Back to office: reflections of a middling manager
As of this week, there was a company-wide back-to-office initiative where I worked. My specific department announced a month ago that employees would be expected to be physically present two days a week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. There was a lot of grumbling when it was first announced, about safety, about lack of notice, and about the necessity. Despite the lack of cringeworthy teambuilding activities, town halls, and free food, I had probably the best two days of work that didn’t involve a promotion.
This was not my first day back at the office, which had been open throughout the entire pandemic. I had also been going into the office throughout the entire pandemic. Since we weren’t allocated any budget to upgrade our workstations, the office was simply more comfortable: two additional monitors, a mouse, a keyboard, and an ergonomic chair. It was also a nice change of pace that wasn’t my shoebox apartment in downtown Toronto. It had the advantage of conspicuous diligence in addition to actual diligence: my director and manager were consistently in the office and appreciated my presence in an old-fashioned way. I was also much more productive: without the oppressive monotony of the office, it was very easy to get lost on my phone or the internet during the workday, and realize that I had a couple more hours of work to do around nine at night.
Obviously, I still worked remotely when it suited me. When I had only half a day of real work, when I had caught a flight across the country the night before, or when I had a hangover so fierce I just wanted to lie in bed all day. However, it isn’t implied that those who work from home are somehow less industrious. Going into the office every day wasn’t for everyone. I didn’t have children or pets, or someone who I wanted to eat lunch with at home. I lived a fifteen-minute walk from the office, which meant I could roll out of bed twenty minutes before work started, and arrive to the office five minutes late, blame traffic, and no one would bat an eye. I tried not to schedule early meetings when I knew I was going into the office. Living nearby also meant I didn’t have to pay thirty dollars for parking or twenty for transit. I completely understand other people’s reluctance to head back to the office.
Others could be just as productive at home, or perhaps even more productive at home, since they were more refreshed. Others saved money on lunch, childcare, and transportation. I chose to go in because I wanted to, because of the advantages it conferred me. Plus, an empty office had its advantages. I went from the five hundred squared feet of my condo to five thousand square feet of the office, shared amongst ten people instead of a hundred like regular times. I could play music on speakers if I wanted, even watch video essays on one of the separate screens when I was doing menial work. By showing up, I was already exceeding expectations. But the quality of work I was able to produce because I was in the office further improved my performance at work.
A few months ago, the rest of the middle managers reporting into our director were asked to come back to the office a couple days every week. On those days, my space was halved, and I became wary of playing dark-sounding electronic music when I worked. However, regularly scheduled meetings became much more productive on those days. Instead of answering emails after I had given my updates, I was focused on what others were saying. For the first time in years, I was engaged in someone else’s updates. There was an adjustment period. Everyone was accustomed to taking meetings remotely, and often continued to look at their laptops. But after everyone had the chance to speak to a room of heads looking at laptop screens, they started to look up while they weren’t speaking. Some people reverted to analogue and brought paper notes to meetings again.
This week was different. This week, everyone was back into the office. It felt like the first day back to school as the brisk spring breeze reminded me of autumn. I didn’t really care what I wore to the office prior to the pandemic and especially during the pandemic, but now took care to pick an appropriately dressy shirt and socks. There actually was a shuttle bus that brought employees from the airport, retrofitted from an old school bus. There was a long line of new employees waiting at the security desk for access cards. We had to wait for the elevator. And then there were the familiar faces, many of which I didn’t even realize I missed.
I’m firmly of the camp that believes they’re not at work to make friends. I dislike company socials and teambuilding activities, particularly the virtual ones held during the pandemic. But I couldn’t help smiling and chatting with everyone as the day rolled by. If the meetings in the last month were good, the ones with everyone present were excellent. No one had a choice but to be absolutely engaged. No more long Teams messages, short emails, or awkward requests for a quick meeting. I could simply walk over the adjacent cube and have a chat. A few times, a third party overheard the conversation and was able to provide constructive input. I worked until six, then I had dinner with five other colleagues on Tuesday, wrapping up a beautiful first day back.
Of course, there were certain disadvantages that existed in the real. Ironically, the biggest one was individual productivity. Between meetings, lunches, water-cooler talk and coffees, my email backlog ended up larger than at the beginning of the week. Not being able to work during meetings certainly contributed. The rest of the inefficiencies were all weaknesses of our fleshy prisons. It was hard to find rooms for meetings now that the office was full again. Meetings routinely started five minutes after schedule because people had to move from one room to another, because dialing in other departments who weren’t present took time, and because the last group was late to vacate the room, since their meeting started five minutes late. And to avoid crowds, I found myself going to the washroom the floor above ours, whose department would be back at the office the next day.
Personal preference aside, if most employees are going to be in the office, joining them there has tangible career benefits. For everyone whose company hasn’t mandated that they return, it’s a matter of work-life balance. Working from home is a significant lifestyle improvement and improves one side of that scale. But it takes significantly more willpower to achieve the same amount of productivity when one doesn’t work alongside their peers. In addition to perception and productivity, the comradery is palpable, as much as I try to deny it. To occupy the same physical space as someone is to be more empathetic, facilitating understanding, compromise, and teamwork.
I’ve heard the arguments against going back to the office. The environmental benefits. The financial advantages. The time savings. The notion that the mounting pressure to return is due to a shaky economic system built upon long-term corporate real estate leases. I acknowledge that these are true, and for many, a return-to-office mandate is a hinderance, or even a complete dealbreaker for the current job. And in this job market, it might be an unwise decision to force employees back. But I have realized that I truly like being in the office, even as I maintain that I show up only to get paid. If that doesn’t make me a corporate shill, it at least makes me a company man. In the past, I would have been aghast, but I’ve since decided I’m allowed to have good days at work. And these last few were excellent.