Days versus hours

Frustrated by the return to the office? There’s a reason for that, and it’s not your commute.

When this seemingly never-ending bout of working from home started, I was quite happy. I like being at home and I don’t mind working from home. In fact, it would be good, I thought, to be able to get up in the morning, make a coffee and have a stroll round the block before settling down to a good solid 8 hours of work.

Countless articles, features and blog posts have taught us that that isn’t what happened. I’m not going to try to write something that hasn’t already been written about loneliness, drinking too much, exercising too little or the sheer tedium of never seeing another room or living area.

There’s a good reason it seems tedious apparently. When we travel or experience something new, our brain uses energy to encode that experience into memory. When we experience the same thing again and again the brain doesn’t do this and it all becomes one bland soup of oneness. That’s why you can remember the hotel room from your last business trip but not what you wore to work yesterday.

But now a new dawn breaks! The return to the office! No more tedium, no more getting stressed by the washing that wasn’t hung up while I was doing my proper job. No more feeling guilty for a quick coffee break that could now happen naturally and with colleagues! The commute will be a joy, the meetings at the office will be face to face. Finally!

So back at the office, and the first thing that struck me was just how varied a day at the office is. A meeting, a coffee, another meeting, phoning clients, making a plan, another meeting and so on. No wonder it felt weird to sit at the PC for 8 hours a day at home. We never, ever do that at the office.

Of course, the “working from home” genie is out the bottle now – we’re not going to go back to the full five day at the office workweek, right? A certain amount of days working from home will, by most companies, be “allowed” or even “encouraged”. But do days working from home really solve anything?

It is, of course, dangerous to generalise. Maybe some people want to work four days a week at the office and one at home. Maybe others want to work 3 days a week at the office and two at home. Still others may want to work four hours a day at the office and be there for their family in the afternoons when the kids go to their activities.

The point here is that the frustration you feel when going back to the office isn’t about number of days. It’s about being forced back (even if only for a few days a week) into the patterns that most were very glad to get out of. The stress of having a boss booking a meeting from four to five when you have to be at your daughter’s taekwondo at half past five. The doctor’s appointment at eight o’clock when you have a full day of office interaction planned. The sheer drudgery of sitting in traffic for an hour.

My suggestion is therefore that companies stop thinking about “days” at the office and concentrate on “hours”. A guideline of perhaps 20 hours a week at the office, to be managed by the employee would solve a lot of problems. The parent of young children can arrive at 10 and leave at 2 every day, thus avoiding rush-hour traffic and still making the daily meetings. The salesperson could work 3 days a week at the office and catch up on admin on Thursdays and Fridays.

After all, why not use this opportunity to rethink our relationship with days and instead define the workweek by hours?

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