Do you have a fear of returning to the office?

My husband is standing in the kitchen, asking me if his shirt is stained. He looks different: clean-shaven, sharper. I like it. “I think it’s just the light,” I say. “It’s fine.” He changes anyway, then comes in again, looking preoccupied. “I don’t know whether these trousers work,” he says. “What would you usually wear?” I ask. “My Japanese jeans,” he replies. “But I’ve been wearing them every day for about six months.” “No, not those,” I agree. “Have you found an Oyster card?”

He’s heading back to the office. It’s not even his own, but a client’s – his regular co-working space was another casualty of Covid. He went into an office on an almost daily basis for 20-plus years, but now doing so has the intimidating aura of a polar expedition. Will he get blisters wearing proper shoes? Can he locate a respectable notebook? Will he know what to say when he gets there?

The office is – possibly – back. Finally, the things that horrendously ill-conceived Dettol advert promised us last summer – “Proper bants. The boss’s jokes. Office gossip” – are within reach. Various high-profile organisations are making noises about getting “back to normal”. There were shockwaves when Google announced it expected staff back on-site from September and anyone wishing to work remotely for more than 14 days a year would have to request it formally. “We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new, so we don’t see that changing,” declared CEO Sundar Pichai.

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Goldman Sachs, whose CEO David Solomon’s previous tone-deaf statement that working from home was an “aberration” went down like a quarterly profits warning, has doubled down, requesting staff return to the office from June. Last week, WeWork’s CEO Sandeep Mathrani chillingly declared: “Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.” Anecdotally, friends report a hardening of the party line at all sorts of organisations, increased expectations of physical presence and the deployment of the unholy word “reboarding”. In a survey of 2000 UK office workers commissioned by the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) in March, 31% felt their employer was pressuring them to return.

‘I used to have to get up at 4.40am just to be in the office on time.’
‘I used to have to get up at 4.40am just to be in the office on time.’ Photograph: Rawpixel/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Outdated and inhumane, a hard structural barrier to a more diverse workforce, the 9 to 5, five-day working week and its obnoxious sibling, the rush-hour commute, were, we thought, dead and buried. The experts said so: “The 9 to 5 workday is dead,” Brent Hyder, president of software giant Salesforce, declared in February, introducing indefinite remote work for employees who want it. Having tasted life without coffee breath, door blockers on delayed Northern Line trains and cubicle lunches, it’s hard to imagine going back to that way of working full time. Research consistently shows we do not want to – on average we see ourselves working from home three days a week in future, according to the IWFM survey. And why not, when we’ve shown it works?

But now that even Silicon Valley pioneers such as Google are cracking the whip, perhaps reports of the demise of traditional working models were greatly exaggerated. “It feels like an unspoken threat is hanging over us,” says a friend. “No one is really ruling out a full-time return to the office.” Is the pyjama (and slipper, and tracksuit) party over? And if so, how does that feel?

I realised recently that most of my family’s comfort lockdown TV has been office-based: we rewatched all nine seasons of the gentler US version of The Office, and dipped in and out of Parks and Recreation, based around the office of the Pawnee parks department, for at least the fifth time. Offices are perfect sitcom fodder: a cast of comfortable archetypes (the grump, the “mum”, the joker) in a static set-up, the humour drawn from people behaving as they always do. Our viewing reflected a sort of emergent nostalgia for office life and its well-worn rhythms.

There are things we miss: the effortless human contact, the free coffee, pens and easy-to-steal loo roll. Oh, and the printer. I asked around and everyone, but everyone, misses the printer (or more accurately, I suspect, “the printer being someone else’s problem”). That is what the Dettol advert was trying, clumsily (and prematurely) to pinpoint.

I left my last office 10 years ago, so I was experiencing that nostalgia even before offices were roped off behind pandemic hazard warning tape. I often think fondly of the subsidised canteen and the on-tap soap opera of seeing the same people every day.

Up all hours: a worker burns the night oil in an empty office block.
Up all hours: a worker burns the night oil in an empty office block. Photograph: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

But hang on. If I actually look critically at the various places that I and my friends have worked, the picture becomes less rosy and heartwarming. Between us, we have experienced sexual harassment, breakdowns, burnout, bullying and crushing boredom. A corporate culture of presenteeism with on-site showers and bedrooms made me adept at creating a deceptive desk tableau (screen and lights on, jacket on back of chair) suggesting I was still in the office. I liked my colleagues (mostly) and I believe the organisations I worked for were sincere in their desire to create a humane workplace, but I was, at times, intimidated, resentful and despairing.

“I think we have fetishised the office,” says Annie Auerbach, founder of trends agency Starling, and author of Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life. “We remember it through rose-tinted glasses as a place where learning happened through osmosis, and sparky conversation around the water cooler led to breakthrough ideas and innovation. And that might have happened, sometimes. But often the office was the site of solo, silo-ed work, where workers wore headphones at hotdesks. People felt lonely in the office, too.”

Ask around about the return of office-based life and the word “dread” comes back again and again. Welcome to FORTO – Fear of Returning to The Office.

“Every time another company makes a “back to normal” announcement a cold dread clutches at my heart,” says a friend who works in publishing. “I dread sitting in a cubicle again,” says D, a health researcher. “The commute, the clothes, the having to talk to people I don’t give a shit about… I’m basically dreading all of it,” says J, who works in higher education. “There’s a definite wave of pre-office-return resignations and job moves going on: everyone is dreading it and wanting a fresh start,” says L, who works for a software company. “I have to get up at 4.40am to get to the office on time,” says T, who works in oil and gas. “I did it for six years without giving it a thought. I dread going back to that.” “My work-related anxiety stopped from one moment to the next when our office closed,” says K starkly, of her charity sector job.

