SINGAPORE: I almost pumped my fists in the air when I first heard the news.
We will receive our batch of COVID-19 vaccine, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed in a televised address on Dec 14.
Even though I have severe trypanophobia – a fear of needles - I will not hesitate to get vaccinated.
Because after close to nine months of solid domestication, I am changing my tune about how wonderful it has been to work from home.
I can’t wait to get back to the office. And if that means getting vaccinated, so be it.
I’m not alone. A week into 2021, some offices are once again teeming with busy executives instead of empty halls of furniture as employers inch closer towards normalcy a fortnight into Phase 3.
Dr T Chandroo, chairman of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) recently told the media he “anticipates that more employees would gradually return to workplaces” and “that smaller companies would like all their staff to [be] present”.
I know many executives are relieved to be able to end their romance with work-from-home and make their way to the office. I too share these sentiments and won’t miss working from home.
TOO MUCH FAMILY TIME?
During my early 20s, I dated someone I was so into that I kept pestering to meet her every day.
Being cool and having other priorities, she refused and taught me that perhaps “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.
My young raging hormones impeded me from truly understanding the importance of distance and personal space.
But fast forward to today, the 24/7 with my family during the circuit breaker last year made me understand the lessons of that bad romance.
When the most exciting event of the workday is a heavy downfall that forced me to move from the balcony to my bed, I have few exciting stories to share with my family at the end of the day. And vice versa.
No matter how loving a family one has at home, tensions can build up, especially when the circuit breaker meant seeing each other the full day for nine weeks.
Without colleagues as my unfortunate sounding board about familial issues during that period, there was no outlet to release all those built-up pressures at home.
Like what Sylvia Chan from Night Owl Cinematics shared in their video talking about her divorce, she can’t possibly complain to her husband Ryan Tan about her co-worker Ryan Tan.
An amount of absence would provide a better balance to any relationship. Not just to sustain it but to reduce the number of conflicts as the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) learned in July 2020 when there was a 30 per cent rise in inquiries on family conflicts.
LACK OF SOCIALISING
Outside of home, I have a daily routine involving writing down three amazing things that happened that day to me every evening. And my occasional face-to-face meeting with people would always be the first thing on the list.
I recently caught up with an old friend I hadn’t met for years and we ended up chatting over three hours at Starbucks. This nostalgic bromance may not have been possible over a Zoom call.
READ: Commentary: After the craziest year, teachers start first day of school with nervous apprehension
Socialising with others has been widely recognised to be an essential human need. That may be a key reason why we have felt more mental and emotional suffering during COVID-19 after needing to scale back on our engagement with others.
There is a large body of medical and psychological research that suggests that socialisation and physical touch have positive benefits on individuals’ mental, emotional, psychological and medical well-being.
Psychologist and social science columnist Susan Pinker explains that “face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine” protects humans. She adds thatduringsocial interactions, “dopamine is [also] generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain, it’s like a naturally produced morphine.”
Granted, I could get all that at home but the interactions at home tend to be slightly different.
I wonder how many among us have the time and ability to have conversations and engagement with their family that go beyond the operational and mundane household matters? For those who don’t, having that socialisation outside is a much-needed complement.
Of course, I am not saying you should go around hugging everyone you see back at the office. A simple handshake and a nice chat over lunch or at the pantry may be good enough to satisfy our needs.
THE ON-DEMAND HOUSEHOLD BUTLER
Although my colleagues were unable to do their usual office deskside drive-by to disrupt my workflow when all of us had to make the work-from-home leap, such distractions did not disappeared. Instead, they were replaced by a worse version led by the kids and the missus.
The remote isn’t working, someone needs a towel or questions when dinner will be ready are among the many countless requests that I simply don’t have the arms and legs for.
These suspiciously seemed to be timed perfectly with an important work commitment – like when I’m about to do up a quarterly budget for the department or start the weekly Zoom meeting with the team.
Headphones can help. However, my four kids don’t understand Do Not Disturb cues. Worse, these fuel their curiosity to find out what I’m listening to, leading them to grab my headphones to find out.
NEVER KNOCKING OFF
The line between work and home disappears when you start working from home.
During the earlier days of phase 1, I practically sat at the dining table from sunlight until sundown working. The only push factor to stop was when the family needed the table for dinner or when the evening mosquitoes became unbearable.
It is not a unique situation.
Some clients of Jeanette Lim, a psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, are putting in more than 50 hours a week. And there is hardly any breather since many of us are working with little to no interaction with other people.
Throw in some overly diligent colleagues with lots of time on their hands, and you are likely to find yourself a part of an email tennis match with the obligatory volley of messages going past dinner time and sometimes supper too.
Contrast that to an actual office environment. Once I am out of the building, I’m out.
MY MAKE-SHIFT HOME OFFICE
Without the luxury of a dedicated study room, I have to hotdesk between my dining table, sofa or on my bed depending on the availability.
It may sound cosy but my body, especially my back, will usually be screaming otherwise an hour into my work.
These are places that are not ergonomically designed for work.
I also have a sucky webcam on my old laptop. Video calls tend to make me look like a character from the Minecraft video game.
And depending on the time and day, my Zoom calls could come with complimentary but rather unwelcomed background audio ranging from construction noises and screaming kids to barking dogs.
I was truly elated when we were forced to work from home due to COVID-19.No more time-wasting commute, impromptu disruptions, last-minute meetings, early morning decisions on what to wear and rigid working hours.
But the price to pay is huge when you lean all the way to the other side.
Working from home still has its merits and I am okay with it as part of the working arrangement but not entirely.
An office and the colleagues that come with it is a good counterweight to the makeshift need of working from home. The sense of camaraderie and community at work adds another dimension to our lives, including a sense of fulfilment.
And after such a long period of absence, I can’t deny the excitement of meeting and catching up with colleagues again..
I will savour that moment as much as possible just before the two-hour meeting calendar invite hits me.
Adrian Tan is Practice Leader – Work Tech at PeopleStrong after spending a decade in recruitment and outplacement. He writes regularly on the Future of Work.
Can you say no to returning to the office? We posed this question to Adrian and one CEO in our Heart of the Matter podcast: