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Back to the Office—and What We’re Leaving Behind

June 12, 2020

On June 2, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced Western New York’s entrance into Phase Two of the state’s ongoing economic reopening. It was a big step forward in a health and economic crisis unlike any other seen for generations, but it also signaled another forthcoming reality.

For tens of thousands of upstate workers who’ve spent nearly three months working from home through an either ideal, makeshift, or maddening (see: parents) tenure, it means an eventual return to conventional office space is finally on the horizon.

But what does this mean not only in New York State, but across the United States and world? The offices we return to will not be the spaces we left. Open floor plans crafted to facilitate communication will need to be adjusted for safety concerns. Office environments that thrived on their enviable culture and camaraderie will take a hit, as social distancing and health fears will separate workers in ways that will take time to get used to.

This creates challenges—but it overlooks some big positives. Over the past three months, those working from home have acquired proficiencies in communication, efficiency, and safety that will pay major dividends for companies going forward, all while acquiring an appreciation for some of the bright spots from this unconventional employment experience. On paper, it translates into a series of gains and losses as we navigate a reconfigured professional existence.

While The Martin Group is waiting to make its own transition back into our workspaces in Albany, Buffalo, and Rochester, we’d like to consider what we’ll be bringing to our office operations moving forward, all while lamenting some of the spoils we’ll leave behind in our personalized home offices.

What we’re bringing, no. 1:

A new proficiency at internal communications

Before the COVID-19 outbreak sent us to our own separate workspaces, internal communications were spread across various approaches, and the ease of face-to-face addresses was the norm—and taken for granted. After three months of working from home, communicating with coworkers through clear messaging and conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams is now the norm, as is the preparation, proficiency, and engagement now expected of everyone involved. This will allow more location flexibility once staffs are back in offices; permit necessary social distancing precautions to not be disruptive; and in the long term, may invite more participation from those not always available for on-site meetings.    

What we’re leaving, no. 1:

The never-ending workday

Just as there’s comfort in the expectations of interoffice communication, so has relief been revealed via the obliteration of the 9-to-5 workday. For some, this has been liberating, with flexibility to start earlier in the day, and for night owls (see: me), the freedom to utilize your preferred time period for maximum productivity. It’s also allowed some to spread out their schedule amid day-to-day tasks, and resulted in the work-life balance that’s sometimes not attainable within the constraints of a traditional workday. Freelancers know this world well. Now, traditional workers have an appreciation for it, too.

What we’re bringing, no. 2:

Efficiency by necessity

Working from home has many benefits, but one thing that’s difficult to manage is the blurred line between your personal and professional life. Responsibilities like pets and children have vied for our attention amid hard deadlines; and lack of spaces specifically cultivated for work have turned places we usually relax into cubicles. To do this has required a renewed focus on efficiency within the time (and space) we’re allotted. Employees have had a crash course in beating back myriad distractions to maintain productivity. Bringing this honed focus to a space void of these distractions—and dedicated to work—could breed renewed cohesion, as well as a sigh of relief.

What we’re leaving, no. 2:

Creature comforts—and creatures

Pajama-clad workdays, with daily showers and hair maintenance optional. Zoom meetings from your bed with the video off—while eating a bowl of Cookie Dough ice cream. Cranking Fugazi’s “13 Songs” at deafening volume while working toward a deadline, all while head-banging approval to your loyal Labrador curled up next to your desk. Over the past three months, many have found liberation in surrounding themselves with such comforts not typically existent within their place of business. It’s been a chance to test-drive the inclusion of accentuates that could improve our days, all while showing management that such freedoms wouldn’t hinder—and, in some cases, could boost—productivity or efficiency. Dependent on your success, maybe Pajama Mondays could become the next chic office concession.    

What we’re bringing, no. 3:

An understanding of safety

Before exiting offices for work-from-home locations, employees were already working to improve hand hygiene, and management teams were requiring more thorough cleaning and disinfecting from on-site maintenance staffs. Since then, we’ve had to adjust to an environment outside our homes—whether with family, friends, or the general public—where face masks, sanitizing, social distancing, curtailed greetings, and a certain amount of anxiety are now expected. These are the requirements with which we’ve become acclimated in a remarkably short period of time, so we’ll return to our reconfigured office environment with a commitment to maintaining this new normal. 

What we’re leaving, no. 3:

Beloved quarantine coworkers

For those living through this period with significant others, spouses, or children, going back to the office will mean leaving the only people we’ve been able to safely embrace. Is this meant to be emotional? Maybe, but some would say separation will breed affection—especially if the omnipresent togetherness has become suffocating. Working, eating, and sleeping alongside your husband, wife, or fiancé for three months straight isn’t always healthy; and juggling a demanding workday while simultaneously playing parent, teacher, and firefighter has proven simply unsustainable for scores of adults. Will we miss the extra time spent with our loved ones? Yes, but maybe a little summertime space could do us some good—and help us recover some semblance of professional and personal normalcy.   

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