After years of resisting, some workers are back at their desks. The secret? They don’t hate it.
Soon after graduating from university in 2021, Jessica Bryan landed a fully remote job handling customer service at a tech company. She absolutely loved working from home.
“I could work for a bit, then walk the dog or meet a friend for coffee, then continue working after,” she says. “I had this great office space in my house, too. As soon as I had finished work, I had the ability to fully relax.”
Then, as Covid-19 restrictions eased, Bryan’s bosses asked her to spend more and more time in the office. It was her first experience of a full-time, in-person environment. “I was back in an almost-school routine … and I didn't like it,” says the 24-year-old, based in the UK. In February 2022, she left the company, determined to stick only with roles that afforded her the flexibility and freedom of working remotely.
She landed a remote role soon thereafter, but the job ended abruptly in August 2022, when the company unexpectedly dissolved. Bryan is now in a new position at a digital PR firm as a senior copywriter – but she’s required to spend two to three days a week in the office.
A few months in, she’s surprised by how much she’s enjoying it – even after digging in her heels against returning.
“It creeped up on me how much I liked being in the office,” she says. “In the mornings, I'd be looking forward to seeing my colleagues and having a nice chat.” Bryan missed the camaraderie in a way she never would’ve predicted only a few months ago. “That social interaction and feel of being part of a collective is something I think people forget when they’ve not had it for ages.”
Bryan is one of a growing group of workers who have quietly changed their minds about returning to their desks, at least a little. They’re rediscovering the unexpected perks of being back in the office, from catching up with colleagues face-to-face, to finding themselves able to draw clearer boundaries between work and home.
And while many are willing to tell their bosses they’re glad to be back, some have taken the decision to keep those feelings quiet – they don’t want to encourage management to take away flexible-work arrangements
‘There’s no ignoring me when you’re in person’
When millions of workers were forced to pivot to remote work at the start of the pandemic, it was a major adjustment.
Alexander Kahn, a director of account management at Miami-based software firm Kaseya, says it took about three months to fully get into a routine of working from his kitchen table, having always been based full-time in an office. But quickly, he began to appreciate the “undeniable benefits”. With no commute, he had time to run household errands during the day and spend lots of extra time with his dogs.
So, when his employer decided to bring staff back into the office full-time in June 2021, Kahn was reluctant to get on board.
“I wasn't overjoyed,” he admits. “It was a shock. In a year and three months, you get used to certain things. I was in the cohort that was thinking, ‘I'm performing at my job and the company is performing, so what is the need to go back into an office?’ We're a sales-based company. What's the benefit of going back if I'm still ticking all the boxes and I'm still selling?”
Many workers have shared the same sentiment. According to a survey by US-based recruitment platform FlexJobs, about two-thirds of people surveyed between July and August 2022 wanted to keep working remotely full-time, while 32% wanted the chance to work from home at least a few days per week. Another report by workplace insights company ADP Research Institute, which surveyed more than 32,000 US workers in November 2021, found 64% would look for another job if their employer wanted them back in the office full-time
Still, many companies have still brought back workers to office, at least a few days per week. And some of the workers who resisted the return are finding that maybe it’s not so bad after all.
Like Bryan, once Kahn was back in the Miami office, the 29-year-old quickly discovered upsides. “I started to realise that if I wanted to have a conversation with someone or work through a problem, there's no ignoring me when you're in person,” he says. “If I needed a simple answer to a quick question, that might have been a multi-hour process at home. But now if I need an answer from one of our VPs, I can walk in their office and get things done a lot quicker.”
He also found personal benefits, such as an improved work life balance. “My home time is my home time,” he says. “It's time with my family, and when I'm in the office I give it my all.”
Keeping quiet, for now
As much as some workers are finding themselves surprisingly happy to be back, they aren’t all comfortable broadcasting their change of heart to their employers. They fear of losing all the flexibility they’ve accrued during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, employers “paid lip service to the idea of flexibility, but it didn’t happen, in real terms, for many people”, says Liz Sebag‑Montefiore, director and co-founder of 10Eighty, a London-based firm that works with organisations to improve employee experience. Now that these promises have been realised for many, “most of us want more flexibility, more choice, more autonomy, better work-life balance, and we don’t want to give up the few advantages we have wrenched from lockdown”.
“It can be difficult to discuss the perks and joys of being in the office without being concerned that you may trade in your perks of flexibility,” adds Sarah Burrows, a career change coach based in London. “Therefore, you may feel more risk averse when discussing your enjoyment of being in the office and not over-sharing how much you enjoy it out of nervousness of this level of autonomy being taken away.”
Even Bryan is careful about how she frames her positive experience. Although she isn’t afraid to share her feelings with her new employers, she always prefaces any discussion with the fact that she enjoys the flexibility of hybrid work. And though she’s sure “they’d be absolutely delighted if I wanted to work full-time in the office”, she’s also confident any such change would be a two-way conversation, rather than an order.
Of course, as more and more companies start to re-think remote work, the return-to-office issue will continue to be divisive among workers, who have different preferences. For some, it may even be enough to cause quits for more flexible roles. But for others who don’t have the ability or desire to leave, a transition back into the office might come with some surprising perks, leading even the most devout remote work fans to think again.