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13 Anxieties of Returning to the Office, Ranked

Return-to-office mandates have arrived.

Return-to-office mandates have arrived.

As an employee working remotely, you were probably met with a mixed bag of emotions when you read or heard of the announcement that your company was opening its doors for onsite work. And those emotions would have been further compounded if they made return-to-office (RTO) mandatory.

The RTO mandates have arrived, and for the most part, employee reception has not been pleasant. Can we blame the Big Quit and its associated labor shortages on mandatory onsite work alone? Perhaps not. But surely, whether you are in favor of office work or are inclined to working remotely for good – you are bound to have some anxieties around this whole return-to-office thing.

Here are thirteen anxieties of returning to the office, ranked.

13. The eventual return of the 9-to-5

Perhaps this isn’t the biggest concern right away, because even bosses and administrators themselves need time to adjust to a regular office schedule. The dominant view right now, especially if you take out the views expressed by the execs of investment banks Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan & Chase, is that hybrid work is here to stay for good. That a fixed, non-flexible schedule to work at the office simply isn’t coming back. However, some may view that this whole hybrid fanciness is just a way to ease people back into working at the company’s real estate, eventually making workers forget that working remotely did work very well once upon a time. The 9-to-5, in-office workstyle may just eventually come back, like an asteroid that’s still far away but might eventually hit ground and wreak havoc when the day comes.

12. Impact on finances

Working remotely saved expenses on gas, eating out, unnecessarily expensive coffee, and much more. The tradeoff was that you’d spend for your own electricity, home internet, cooling, and other utilities that cost you nothing when you worked from the office. Despite the tradeoff, some workers were able to save a lot during the pandemic because there simply wasn’t much to do outside of work. Once work from the office returns though, you may not be so ready for the pre-pandemic expenses to come back. And with stagnant wages, you might find that your personal pre-pandemic allowance isn’t enough to cover your expenses anymore (thanks a lot, inflation!).

11. Goodbye unscheduled breaks and short walks

This may not be true for every workplace, as some employers are pretty flexible when it comes to taking breaks. If you felt that your company wasn’t flexible enough with breaks during remote work, then all the more would be the case once you return to the office. If there’s one thing that I really loved about working from home, it was that I was able to take walks outside and away from a computer screen. Now, I can still do that while working from the office, but with your boss and your co-workers back at their desks – wouldn’t you be anxious of them looking for you and wondering where you might be? Work-from-office seems to have this philosophy built in where you are expected to be at your desk, all day. Hopefully that won’t be the case anymore in the age of hybrid work.

10. Is it safe to eat around strangers?

Maybe you aren’t that fearful anymore of dining at a common area (restaurant, food court, etc.) under the new normal. Eating at work though, can be a little different. Although you may not find your co-workers as complete strangers, they are still strangers in a sense that you don’t live at the same house with them and you might not interact a lot with them outside of work. This means that you might be a bit fearful of sharing a meal with them, for fear of Covid.

9. Fearing for the safety of family members at home

This fear was obviously the number two fear (right next to getting Covid yourself) back when there weren’t vaccines yet, and companies wanted employees to come back. Right now, it has taken a little bit of a back seat with vaccines becoming more accessible, even to the younger population. However, this anxiety still can’t be full discounted because there are indeed people who are unable to receive the vaccine because of their own health condition. And during the lockdowns, some employees decided to move back with their parents, or vice versa. Hence, this anxiety is still present for some employees when their employer mandates return-to-office, and can sometimes be the reason for the employee to quit.

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8. Having to leave early for the commute

For many, it’s the long, recurring commutes to-and-from the workplace that makes them resistant to return to the office. Working remotely removed the time wasted of preparing to head to the office plus the actual going-to-the-office. In both sides of the commute cycle, you sort of need to carve out some time to prepare for the commute – on one side, you need to wake up at wee hours for hygiene and breakfast; and on the other side, you need to leave before rush hour so as not to get stuck in traffic.

7. Not being able to speak up as you used to

Speaking at video calls isn’t the same as speaking inside a meeting room. Of course, at every call or meeting there’s usually a dominant voice – normally the head of the team or the manager. During the age of Zoom calls (which I think we are slowly easing out of) some team members who weren’t used to speaking up during physical meetings were able to get out of their shells and speak up with confidence. Heading back to the office, these workers residing near the introvert spectrum may lose a little bit of that spark they used to have, seeing all the made-up faces and external stimuli inside a conference room.

