WE ARE HOMETOWN NEWS.

Returning to office life has been a big topic over the past year, year and a half. Personally, I had mixed feelings about working from home, but I also had mixed feelings about returning to the office. But what cost are companies paying when they do not encourage employees to return?

When the coronavirus pandemic hit our area in March of 2020, our office had zero remote capabilities. We didn’t have company laptops; we had desktops in the office with our layout software, physical servers that required backup tapes to be changed once a week and more. I hate to say we were in the stone age but … if the shoe fits.

Suddenly, our doors were shuttered. All reporters were working from home, but editors still had to come into the office for the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic to lay out and edit the papers from the office. I remember we each received a special piece of paper specifically for the press that would explain why we were out and about if we were pulled over and were questioned why we were not on lockdown. We simply did not know what would happen. It is so bizarre thinking about those first few weeks, driving through the East Longmeadow rotary to get to the office and not seeing a single car rushing through.

Pretty quickly, the company was able to come up with a workaround: an app on our personal computers that could connect to our desktops in the office. That way, we could access servers from home. It was a bit clumsy, as I had to text my now boss, Curtis Panlilio, every morning when I wanted to log onto the server, as he had to start our remote access individually. But it did the job. Luckily, he was a good sport, and often retorted, “You again?” with a laugh when I – along with most others in the news department – would text him day in and day out.

Luckily, come late 2020, early 2021, the company purchased a laptop for every full- and part-time employee. We also converted to storing information in a secured server in the ever-elusive cloud, giving us the ability to truly work from anywhere at any time. Finally, The Reminder was up to date.

There were a few personal positives to working from home. One major perk being working in sweatpants all day, of course. I appreciated not having a commute or the wear and tear on my car. I also enjoyed having the ability to work from wherever, whenever. Not being chained to my desk was nice – I suddenly had the ability to spend time with my parents at their lake house, because I could simply pull up my laptop at the picnic table. How novel!

On the flip side, though, I did not realize how siloed I had become. No matter how many weekly check-ins the company had – whether it be the managers, my team alone, the news staff in general – it was such a short period of connection. I, like much of the rest of the world, went from spending 40-plus hours a week surrounded by people to suddenly having little human interaction other than my family.

I thought I enjoyed this.

At the time, I felt I was far more productive. I was waking up at 6 a.m., and instead of then beginning the process of showering, doing my hair and makeup, getting dressed and getting in my car to drive into the office – I suddenly gained back all that time. Let’s face it: I was not doing anything else – so I was quite literally pulling my laptop off my bedside table onto my lap, and starting my days hours earlier than I normally would. And, because there were no appointments to rush off to, no friends to meet up with for a drink after work, no dinner to make it home to – I was already home – I would work late. Forget 8 – I would be working until 10, 11 p.m. Why not, right – when there’s truly nothing else to do?

I let my work life – rather abruptly – seep into my personal life. And I did not even notice, or mind. Everything was a blur. My couch that I watched movies on became the couch I edited the paper on. The dining room table I would have family dinners at became where I had Zoom and Teams virtual meetings. For the first few weeks of work from home, I was using the desk in my bedroom as my office space, but thankfully, I did realize this was bad for my mental health as I was never leaving my room and associating the room where I sleep with the room that I work.

I wasn’t able to turn my brain off. Everything in my home became my office. I genuinely had more dreams about work that year than I can count. I had at least two to three a week. It was never ending.

Standard disclaimer: these are not complaints. I’m incredibly, incredibly lucky that I had a job to dream about throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Especially a job that I love. I know so many cannot say the same. I’m painting a picture here – bear with me.

There were no side conversations or interruptions. We were not discussing what happened over the weekend, because we would have to message directly on Teams to do that. I did not get to talk with Mike Dobbs about what movie he recently watched. I did not get to debrief with Sarah Heinonen about the TV shows she binge-watched over the weekend or talk about her cute nieces and nephews.

And at the time, I thought that was fine. My output was higher than it had ever been. I was working the hardest I ever worked. I could work from wherever location necessary.

When February of 2021 rolled around and there were murmurs from upper management discussing the potential for return to the office in June of the same year, many people had mixed sentiments, including me.

I really did not want to give up all my newfound freedom. Dress pants and a nice blouse or a blazer? I had not put those types of clothes on in a year – who knows what would even fit! Working the “9 to 5” back in the office, feeling glued to my desk, social interaction, having the time-suck of a drive into – and home from – the office? It was unfathomable.

I asked Mike Dobbs if it would be possible for me to work one day a week remote upon our return. I knew I had to come back in – no one wants an absent manager. But I was hoping to retain a small amount of the ability to work from afar. Luckily, he obliged.

The first day back came and went, and it was just like old times. I realized how much happier I was having the ability to have light conversations with my coworkers – getting to gossip about silly topics in our personal lives, talk about our pets, our interests.

Having the ability to host a meeting in person or walk five steps out of an office to ask a question was the biggest welcome aspect to the return to office. The alternative from home was crafting the perfect Microsoft Teams message that hopefully would convey a question without coming off as having a “tone” or being potentially rude. It was a certain level of mental work that I did not realize I was shouldering as much as I was. Everything over email can come off condescending, harsh or a little too blunt if not littered with a million exclamation points and countless qualifiers. Suddenly – this was lifted off my shoulders, as I could ask a question in person without feeling like I was a constant pest someone was working to bat away.

Unfortunately, all too many businesses have done away with physical offices. I understand. If working from home worked for so long – why pay rent? Or why pay a mortgage on a building that feels as though it is not necessary when most employees have proven to be perfectly capable working from home? Why not save that extra $4-, $5-, $6,000-plus?

The human connection, that is why.

Yes, it may seem overrated and unnecessary when you are siloed in your comfortable, impenetrable bubble. Human connection may seem like a distraction, or even an annoyance.

I have realized, however, the main reason why I love my job is the people I work with.

Keeping the option for employees to spend some time working from home is important. Most have proven they are up for the task, are responsible and at times even more productive employees when not in-office.

But taking away the opportunity to break bread with coworkers, learn more about one another and create a team-based environment that fosters employee retention is a loss a company should consider measuring twice against their profits.

pnorth@thereminder.com | + posts