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How To Protect Your Work Life Balance As You Head Back Into The Office

As offices reopen, we show you how to maximise the pros and mitigate the cons

For lots of office workers, 2020 was the year ‘WFH’ ousted ‘BYOB’ from its most used abbreviation top spot, and after months of taking meetings from the kitchen table, workers now face another seismic shift as offices reopen. While it’s welcomed news in some ways (hello, indulgent Pret lunches), it can also be a daunting prospect, with pressure to embrace the ‘new normal’ seamlessly. So, what can be done to make the transition work for you? We’re here to help with protecting your post-lockdown work life balance (and yep, that includes how to tell your boss you can’t take on another project when you’re face-to-face). Thank us later.

Make the most of: Face time with your boss

For people who haven’t seen their boss IRL for ages, this is a chance to reconnect, remind them who you are as an employee and what you bring to work. It’s important to be strategic, though, says Harriet Minter, Career Coach and Author of Working From Home: How to Build a Career You Love When You’re Not in the Office.

“If you're in a hybrid workspace [a mix of office working and working from home] where not everyone's going to be in the office at the same time, try to do at least half a day or a day [each week] with your boss. Organise a catch up over coffee or suggest lunch if you've got a good relationship.”

Maximise the time together to show off your ideas and drive - you might want to pitch that new project you’ve been coming up with at home. “Your enthusiasm is going to come across a lot more when you're face to face than it will do over a video call,” says Harriet “Use your time WFH to prep so you’re absolutely ready with what you want to say, because you're not necessarily going to have as much time to chat as you might have if you were all in the office five days a week.”

Make the most of: Colleague community

Even with Zoom socials that inevitably begin with a chorus of “you’re on mute!” WFH can be a lonely business. Happily, office working means a chance to feel a stronger connection to our colleagues again, maybe even getting more personal than pre-COVID.

“At heart, we’re all social beings and we want to collaborate,” explains Elizabeth Uviebinené, Author of The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live. “I believe the future of work includes people tapping into that community spirit - not just colleagues having a drink after work, but coming together, working out people’s values and building a community within work as opposed to it being just focused on delivering.”

“It’s so important that people ask questions."

This kind of connection could be anything from book clubs to cooking classes, and while it’s the role of senior staff and HR to foster good company culture, you could take it in your own hands to set up activities allowing colleagues to really get to know each other.

According to Elizabeth, the first step is to get talking - “Otherwise how are you going to learn that your colleague loves Sci-Fi films, too?” she asks. “It’s so important that people ask questions. I don’t mean be a chatterbox at work, but being interested in others increases empathy and understanding, and that’s how we drive levels of community.”

Make the most of: Big picture thinking

Now’s a great opportunity to get back in the loop with colleagues in other departments by arranging time sitting near and having meetings with teams you haven’t spoken to in a while. “Find out what they've been up to and what's interesting in their department, because that might be something you want to move into or work with later on,” Harriet says.

As well as learning about other people’s projects and thinking about the bigger picture, you can maximise office time to get different perspectives on your work, too.

“If you're working on a client project and it's really interesting, but you’d like another team’s feedback on it, say to them: ‘I'm going to be in the office, I would love to talk to you about this project, can we find a time to do that?’ Be really clear about what the project is, what you need help on, what you think they can bring, and how long it's going to take. Use that as proper collaboration time so you're not going into the office just to answer your emails,” Harriet adds.

Watch out for: The pressure to live your best office life

A quick scroll through social media will show you endless photos of people having a whale of a time now we can, you know, go outside, but if you’re feeling anxious, don’t let that fool you into thinking literally everyone else is super excited. “A lot of people will find it overwhelming because many of us have been able to control our environments for quite a while, tapping out of things and adjusting our routines,” says Shahroo Izadi, Behavioural Change Specialist and Author of The Kindness Method.

If post-work Sauvignon Blanc at the pub next door isn’t floating your boat, how should you communicate to your colleagues? “We rarely have the opportunity to check in with our habits and how they do or don’t serve us. Once you're clear on that, you can communicate it to other people,” Shahroo says. “More and more now, people are saying things like: ‘I don't have the stamina I had before’ or: ‘I never realised how much good rest affected me as a friend, partner and employee’. Knowing yourself and what's best for you is rarely met with too much challenge and often, if you're honest and vulnerable, other people will relate,” Shahroo says.

"Knowing yourself and what's best for you is rarely met with too much challenge."

If being in the office generally is making you uncomfortable and you’d like to take more time at home, it’s key to be honest with your boss, and Shahroo says it’s all about focusing on the positives.

“Show how [WFH] is benefiting you productivity-wise,” she says. “Speak to your boss about things like: ‘I'm able to order my day differently, as a result I’m more efficient’ and: ‘I'm able to incorporate exercise or mindful practice and have more work-life balance and as a result I'm more present with my colleagues’. Focus on what you're moving towards, not what you’re moving away from.”

Watch out for: The guilt of saying ‘no’

Ever worked unpaid overtime, through lunch, or when you’re unwell, more to show you’re working hard rather than being truly productive? That’s presenteeism and it’s an easy negative work habit to fall into. Now’s a chance for good boundary-setting habits formed at home to be carried on in the office.

Harriet advises being clear in your calendar about when you’re in the office and not, and sending your boss a weekly update with three things you achieved and how they made an impact. “Know what your boss’ goals are for you, then regularly and repeatedly show how you are achieving them or the steps you're taking towards that. If we do that, we counter the necessity for presenteeism,” she says.

The idea of your boss catching you in the corridor and asking you to take on another piece of work you don’t have the time for during your working hours seems like an impossible situation, but it doesn’t have to be. “The sentence for that is: ‘So pleased that thought of me for that but right now I'm at 100% capacity’. If it's something you want to do, you could say: ‘I'm going to have capacity when this project finishes at this time, can it wait till then?’ or ‘I would be able to do x if I can move y on to someone else in the team, is that possible?’” Harriet says.

As for the pressure to answer work calls and emails late into the night and at weekends, Shahroo has seen growing concern that because many of us have got used to working online, that will continue even after a full day in the office.

“Try to set a precedent there and in the spirit of honesty, say: ‘I'm trying to be on my phone less now that I'm back in the office again,’” she advises. “Remember, the snapshot your colleagues have of you will be where they left you, so it's on you to know yourself and have those discussions.”