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Why the great return to office is more challenging than expected

Returning to the workplace has evoked mixed reactions. While some have slipped back easily into their pre-pandemic rhythm, others are still readjusting

While many people enjoy the return to office banter and more effective face-to-face communication, others miss the efficiency and flexibility of working from home
While many people enjoy the return to office banter and more effective face-to-face communication, others miss the efficiency and flexibility of working from home (iStockphotos)

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After almost two years of working remotely, many people have returned to the office, adapting to the workplace routine, structure and being around colleagues again. There is a new appreciation of this environment, free from pressure-cooker whistles, incessant doorbells, pets traipsing through Zoom meetings and jostling for space with family members. However, while many people enjoy the return to office banter and more effective face-to-face communication, others miss the efficiency and flexibility of working from home that allows a periodic switching off from work with a midday workout, family lunch and personal chores.

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Mint delves into this great return and what it may mean for the future of workplaces and the people who inhabit them.

Social animals

Remote work was familiar to Nimilita Chatterjee, partner with a large consulting firm in Bengaluru, where frequent travel or being based out of a client’s office was usual in her line of work. “But it felt good to finally return to the office a few months ago after working from home. I missed the informal banter and enjoyed catching up with old colleagues and meeting the new people I had only interacted with virtually,” says Chatterjee, admitting that her social nature has made it easier to readjust to the office and work relationships. She appreciates the effectiveness of ideating and collaborating in person with her team and re-establishing client connections through physical conversations. “We did work from home again briefly during the third wave, but this is now part of life, so we adjusted quickly,” she says.

Medha Girotra believes the office space is important in strengthening employees’ sense of belonging and team bonding. “Human connection is such an important part of what we do and being together is part of who we are and how we work,” says Girotra, communications and CSR head at a Gurugram payment technology firm. “It has been wonderful to return to the office a few days a week over the last few months. While working from home provides immense flexibility, it is harder to collaborate across teams, and business units and the abundance of virtual meetings causes fatigue and burnout.”

For Mayur Oberoi, working from home was distracting. The senior vice president and business head at an online travel agency in Gurugram chose to go into the office whenever possible since only a few people occasionally came in. “It was convenient to work there for a few hours, a mental break from the distractions at home.” Although his company has had employees coming in on alternate days since October last year, only fifty per cent of them are allowed to be in the office together. “I really appreciate being able to meet with people again. It’s difficult to converse on video with no body language to enhance communication.”

Working in pyjamas and tousled hair is comfortable, but many have missed the discipline and confidence of dressing for work. “Getting up on time and getting ready for work made me more alert and active. My time to exercise and cook also got aligned. It was nice to redo my work wardrobe and dress up to go to the office,” says Surbhi Bhalla, director at an Indian beverage association in Delhi. She returned to the office in September 2021, choosing to go in every day, even though the office now has a hybrid model and can go in whenever they want. She adds that she finds herself more productive, focused, and disciplined at the office.

But for some, the return has been worthless. Loveleen Multani recently reopened the office of her luxury travel company in Bengaluru but decided against it two days later. “In-person communication is better, but I found it pointless and exhausting to waste three hours every day getting ready and commuting in traffic.” Her whole team is back to working from home. “The nature of our work does not require us to be together in the office, except for rare meetings.”

Not switching off in the office

But the long period in isolation has left its mark. “Sometimes, I feel like I cannot manage the social anxiety of being with too many people. At home, you spend time alone reading, writing, watching online serials, but in an office, one has a formal compulsion to socialise and attend meetings and office parties, which one might not want to,” says Bhalla. “Unlike Zoom, you cannot leave a physical meeting or silence it.”

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Chatterjee misses the ability to switch between formal and informal modes. “Doing something around the house in between work helped to free my mind. At work, there can be a mild shift from formal to less formal, but you are switched on constantly.” She also misses the comfort of eating fresh, healthy meals on time, the ease of doing chores and not being rushed when working from home.

There is also the continued fear and uncertainty around covid -19 despite safety precautions in offices. “You’re aware of how many surfaces you touch in the office. There is discomfort around wearing masks the entire time,” says Chatterjee. “We had perfected business travel, but now with the safety protocols, you have to be early to navigate the lengthy airport queues,” On her first business trip after returning to the office, she opted to travel by car as she was uncomfortable about travelling by air.

Oberoi has observed changes in a few others. “Some people find it difficult to adhere to timings now as they adapted to a flexible schedule of working from home. When kids are in an online school, parents need to get them settled before coming to the office. Some have not called their domestic helpers back to work and need to balance time for their housework as well. I understand, and I am okay with my team having more flexible schedules.”

The adjustment has been easier in the hybrid work model, arguably the most valued outcome of the pandemic work environment. “The transition from complete ‘work from home’ to the hybrid model has been smooth as I have the flexibility to plan my in-office days every week and have the best of both worlds,” says Girotra. “It offers a balance between the need for flexibility and access to in-person collaboration. It helps balance work, health and family.”

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