How Can Remote Workers Adapt to Office Life Again?

illustration of women stressed out and sitting at computer

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Key Takeaways

  • Multiple surveys have shown that remote workers would prefer to stay remote or adopt a hybrid work schedule after the pandemic.
  • Workplace telepressure, the urge to respond to work messages and emails quickly, existed even before the pandemic, and it can contribute to burnouts, sleep quality issues, and absenteeism.
  • Experts encourage explicit conversations among colleagues and supervisors to establish expectations and finding ways to sustain any healthy habits formed during the the pandemic.

Two types of workers have emerged as companies finalize their return-to-office plans: ones who wish to work remotely forever and ones who are excited to leave their home.

The final decision, however, is up to the employers. Tech giants like Apple and Google are adopting a hybrid work model, where workers can have flexibility in choosing when to work from home. Some firms, like Morgan Stanley, strictly require their employees to fully return by this fall. 

While some workers are ready to embrace the office again, others may find the transition period challenging or disruptive. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many to reflect on what work-life balance means as they spent the last year maneuvering the joys and grievances of remote work.

How will these workers adapt to office life again?

Will Speros, a New York-based magazine editor, has returned to working in the office one day per week since May. He thought he would be thrilled to get away after 14 months of working from home, but commuting again reminded him of the pressure of a rigid nine-to-five schedule. 

“[The pandemic] forced me to slow down because there was just so much needless self-imposed rushing in my day-to-day previously,” he tells Verywell.

At home, Speros would work at his own pace and still complete his tasks on time. As he spent more hours sitting in a chair each day, he started paying close attention to his posture and tension in his jaw. 

“It gave me permission to be more gentle on my body,” he says of working from home, adding that he would sometimes take a nap during the workday if he feels sluggish. 

Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a sleep scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells Verywell an increase in napping and average sleep duration is one of the positive consequences of the pandemic.

Instead of relying on coffee or energy drinks to get through the workday, Robbins suggests an afternoon “power nap” can increase one’s focus and alertness, although this habit may be unacceptable in the workplace. For those shifting back to office settings, Robbins recommends reducing “social jet lag,” which occurs when people delay their bedtime on the weekends and then compensate for it during the workweek.

“If you stay up late on a Friday or Saturday night for social reasons, trying to get back to your Monday schedule is a nightmare,” she says.

Over 80% of the professionals who worked remotely during the pandemic prefer to stay remote or adopt a hybrid schedule, according to a recent survey by Harvard Business School Online. In another survey conducted by Envoy, nearly half of the respondents said they would leave their job if it did not offer a hybrid work arrangement.

Creating Work-Life Separation

Despite the strong preferences for post-pandemic remote work, some employees are keen to return to the office.

Desmond Foo, a software engineer who has worked remotely since March 2020, tells Verywell that he has struggled with staying focused and motivated. He appreciated the flexibility and convenience of working from home initially, but mindless distractions like Netflix and TikTok have stretched his workday longer than usual. Previously an active runner, Foo has found himself gradually sinking into a sedentary lifestyle and never picked up running again. 

“I ended up spending more time with work in the back of my mind throughout the day,” he says, adding that he used to be able to leave work behind when he clocked out of the office. “Now my computer is always there, and it’s very easy to get tempted to check my email at 11 p.m.” 

Most people would prefer a hybrid approach, Foo adds, but he would like to return to the office full time again. “It’d be better for my work-life balance overall,” he says.

Remote workers might overcompensate for the lack of physical presence by staying online and being responsive to messages and emails even during their leisure time. Lacie Barber, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the San Diego State University, describes this phenomenon as “workplace telepressure,” the urge to respond to text-based communications quickly.

What Is Workplace Telepressure?

Workplace telepressure describes the preoccupation/urge to respond to work-related messages and emails immediately. This habit has been linked to poor sleep quality, burnouts, and other negative health outcomes.

Barber tells Verywell that people were exhausted from telepressure even before the pandemic, whether they worked remotely or in-person. “You can feel telepressure in the office as well, like trying to get other work done but getting distracted by messages popping into your inbox,” she says. 

In her research, Barber found that telepressured workers reported higher rates of burnout, absenteeism, and sleep quality issues. Burnout was already a rising concern among the workforce prior to the pandemic, according to a Gallup survey, and the abrupt switch to working from home full time prompted a sharp increase in levels of daily stress.

Having explicit communication about availability is the key to striking a balance between on and off time, Barber adds. “It’s important to turn off gadgets periodically during work time as well,” she says. “Many of our work tasks require deep work, focused time for complex or critical thinking.”

For managers who feel obligated to stay connected, this period of collective reflection offers a chance to "delegate and empower other members" in the team with additional mentorship and training, Barber says.

The Right to Disconnect

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only forced a drastic change in how people work, but also in how they define their relationship with work. Across Europe, unions and politicians are pushing for the legal right to disconnect, referring to regulations that would set clear boundaries for work hours. But the same trend is received with skepticism in the United States, Barber explains. 

“Our political environment has not been supportive of workers’ rights in general,” she says, adding that there are misconceptions about how these laws would restrict business hours for companies. “In fact, the law [in France] is merely requiring that companies establish predictable hours that employees need to be responsive to emails.”

Although moving away from the “always-on” mentality in the U.S. requires efforts from both individuals and employers, legal regulations can send a broader message of “valuing healthy work practices and avoiding exploitative ones,” Barber adds. 

Larger conversations surrounding work-life balance are underway for many companies and their workers. While employers are learning to be flexible and open-minded about individual needs and differences, employees are also responsible for reviewing their own technology habits. 

Robbins, who studied how the pandemic has encouraged longer sleep for people in metropolitan areas, says that it is important to sustain healthy behaviors as workers readjust to new routines. This could mean being mindful of weekend sleep schedules or meditating daily to reduce stress. 

“Reflect on what you have changed during the pandemic," Robbins says. "If there are healthy changes, find a way to retain those habits as we consider going back to the workplace."

What This Means For You

If you are returning to the office, take the readjustment period to see what works for you and openly communicate your needs and expectations to your colleagues and supervisors.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Robbins R, Affouf M, Weaver MD, et al. Estimated sleep duration before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in major metropolitan areas on different continents: observational study of smartphone app dataJ Med Internet Res. 2021;23(2):e20546. doi:10.2196/20546

  2. Barber LK, Conlin AL, Santuzzi AM. Workplace telepressure and work-life balance outcomes: The role of work recovery experiencesStress Health. 2019;35(3):350-362. doi:10.1002/smi.2864

  3. Barber LK, Santuzzi AM. Please respond ASAP: workplace telepressure and employee recoveryJ Occup Health Psychol. 2015;20(2):172-189. doi:10.1037/a0038278

By Daphne Lee
Daphne Lee is a senior news editor at Verywell Health.