From Couch to Cubicle: Life After Working Remotely
Written by Ashlie Johnson
A few years ago, I was restless, professionally. I longed to travel and I felt incredibly stifled in an office setting. I’d start a new job feeling energized, but after a few short months, being attached to a desk and computer screen left me empty and uninspired. I enjoyed socializing and collaborating with coworkers, but even a hip advertising agency, brimming with interesting people, wasn’t enough to keep the office blues from creeping in. It felt like I just wasn’t cut out for the nine-to-five.
I kept my eye out for remote jobs, but eventually I’d had enough of my office ball and chain, so I broke the golden rule of job transitions: I quit my job without having another to take its place. Miraculously, I landed a freelance gig through Cloud Peeps, an online community where freelancers can view job opportunities and submit pitches to win gigs. It was just enough to pay my basic bills—and with that, my life as a digital nomad began.
In 2017, the New York Times reported that 31 percent of employees reported working remotely 80-100 percent of the time in 2016, a number which has likely grown. But although telecommuting is becoming increasingly desired and practiced, that kind of flexibility isn’t guaranteed. Whether you lose your remote job after layoffs (like I did) or your company suddenly changes its telecommuting policy (the way Yahoo! did in 2013), at some point in your career, regardless of how long you’ve spent working from your couch, you could find yourself powering up your computer in a sea of cubicles instead of a café by the sea.
A little more than two and a half years after I began working from home in a full-time remote role, I found myself walking back into an office. Here are some of the most valuable things I learned that helped me ease back into a traditional work environment:
1. Set expectations early. If you can, negotiate flexible work options before you accept the job. If you can’t stay in PJs Monday through Friday, maybe you can work from home one day a week, or leave the office and camp out at coffee shops for a change of scenery when you’re not needed on-site. If you need some flexibility for medical reasons or family obligations, be up-front and make sure your employer will accommodate your needs.
2. Prepare for a new routine. The remote work “commute” generally involves traveling from your bedroom to a home office (or couch), but office life usually means navigating traffic or memorizing public transit schedules. Practice your morning route (travel and all, during rush hour) before your first day so you get a feel for it. Meal prep if you plan to pack lunches or need a quick breakfast on your way out the door. Plan your work attire, (based on the office dress code) at least the night before.
3. Make it personal. If your office allows it, personalize your space to make it feel more like home. A favorite coffee mug, photos, even a soft throw blanket for notoriously cold office weather will provide some of the comforts you’ve become accustomed to in your own space. Lighting is another factor that can transform a workspace. Don’t be afraid to talk to your boss and the facilities manager if overhead fluorescent lighting is giving you headaches or eye strain. They might be able to turn off or remove the bulb directly over your desk so you can bring in a softer lamp instead.
4. Be flexible. When you’ve been in control of every detail of your physical space as a remote worker, office life can feel a little stifled. Flexibility goes a long way in maintaining your sanity and being a team player. Maybe you can’t control overhead lighting, but you can add a toiletries tray to the office bathroom with extra amenities. I brought in a couple of nice lotions from home and left them in the office restroom, which made me a hero to a couple of coworkers. Focus on what you can change and make peace with what you can’t.
5. Foster relationships. Not every coworker has to become your work wife, but having positive work relationships is essential to a positive office life. For extroverts, this might not be too daunting. But for introverts, going back into the world of water cooler small talk can be dreadful. The simplest trick to good conversation is asking questions. Most people open up when you show interest in who they are, so if you’re feeling stumped in a conversation, ask some simple, friendly questions. It’s a way to connect more deeply than talking about the weather. Who knows? You might develop a deeper friendship as a result.
Nowadays, many companies allow employees more freedom in where they work, how they work and when they work. No job is perfect—whether you do it at home or in a high-rise downtown—so perhaps the best advice of all is to focus most of your energy on what you’re grateful for each day.
Ashlie is a digital marketer and creator living in the Washington DC area. She’s particularly fond of cats, karaoke, sharing good meals with friends, building community through the arts, and looking up at the sky. Follow her on Instagram at @ashlie_elsewhere or visit her repository for all things creative at heyashlie.com. Find her other contributing story here.