Three Things to Keep in Mind as You Return to the Office

Posted 05.16.2022

Now it begins. After two plus years of working from home (or somewhere else), more and more folks are heading back to the office for at least a few days a week. And, guess what? They like it!

That’s the story from the Wall Street Journal, anyway. In a feature article that details “the surprise joys of being back in the office,” the Journal reports that people are enjoying returning to the office and finding printers that work and people to talk to while they warm up their lunch in the break room microwave.

That’s nice. Most of us like some variety in our lives and, after a couple of years of two-dimensional interaction on Zoom, 3-D conversations with co-workers are fun and hard to beat. And, at the same time, it would be a real shame if the benefits that people realized while working from home get sucked into the black hole of the way we used to work full-time at the office.

Eight years ago, I wrote a book called Overworked and Overwhelmed about how to manage yourself so you’re happy and satisfied with your outcomes in all of the arenas of life and not just your life at work. Obviously, based on the timing, I wrote that book when most people were going to the office five days a week. Now that a lot of folks have some degree of optionality in where and when they work, I think the challenges of not becoming overworked and overwhelmed are still there, they’re just different.

So, as the way we work begins to change again, how do you sustain the gains you made while working exclusively from home? I think there are three things to keep in mind as you return to the office:

Boundaries – One of the downsides of working from home has been that the boundaries between work life and home life have gotten really blurry. When do you turn off the computer and call it a day when you don’t have that trigger of leaving the office building? Of course, boundaries were pretty blurry before everyone started working from home too. So, let’s just call it – a lot of us have problems with boundaries. If that sounds like you, I have two questions for you about boundaries. First, do you have any? And, second, if you do, does anyone else know what they are? Because if they don’t, you may as well not have any. As you head back to the office, it’s a great time to reassess and reinforce your boundaries. In the absence of doing that, things are pretty much guaranteed to get really crazy.

Big Rocks – One of the things that working from home for many people has done is it’s given them a lot more clarity about what’s really important in their lives – you know, the big rocks. Family, friends, fitness, hobbies, helping others – they’re all examples of life priorities that have come to the fore for many people during the past two years. You likely have some big rocks that you don’t want to give up as you return to the office. And, you know what they say about the big rocks – schedule them first. Leverage your commitment to boundaries and your insights into your optimal life rhythm (coming up next) to keep those important big rocks scheduled on your calendar.

It’s About Rhythm, Not Balance – Ten years ago, I wrote a post called Why I Don’t Believe in Work-Life Balance. For lots of reasons, I think work-life balance is the wrong goal. What I’ve concluded over the years is that creating an optimal life rhythm is what people should focus on instead. Work-life balance is a temporary and ephemeral state. As folks settled into working from home, many of them found a more sustainable and nurturing life rhythm. Because they weren’t losing time to a commute or other sources of friction that come with office work, they were more productive than ever while working from home. At the same time, they established new routines that created deeper connections with family and friends, allowed them to get into better shape, expanded their mental horizons, or deepened their spiritual life. If you’re one of those people, congratulations.

And let’s acknowledge that as you return to the office, there will be many days when you’re not going to get 100% of the benefit of 100% of the routines that have helped you so much while you’ve been home. So, now’s a great time to get a handle on what the beneficial essence is of each of those routines so you can incorporate at least a little bit of them into most of your days.

For instance, if you can’t get 100% of your optimal fitness routine on a given day, what would a 50% or 25% version look like? Yeah, it’s not 100%, but it’s way better than 0%. And the good news is that tomorrow or the next day, you’ll be more likely to get more of what you want or need.

That’s the rhythm of it. If you know what you need in your life, you can be creative in how you get it and have confidence in the fact that the rhythm is going to come and go. Some days it will be faster; other days it will be slower. Nothing is permanent; the rhythm will come back around. You just need to be clear about the elements that inform your optimal life rhythm. And, by the way, now that the office is back in your life, there are likely beneficial elements of routines there that that you want to leverage as well. Take stock of that now and be mindful about what you need to create and sustain your optimal life rhythm.

You have to take care of yourself to be in a position to do anything good for anyone else. I think and hope keeping these three things in mind – boundaries, big rocks, and your life rhythm – as you return to the office will help you do that.

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