Heading back to the office? Read this first

·8-min read
Photo credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz
Photo credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz

From the flexibility of the ‘new’ world of work to the sense of community and collaboration of the ‘old’, here’s how to cherry-pick the best of both for work-life balance according to Elizabeth Uviebinené, author of The Reset: Ideas To Change How We Work And Live (Hodder Studio) and columnist at The Financial Times.

Do you remember what your routine used to be? Did you rush from a crowded commute into a day of emails and meetings, grab a quick drink or exercise class and then head home to bed, exhausted?

Perhaps that’s looking quite appealing right now – I’m sure there are parts of your
old work life that you miss. But what I want to know is, in your pre-lockdown life, did you ever have a minute to stop and ask yourself, ‘What part of this am I choosing?’

I’m guessing not. It feels like we were all on the same treadmill for years. On autopilot, moving along the ‘career path’ in exactly the same way as everyone else – until the pandemic hit and everyone woke up. Lockdown fundamentally changed everything, especially our relationships with work.

Many of us spent years trying to negotiate flexible working, businesses struggled to keep up with changing technology, and we all navigated office politics. Then, overnight, home-working became a given, we had to catchup with the latest tech and... what office?

In the first lockdown we made sourdough while the sun shone, and scrambled to maintain something close to a typical day. More than a year on, we’ve figured out working from
home – and it’s started to feel scarily like normal life. We know when to mute and when to speak in a Zoom meeting, our bosses have (hopefully) worked out what information they need to share, and we’ve managed to stay connected. In spite of the difficulties that we are all facing, we mostly have this working-from-home business nailed.

Lockdown was a totally new environment, and we were on our own, forced to find our own way. And as we made those first steps into independent working, we found things that made it just that little bit easier. Morning meditation, a long walk at lunch, no-email hours – we each developed our own coping strategies. I worked out that by 2pm my brain just isn’t focused on ‘deep work’ any more, so I try to schedule all my meetings in the afternoon and also use it to do mindless admin work or, even better, just go for a walk. I know I’m not alone in finding ways to get by and reshape my day around what I need, and identifying what feeds my soul and helps me stay motivated.

So, what now? Some of us may already be making tentative steps back into office life, or figuring out what our freelance set-up is going to look like going forward. No matter what your job is, things will be a bit different. Perhaps your company plans to encourage flexible working, or maybe all your meetings will include an online component. There could be different business priorities now, and your team might have changed. Right now, it’s all to play for.

What’s clear is that work and life aren’t two separate things; they are intricately interwoven. And if your work isn’t making you happy, chances are your life isn’t all that happy either.

I spoke to some incredible people when I was researching my book, The Reset: Ideas To Change How We Work And Live, from Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to Alex Mahon, CEO of Channel 4. One of the most important things that came out of those conversations was the idea that if you reset how you work, it might just change how you live. There may not be many days left before you’re hurled back towards your old nine-to-five, so now is the time think about what you want to be different.

Whether you’re in an office or you’re freelance, this is your moment to radically reset your relationship with work. It’s about consciously considering what’s essential for keeping you engaged and motivated, and what you could do without.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Uviebinene
Photo credit: Elizabeth Uviebinene

The question is, as we emerge from the cocoon of lockdown, and reintegrate with our new working lives, what are the things about this past year that we want to take with us? What’s possible now that felt impossible before?

5 ways to reset and recalibrate your career

Find your tribe, find your vibe, re-find your community

A 2019 study revealed that 42% of millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than receiving a cancer diagnosis. We’re living through a loneliness epidemic, despite being more connected than ever. But while the pandemic has exacerbated the difficulties of isolation for a lot of people, it has also shown us what community could look like. From coming together in support of Clap For Our Carers to using the Nextdoor app to connect with our neighbours, we found one another. Why don’t you take some of that energy back to work?

With a culture so focused on the hustle and performative workaholism, we need to spend time making and maintaining meaningful relationships. Instead of sticking to the same three friends or having lunch at your desk, reach out to new people. Practically every industry has its own myriad organisations and networks through which you can connect with like-minded people, such as The Dots,STEM Women and Women In Journalism.

Demand more from office culture

We’ve been fed a diet of perks and packages for years, whether it’s ‘Free Lunch Fridays’ or that gym in the basement of your office. But with only 5% of companies offering free childcare next to 32% offering free food, something isn’t adding up.

So what would actually make your work life easier? Meeting-free weeks, perhaps, or more communication channels with leadership? Could it be an entirely new hiring process, or greater disability support? Work out what you need and ask for it – you just might be surprised, because a happy employee is much more likely to stick around.If we start by communicating what we actually want to see from our businesses, we could help recast them.

Develop your passions and skills

Did you discover a hobby during lockdown that transformed your life? Have you unleashed your creative genius or your inner athlete? Finding those skills and interests matters, and not just for lazy Sundays.

It’s up to you to shape your career around what excites you, because no one else will do it for you. Office life can force us to conform, and it’s easy to forget the passions that drove you when you were younger. Take the time to reconnect with what makes you feel alive, and bring those things to work. Ask your boss if you can be involved in a project outside your usual remit, carve out time for training – or why not take a sabbatical to develop something totally different? If you know what you have to offer, you can show others what you're worth.

Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash


Stay balanced

I heard a lot of people over lockdown saying,‘It’s not working from home, it’s living at work’. They were sitting at one desk, in front of one laptop, all day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner – all without leaving the room. I’m guessing that these were the same people who’d stay at work until 9pm and check their emails in bed.

Instead of complaining about your work-life balance, do something about it. Set a different routine and stick to it. Do you think best in the morning? Then do creative work first thing and take a break before getting down to emails. Does your day only end when you have a bath? Light those candles at 6pm and shut down your screen. Only you can bring balance into your life, so establish the rules that will make your job and your life work in harmony.

Work smarter, not harder

Perhaps you read the last point and thought ‘I just can’t fit all my work into that time,
I have to work 10-hour days’. But productivity isn’t about working long hours, it’s about working smart hours. There are all sorts of practical ways to streamline your days, from diary management and clever list making to only going to meetings that are essential.

Next time someone invites you to a 10-person meeting about a project you’re hardly involved in, ask them, ‘Do I need to be there, or could I read the notes?’ There’s a wealth of material to help you find your productivity needs. If you do all of that and you’re still working way past 6pm, then it’s time to speak to your manager, because something has to give – and it shouldn't be your evenings.

My last piece of advice? Learn to switch off. This past year felt like one endless stream of bored and to stop that enables us to be productive, creative and turn all the way up.

The Reset: Ideas To Change How We Work And Live (Hodder Studio) by Elizabeth Uviebinené is out now.

This feature is taken from the June 2021 issue of Red, out now. Subscribe to Red now to get the magazine delivered to your door.

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