep pods.
Keeping my calories intake under control got more difficult
You’d think that working from home is making it easy to snack and overindulge on snacks and with that calories. Surprisingly, that’s not necessarily the case. I found that at home I had full control over what snacks were around — after all I had to buy them. And having to walk downstairs into the kitchen to open the fridge was a natural barrier to too frequent snacking.
Since my new office provides all kinds of healthy and not so healthy goodies for free as well as various varieties of caffeine and sodas (all within 15 yards from where I sit), it has become harder to not “graze” and wander in search of unnecessary nutrition.
I am working on new ways to manage my food intake, but overall it’s a little harder to limit the calories.
I have an actual lunch hour again
Working remotely with folks in various time zones made it hard to have an actual lunch hour. Often times, I would just manage to grab something real quick before more meetings or Slack conversations ensued and I typically didn’t make it out of the house. This lack of mental break didn’t seem like a big deal at the time and it was just “normal” for me.
Nowadays, since my work schedule revolves around a single time zone, I get an actual hour for lunch. While I don’t often go out to eat, it’s a great time, to soak up some sunshine (I am blessed to live in Southern California), read a book, or take a walk. Surprisingly, this has bigger benefits than I had expected and while not a replacement for quick shut-eye, it creates a nice mental break and refreshes the mind and body.
I still start my day early
Before, since I was one of the last folks to come “online” on the US west coast, I had to start my days early. This was not really by choice since I had standing meetings basically every day at 7 AM. (Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure.) Apart from being early, going straight into meetings right away also didn’t leave any time for a mental warm-up and doing any deep work or planning before the madness started.
With my new role, I could technically pick a much later start time, but I am finding that getting to the office early (7:30ish), allows me to start more slowly, plan the day, and do deep work while my mind is most productive. So I am still somewhat of an early bird, but now by choice.
I miss the occasional travel
I used to travel to my old company’s headquarters once every 4–6 weeks and spend the better part of a week there. This time was actually great to (re-) connect with the folks working there and nurture my relationships. This occasional travel was nice as it got me out of the house on a somewhat regular basis and provided a change of scenery. (The extra airline miles didn’t hurt either.)
Since my current employer is all in one location nearby, I have basically no more need to travel for business at all (apart from the rare conference). While I’m quite okay with this arrangement, I do miss the occasional (perceived) excitement of travel and break in the routine. And I will need to come to terms with the slow but almost inevitable disintegration of my frequent flyer status.
Jacked into the Matrix
One definite advantage of being in the office is certainly that I’m always “plugged in”. In the course of doing daily business, important pieces of information (some big, many small) constantly emerge and get disseminated, but most of that happens organically and informally through hallway conversations, impromptu meetings, and, yes, sometimes gossip or hearsay. Only a small fraction of these happenings make into official company emails or Slack announcements. There’s really no good way to pick up on these things while being remote and it’s easy to be out of the loop; however, being present in the office makes it almost unavoidable to be connected and up-to-date.
Privacy is overrated
I wondered if leaving my private home office and working in an open office plan at a desk would be a noticeable and uncomfortable step back in terms of privacy and the ability to focus. Maybe it would be painful to always be surrounded by people?
That fear never came true, for some reason. I hardly notice the difference and never really miss the privacy of my isolated abode. (It’s feasible to step away every once in a while for a personal phone call if necessary.) I gladly trade that privacy in for being around people, collaboration, and being plugged into the local happenings.
Noise pollution is also not an issue, nor is the lack of ability to concentrate. When I really need to “go deep” and focus on something for a dedicated period of time, it’s easy to don my Bose noise-reduction headsets, turn on some instrumental music and dive in. (I’m sure the big headphones also serve the purpose of clearly signaling that I would prefer not to be disturbed right now.)
Commuting still sucks
I was certainly happy not to have to get in my car every morning and fight traffic when I was working from home. Nothing beats the commute from the bedroom to the office.
My current commute is still short distance, but sometimes it’s surprising how long it can take due to traffic. I’m certainly not complaining and I’m only hitting traffic on the way back, but it makes me wonder how long it’s still feasible in our society for everyone (well, most) to drive into work on a regular basis. Being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for extended periods of time on a regular basis seems wasteful and inhumane — and even a nice car can’t fix that. While the US average commute is apparently 27 minutes each way (which still equates to 4.5 hours each week!), it is longer (and much longer for some) in more densely populated areas of our country. That is a lot of wasted time, gas money, air pollution, and — in the end — wasted life that one cannot get back.
These are my personal thoughts and observations after having done the “work remotely” thing for a few years. There is no judgment here and your mileage will vary. Is remote work all bad? No. Is working in the office superior in all ways? Also no. Obviously, both have pros and cons and not everyone is cut out for one over the other.
That said, I do feel that there are some distinct advantages of working in the office. While maintaining a physical location is more costly for the employer, I can see where the improved communication and collaboration can result in noticeable productivity gains compared to remote work. While not impossible, it is harder for remote Agile teams to reach the same level of high-bandwidth communication and real-time collaboration of co-located teams. I think of this friction as the “remote tax”. Nonetheless, is remote work here to stay or even gaining momentum? For sure.
If you asked me what my preference was, what would my answer be? For now “in the office”, but ask me again after a year… 🙂