Remote Employees Returning to the Office Is a Flex
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

Remote Employees Returning to the Office Is a Flex

The wave of office reopenings is upon us. Surprise, surprise: I don’t hate it here.

The day I’ve dreaded for more than two years has finally arrived. It seems there was no avoiding the inevitable, despite my most determined attempts. No matter how many emphatic responses to anonymous employee surveys I inputted, frank discussions with leadership I had, or spare change I tossed into mall fountains, the verdict was always going to be the same.

Two weeks ago, for the first time since the early days of Covid-19, employees at my company were required to return to the office. Whoopty fuckin’ doo.

Things could be worse, of course. The powers that be have settled on a hybrid work model that sounds like a bid in Spades: Employees have to clock in two and a possible third day at the plantation every week, with the latter being optional. The other two days are designated for WFH. I was ready to renege.

Since March 2020, my home has been my sanctuary. It has also become my workplace, for better or worse. I wasn’t quite ready to give up my peaceful morning routine and zero-minute commute in each direction, even if only a couple of times per week. It’s not as if the pandemic hasn’t proven that remote work is just as productive—if not more—than sitting behind cubicles and making small talk between sips of trash drip coffee. The return to working in-person felt at best unnecessary and at worst performative.

On that first day, I dragged my retro Jordans all the way to the office, Tee Grizzley's "First Day Out" sounding as ironic as ever in my Airpods. But something funny happened upon my arrival: I realized I’m a different person since the last time I walked through those revolving doors. I mean, shit, all of us are forever changed by the events of the past two years. But for me, I had a new title and new responsibilities, even though I was sitting at my old desk in my old chair.

How’s this for a plot twist: For all the fuss I made about not wanting to return to the office, I realized what is the big deal?

The return to the office marked the first time I’d be gathering in-person with my team of direct reports: White Mitch, Black Karen, and Marcus the Intern. So I took a note from one of those mandatory leadership seminars I sat through last year and made a point to show up early. Black Karen came in shortly afterward, followed by Marcus the Intern and Mitch. We exchanged some pleasantries and I gave the office newcomers Karen and Marcus a tour around the place, surprised at how well I remembered my way around.

(Side note: The actual office felt like a relic from forever ago. Like an abandoned location characters would find in The Walking Dead or some other post-apocalyptic production. Seriously, there was a Black History Month 2020 doodle on a conference room whiteboard and a staff memo in the kitchen about some new disease spreading called coronavirus. At least the snacks had been restocked.)

After the short tour was complete, I settled into my work. Sat in some meetings. Greeted the new faces, dapped the work homies, and gave forced smiles and head nods to those I don’t really rock with. Finished my work for the day and left. That last part felt... refreshing?

How’s this for a plot twist: For all the fuss I made about not wanting to return to the office, I realized what is the big deal? It’s a given that I’ll encounter challenges with my direct reports, my managers, other team members. But how many of those issues will be unique to the fact that we’re in the office working alongside each other? The last two years spent working from home didn’t mean less challenges; the challenges just shifted—and most of them were about people, not places.

Real talk, my first week back in the office was one of the most productive I’ve had in recent memory. There’s something about the office, as inconvenient as it is, being exactly what it’s always been: somewhere to get work done. Working from home, in contrast, has been a constant negotiation of space and time spent. In those first three months of the pandemic, I spent time getting my place in order. Six months later, I realized my place felt more like my office than my home, so I got plants and other upgrades to bring that homey feeling back. From that point forward, I’ve had to figure out ways to power down in the same place where I have to power up. That, in and of itself, was exhausting.

Say what you want about overbooked meeting rooms, morning and evening commutes, and all the other things we griped about with the reopening of offices. I’ve welcomed these boundaries between work and home spaces.

With all of that said, on those optional third work days, in the words of Magic: "I'm not gonna be here."

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