“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb
The Whiteboarding. The coffee machine hissing. The Bright lights. The Big monitors. The hum of the printer and the sound of people chatter mixing with the clacks of the keyboard for an ambient tone (in fact, you can actually download it if you want.)
These are the signposts of a place where we used to spend more time than at home – the office. The world most of us knew before 2020 was the office – or the“office office.” A place that has spawned at least 35 TV shows and an unforgettable cult movie (TPS reports, anyone?) A place that has a culture of its own but still the identifiable thread of landmarks whether you are in London, New York, Shanghai or Cincinnati.
Note: All views expressed in this article are my own.
The Tale of Two Office Cities
Since 2020, life has been for many of us like the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s been the best of times. The worst of times. We had everything before us – then we had nothing before us.
Now, the fall of 2022, we seem to be past the worst of times – but where does that leave our “before” when it comes to the office? Everywhere I go, I run into the same conversation with someone about wherever they work in corporate America. “They want us to come back.”
Come Back to a Happier Place
Who are they? According to a recent article in the New York Times, executives feel strongly about the benefits of the office: the opportunities to find mentors, build relationships and brainstorm.
You can find an official list of most companies’ back to office policies here, and many of them leave the choice up to the employees. If you look at the Venn diagram, you will see the predominant model is ‘hybrid,’ which is consistent with the competition for talent allowing flexible ways of working. Yet, many companies are going to great lengths to bring employees back – company events, ‘swag,’ quieter workspaces, and better food and novel amenities.
What if it were as simple as this – returning to the office potentially makes us HAPPIER.
The Relationship Between the Office and Happiness
According to this article in Real Simple, in-office work inspires social interactions that can play a tremendously positive role in our happiness, mental and professional well-being. While remote and hybrid work models are likely to continue, the fact that we have a choice that is not black or white means that we have to weigh the positives against the negatives as we make decisions on whether or not to return, or how often to go. And being happier, especially when mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves, is a huge asset to consider.
The Home Office and the “Office Office” Cities
But back to Charles Dickens. The home office and the “office office” have become very much like the two cities. The home city, where you are swaddled in a cocoon of familiarity, and the office city, where you may feel like a nomad roaming the hallways. We are surrounded by family and dogs in the first city. In the second city, we have no idea who we will encounter. Every day is stepping into the unknown. The experiences come to us, not the other way around.
Yet my experience in the “office city” has made me noticeably happier. If not for any other reason, because of realizing the little things I had missed even while getting ready. I missed spritzing perfume and walking through the mist, clicking my heels on the floor, flicking through my closet and remembering the last time I wore a particular outfit – and then finally having a reason to wear it again. I missed walking and catching the glimpse of the perfect city sky. I missed coming home and kicking off my shoes, taking the day off and sinking into bed with that sense of accomplished exhaustion.
A Professional’s Take on the Psuchology Behind Happiness and Going into the Office
Although these feelings are euphoric, there’s the flip side of how the transition has created new kinds of stress and anxiety. How would I navigate all this? I couldn’t answer this question myself. So, I consulted an expert – Dr. Jason Rosen, who is a psychiatrist specializing in insight-oriented psychotherapy
According to Dr. Rosen, these conflicting experiences are normal. This is a period of transition. It’s natural to feel anxious. After over a year of isolating ourselves, it is hard to get out of our comfort zones. When we “go out into the world” again, there is a discomfort being in the unknown that we are not familiar with. You may have experienced this when you started traveling again. We have to sit in it. The experiences come to us. It’s not terra firma.
The Positive Effect of Social Interaction
Going to the office, according to Dr. Rosen, feeds into our natural predisposition as social beings. Many people thrive in a collaborative environment and experience positive hormonal reactions to personal interaction, touch, and conversation. Think of the first few times you may have seen a friendly colleague and clutched their hand or gave them a hug (if hugging is OK in your work culture). The bonding feelings from active socializiation and collaboration keep producing positive feelings and the neuron synapses associate the place (the office) with those feelings. It is much like the feeling you may get when you go to a favorite yoga class or a store you really like – you know the experience will be good so you feel energized even as you are getting ready to go.
Speaking of which, the act of “getting ready” is also a major factor in the positive effect the office can have on our well-being. It is beyond superficial – although it is great practice to maintain an executive presence. Showering, getting dressed and doing the whole deal are an act of “waking up” that drives our energy levels and engagement. You may have seen the movie Lockdown, where Anne Hathaway has a very relatable wardrobe of blouse on top of PJ pants as she fires her team due to downsizing. This “halfway” look may be believable but deep down we know we are wearing sweatpants. And that lack of a “full wakeup” can take a toll on our psychological well-being.