6. More work awaits

Is there more work needed to be done at the office, or is it just a perception thing? Is workload location-dependent? I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’d say that a benefit of returning to the office may be the reduced quantity and duration of meetings. What used to be a full-on 1-on-1 Zoom call lasting 30 minutes would be reverted back to a quick standup by your cubicle. And the minutes wasted on muting-and-unmuting, screen-sharing, and all the time wasters in online meetings seem to disappear once physical meetings return. The downside? More time is freed up to give you more work – at least that’s the case for some. Now that your boss or your co-workers can see you all the time, their perception might be that they can give your more to do.

5. Here we go again with office politics

If you were happy about office politics losing a bit of steam when everyone retreated to their comfortable homes to take work with them, then you might be a little scared that the office politics which you so did not enjoy being a part of before the pandemic, might be making a comeback. Office politics can be so subtle, that you only realize some power plays once they had already happened. And oftentimes, office politics by itself can be hindrance for you to get something simple accomplished – like when you ask for help from a member of another team, but his boss undermines that collaboration because he’s threatened by your boss or doesn’t like him. Office politics may not have been so annoying during work-from-home, but with people occupying the same place together – the intermingling of personalities, the reality of hierarchies, the constant one-upping – all of it may just come marching back once everyone returns to the office.

4. Unhealthy workplace culture

Workplace culture isn’t supposed to change, just because workers shifted the place where they did their work. Work culture is embedded and inherent of a company – you will feel it on Teams calls as much as when inside conference rooms. However, there may be employers out there who go out of their way to create a workplace environment that is toxic. A perpetual sense of competition, infighting, backstabbing – all of these have a way to become amplified in offices.

3. Actual productivity will take a hit

Advocates of work-from-home will attest that productivity is at its peak when you’re working by yourself and with no co-workers around to distract you. When office work returns, so do the casual conversations, water cooler talk, errands you did as a favor, the walking and setting up at an actual meeting room (instead of one click to the Join button), and all the other non-productive stuff. But hey – most of this is pretty useful in building and nurturing relationships among co-workers, but they’re usually not useful at all when it comes to productivity. And so, the question becomes, are you willing to give up some productivity for the sake of making friends?

2. Eyes everywhere

The increase in productivity when working at home, or at a remote location, can easily be attributed to working in a space where you feel completely comfortable. Meaning, you are able to work without being ‘spied on.’ When office work returns, that easily means that there are points in the workday where you feel like you’re being physically monitored. In remote work, some companies still do a terrific job of tracking their employees – but in office work, you get to feel that more when you work in a space with so many people passing by. Now, the eyes everywhere anxiety may just be a culture thing – you can easily feel comfortable working inside the office of a company where everyone’s trusted to do the work they were paid to do. But some employers are indeed notorious for making feel employees that they are being watched, for every second of the day – some go as far as firing people for simply having a few minutes of idle time at their desk.

1. Expected to be glued to your desk

I put this at number one for a reason. The transition to remote work gave so many employees the flexibility they never once had. And as the work went on, they (and their employers) realized that they could be trusted to do the work they were paid to do, despite not being visible to superiors. The anxiety that creeps in once everyone’s back at the office is that the flexibility during remote work may just entirely disappear. And along with it – the trust. Because let’s face it, not everyone trusted themselves to be able to stay productive while working from the comfort of their own homes. If you didn’t trust yourself to get work done – how much more from your own boss? To be expected to be glued to your desk for the entire duration of the workday (save for bathroom trips, water cooler, meal breaks, etc.) is one of the worst parts about working at the office. Not only was this unhealthy (companies even had to spend for wellness programs to address the effects of sitting at a desk all day) it was downright tyrannical.

Relax. Even employees who have been working from the office during the pandemic are anxious of the return to workplace normalcy.

Relax. Even employees who have been working from the office during the pandemic are anxious of the return to workplace normalcy.

Take a moment to relax

Do you agree with this ranking? I hope this covered most of the fears you had, especially if you’re one of those still fearful of returning to the workplace after a long period of working remotely. I will tell you this – even those who have been regularly working at the office during the pandemic are also anxious of the return of a pre-pandemic workstyle. While the majority view is that workers will now have more flexibility in their jobs moving forward – more work-life balance, less micromanaging, more time off – there’s also a view that once the smoke clears, employers will be happy to impose strict workstyles once again. Even so, take time to relax. If you belong to an industry or work for a company that doesn’t allow for some flexibility at all, maybe it’s not so bad to look elsewhere.

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