How do you face your fears, rational and irrational, of returning to the office? (“What if everyone has changed and collectively decided I’m awful?” asks my friend R, a senior civil servant, only partly joking.) “It’s an adaptive and normal way to feel in this situation,” says occupational psychologist Janet Fraser, who was part of the team behind the British Psychological Society’s guidance on Covid-related anxiety and distress in the workplace. She emphasises that fears are specific to individual circumstances. “It can be fear about travel, about behaviours in the workplace, about what’s going on back at home. You may also be very attached to the way you were able to work.” Her advice is: “Stop, pause, reflect. Consider what it is that you are concerned about, then have that discussion with your manager. Be prepared with some suggestions of what would make a difference to you.”

Employers should be receptive, though not all are. “Clear and honest communication is absolutely vital right now,” says business coach Dani Grieveson. “One of my clients, a female executive whose next step is board, said, ‘I haven’t even heard from my boss since Christmas.’ Our needs have to be communicated, because unfortunately we don’t have fully working crystal balls.” It’s a message reiterated by Fraser, who notes: “If people are in a state of heightened emotion, they process information differently. Expecting people to get it first time is not actually a good expectation. The advice is to communicate, then communicate and then communicate again.” Grieveson emphasises the benefits for employers. “Research shows that when employee wellbeing is supported, employees are 81% less likely to seek out a new job.” This does not always happen: workers are pressured to return to on-site work before they are ready, or in circumstances where they feel unsafe. “There will be employers who are not disposed to be compassionate,” says Fraser. “Can you talk to your peers, what other social support networks do you have, is there someone else in your organisation you can go to?”

Empty corridor in modern office building at nightEmpty company office in time of coronavirus quarantine.
Corridor of power: even in an office some workers often felt alone. Photograph: Getty Images

More radically, you can vote with your feet. A survey from February revealed that half of UK employees would resign if denied flexible working. The IWFM survey reinforces this, with 47% of respondents – and two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds – saying not being offered flexible working would lead them to look for another job.

“I think too many people recognised that we don’t have to work the way we did in March 2020,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less and founder of the Strategy and Rest consultancy. “The power to make those changes resides with workers.” Almost two-thirds of people surveyed in March agree, believing this period of home working has made it unnecessary to work in the office. Pang points out that organisations have always made exceptions when it suited them. “The challenge is to recognise that everyone – and every company – can potentially benefit.” “The genie is out of the bottle,” confirms Auerbach. “If businesses want to access the best talent, they need to listen to them and what we’ve learned during this period.” Plenty of employers are doing that. “We’re witnessing a raft of companies announcing their new models,” says Auerbach. “I think Google is an edge case,” says Pang. “I remain optimistic. Other big companies are planning permanent hybrid-work schedules.”

There’s a legitimate question, however, about whether working from home is actually the panacea for our work/life balance ills. Many report that work crises were harder to handle in isolation (“It’s terrifying and I have regular panic attacks,” says A, a programmer) and relationships are trickier to manage. “Being in the office defused frictions, which lockdown has clearly exacerbated,” says V, an HR and equality adviser. “So much miscommunication,” laments J, a creative.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, agrees. “One thing that has become very clear is that it is really hard to hide a bad meeting on Zoom.” Even a good meeting is, in a sense, unsatisfactory. “The way the algorithm works and the norms of politeness mean everyone is on mute and what that does is create a very sterile environment.” Training and mentoring are also more difficult. “It’s been hard seeing people suffering and not being there to squeeze a hand,” says my friend N.

There is truth, too, in the justification many creative businesses are using to push for a return to on-site work: camaraderie, spontaneity, the “sparky conversation around the water cooler” are all good for both business and morale. “The currency of gathering in person has gone up,” as Parker puts it. “Connection often happens in the informal, in the spontaneous, in the hallways, the interstitial,” she says. “So much social capital is built in these informal moments.” “There are forms of collaboration that really do require bringing people together, and tacit knowledge that only exists when people are in the same room,” says Pang.

There’s another problem with WFH: we do much more of it. Employees’ working-from-home research indicates that homeworkers spent on average two more hours per day online since the start of the pandemic. Many people also found the cohabitation of private and work lives deeply uncomfortable, even without the grisly prospect of home schooling in the mix. “I didn’t realise how badly it would shoot my work/life balance. There’s zero decompression time,” says E, who works in higher education.

“Dissolving boundaries between work and personal time is a great tragedy even for people who love their work,” says Pang (this gives me pause, speaking to him on my 18th straight day working). It erodes our ability to manage time and “makes it harder for people to disengage from work, rest and renew their creative juices… I’m actually a fan of people going back to offices, but I want offices that aren’t just people warehouses and distraction amplifiers, but places that support work that you really can’t do anywhere else.”

That’s the real challenge: making the office better, a draw rather than a five-days-a-week chore. It’s less about providing more outside space, or futuristic bio-feedback meeting rooms, though both have been mooted, and more about listening and taking the time to learn.

“This should be a time of experimentation,” says Auerbach. “Immediately trying to nail down new models before we’ve had a chance to breathe and experiment feels like a massive lost opportunity.” There’s an “existential questioning,” says Parker, of which in-person interactions are valuable, how and why. “We’re seeing a deep examination, beyond the designers, sociologists and anthropologists who cared about this pre-pandemic about when and how we meet: what do we want to preserve, what do we want to get rid of and what can we invent?”

Office life has to get better, because we won’t accept the bad old version: things have changed. “The great resignation is coming,” writes US academic Anthony Klotz, predicting a wave of post-pandemic life epiphanies; the unionised workforce at Vice media is currently campaigning for a four-day week. My husband came back from his expedition energised, but with no desire to go back again the next day. That old chestnut about not wishing you had spent more time in the office on your deathbed has become very real: surely there’s no way back from that.


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