And it’s true – some people thrive working from home. There is no question that this could be a permanent solution for many people, depending on their family lives, teams at work, and personal working style. The adventure that we can all embrace right now is exploring and examining where we truly thrive. The clocks are continuing to move faster and we should all really deeply examine the best way for us to thrive and be the best version of ourselves.
A Visible Work-Life Boundary
Another consideration in this calculus, according to Dr. Rosen, is the boundary between work and personal life.When I leave the office in the evening, I shut the computer down and put it away in my bag, where it stays until the next morning. My walk home is a “come down” from the high of adrenaline and pings, emails, calls, and numerous interactions. The day is done, and when I get home the bag is tossed in the closet with whatever I was wearing that day. Household chores, packages being delivered, and other ankle biters all could wait. There is an invisible wall.
How to Make Going into the Office As Stress-Free as Possible
As I have thought through this, here are some tips I can share about making it easier to go back to a “normal” office work routine:
First, manage your expectations. As much as we might wish to erase the last 2-plus years and pretend that our lives didn’t get turned upside down, it’s never going to be the same.But it can be a new type of experience that we embrace and take step by step
Start small. First start going once a week, then two, then more. It definitely is easier to transition gradually. Think of it like warming up before a workout.
Revamp your wardrobe: This is literally the best time to shop, because retail is still chock full of ridiculously high markdowns on excess inventory. But first, go through and downsize your own wardrobe.
Make getting ready a ritual: I wake up, meditate, drink my coffee, shower, and get ready as I listen to audiobooks. Or sometimes, an upbeat playlist to ‘psych’ me up for the day.Re-establishing a ‘waking up’ routine whether you go into the office or not will really help fulfill the ‘awakening’ part of the day. If you wake up when it is still dark which will likely.
Do sone “practice runs” before you actually go. Practice getting ready in the morning, but then work from home. But really get ready – shoes, jewelry, watch, the works.
Figure out logistics in advance. The “practice run” will help you identify the logistical details you may have otherwise forgotten about when you go to the office regularly. Pack up your bag with your essentials: Wallet, phone, keys, transit card, office badge, notebook, computer, charger, phone, phone charger, water bottle and any additional items. Don’t get too ambitious with trying to remember to pack lunch or gym clothes, this can come later when you have just the office routine down. (and I will have a blog post for that!)
If you are worried about social interaction, practice with your family and friends. Meet a friend for coffee or lunch and do a dry run of “small talk.” The easiest thing to do is ask someone how their weekend was or what they are looking forward to this weekend, depending on what day of the week it is
Just smile and say “hello.” Being open to making eye contact and striking up conversation can lead to making new connections and building more relationships. Learning names can get awkward when you meet someone for the 2nd or 3rd time and still don’t remember their name. The number one cheat sheet is looking at their badge, which helps with my photographic memory. Or ask them to get in touch with you and give them your info that way when they ping you they have your name.
Learn how to balance a hybrid schedule to your advantage. Whether you are going in by choice a certain number of times a week, encouraged, or mandated, it is important to keep a balance between work and home. For me, it helps to have all of my needs for the office packed in the same bag, and ready to go. Aim to treat each day the same, including your attire. Most offices have casual dress codes, but try to dress up once in a while – you will feel so much better and more put together. Be strategic about which days you are in the office. For example, if you know your leadership is in on certain days, or if there are office events on certain days, plan on working there on those days so you can get the most out of building relationships.
My biggest takeaway and most pleasant surprise is that this is a great opportunity to make new friends. There could not be a better time – people have moved, grown distant during the pandemic, or have just been starving for human interaction. Having good friendships in adulthood is not only enriching for your mental health but your phiysical health as well, reducing the risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI
While it may not have been purposeful at the beginning, I found the more I went to the office and the gym nearby, the more I found myself exchanging numbers and emails and meeting people just as eager to make a connection. Now my phone is full of new names and numbers I did n’ know a year ago.
As we grapple with “the new normal” and its ever-evolving definition, we find ourselves caught in the gap between the trapeze.The question on where to land is harder to answer especially when it comes to work and our mental health. Like many parts of life, it’s a risk. And just like in many other cases – high risk, high reward.