Going “Back to Work” & Losing Winter

Small pine branch sheathed in shimmering ice

Winter’s shimmering, icy landscape is more beautiful when I don’t commute to work in it. 

For years, I spent my winters waking up in the dark, commuting to work in the cold, and returning home in the dark. Public transit was often iffy, thanks to ice and snow, and the only time I spent outside was limited to waiting with my kids for their school buses before rushing to the train station for my commute. 

I despised winter, but that has changed. I can honestly say that every season is my favorite now.

This is one of the small silver linings of the pandemic for me. Switching to remote work at home allowed me to enjoy daylight and more time outside.  

The hours of sunlight are short in the winter, but it’s bright and beautiful. During the day, I take calls while walking, and I walk between Zoom meetings. The practice has produced a path in my backyard.

Footpath in a backyard with light snow on it.
I started walking in my yard instead of walking around the neighborhood during lockdown in the early days of the pandemic. The habit has stuck.*

Acquainting myself with winter’s magic reminds me of my childhood, when I spent hours a day outside, and it reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, one of my favorite books from childhood.

Having been told by Miss Stacy that “they must soon write a composition on ‘A Winter’s Walk in the Woods,” Anne and Diana keep their “eyes and ears alert amid all their chatter,” and Anne declares: 

Oh, Diana, look, there’s a rabbit. That’s something to remember for our woods composition. I really think the woods are just as lovely in winter as in summer. They’re so white and still, as if they were asleep and dreaming pretty dreams.

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

There’s so much to observe in winter. Just the other day, while reviewing a piece of legislation, I watched a pileated woodpecker making a hole in a “dreaming” tree.

Woodpecker

I love what I have been able to see and do because I’m working remotely. I’ve never worked so much in my life, but it feels like less of a grind.

I am very lucky to have a job that transitioned so easily to remote work during the pandemic, and I am lucky to have access to what I need at home to do it successfully: a computer (office provided), reliable internet, and a quiet place to work.

For my workplace, a public interest law firm, remote work has been so productive that it’s almost hard to believe that we required in-person interaction, five days a week in the past. 

Nevertheless, like my path in the backyard, old habits don’t easily disappear. As our COVID case numbers drop, there is talk at my organization about bringing people “back to work,” meaning back to the office. 

Calling this transition “back to work” makes it sound as if remote work wasn’t really “working,” downplaying just how productive we have been. We have produced numerous briefs, memos, fact sheets/talking points, and presentations, and we have had countless client interactions while working remotely.

Why would we need to be in the office?

Sometimes, when I hear people talk about the need to go “back to work” (in the office), I think it’s all about control. It’s about supervisors and managers who want to make sure you’re glued to your desk from 9-5, every day, even when it isn’t the most effective way to actually get anything done. 

However, there are benefits to in-office work. Some of my co-workers need or enjoy more in-person interaction than I do, some of our clients benefit from it, and creativity flows from the conversations we have while gathered by the coffee maker or while eating lunch in the conference room. 

As a supervisor, I have found that remote interactions with new attorneys and interns I have never met in person are challenging. I do not know them as well as I would if we worked together in an office, and they are missing out on the chatter that happens in the hallways and other informal spaces. 

These conversations not only help us get to know each other, aiding the development of trust, but they also provide context to our work. Many of the informal conversations we have are actually relevant to the work we do. 

For example, while making tea, I will often talk with my colleagues about an article I read that is relevant to our work but not part of a project we’re doing. We talk about the courts, our democratic institutions, and the larger social justice movements that intersect with our work. These spontaneous conversations make us better colleagues and better lawyers.  

But is it necessary to have these in-person interactions five days a week? 

I don’t know if these interactions will happen as often in person at my office in the future. Not only did the way I work change during the pandemic, shifting from in-office to remote, but the people/organizations I work with changed too. Without being tied to geography for meetings, I am involved in more regional and national coalitions than before, and that isn’t going away now that I am heading back to an office setting. 

I fear that I will still have 4-6 hours of Zoom meetings a day plus a commute. Winter will go back to being an annoyance, something that gets in the way of working instead of being an enjoyable part of living, and I won’t see or chat with my co-workers because I’m stuck at my desk. 

With these experiences and concerns in mind, I am contributing to the development of a new hybrid policy for my workplace. The goal is to require a certain number of days in the office while permitting (encouraging!) a certain number of days of remote work. 

My focus is equity and flexibility. I am advocating for us (the employees) to decide what is best for ourselves and our families. While hybrid work will be the norm in the policy, I hope fully remote work will remain an option for those who need it. It’s a completely reasonable accommodation for our workplace.

We shall see if our practice will match the new policy. There’s a risk that the established attorneys will just revert to the old ways, going in five days a week, potentially sending the message that work only counts when it’s done directly under your supervisor’s nose. 

_____________________

*I live, work, and walk on Lenni Lenape land in southeastern Pennsylvania.

12 comments

  1. What I fail to understand is how tradition that perpetuates miserable or toxic culture is still upheld as the best. I know someone whose office had two people in at a time to assist customers on location and everyone else worked at home. They rotated out so everyone worked two days in office, the other three at home. Everyone was happier and more productive. However, the higher ups want everyone back at their desks “because.” They can’t even argue that folks are less productive at home because the numbers show otherwise. Perhaps part of the problem is some managers steal the term “tradition” — a word most of us have good feelings about because we’re reminded of things we always do during holidays or family reunions, etc. — and used to to guilt workers into unsatisfactory and less productive environments. And thus the Great Reshuffling.

    1. Yes, “tradition” is often a euphemism for exploitation. There is no reason to keep people at their desks when productivity is measured in other ways. My hope is that a hybrid model will be a good compromise. We’re just starting it in my workplace.

  2. Yes this transition back to ‘normal’ working is a topical issue in most professional offices. A form of hybrid is surely the solution in many cases. Senior staff in particular ought to be trusted to judge for themselves what works best. Some people are gregarious and like a bit of interaction, others much prefer beavering in isolation. As for productivity, the proof or otherwise quickly shows up in the figures. But I know the type of boss who is only happy being able to see rows of staff through his/her glass door. Their days are passing I hope. Love your ‘backyard’ 🙂

    1. Hi, Roy! I hope you’ve been doing well. I hope the days of bosses like that are over soon. There seem to be some that are hanging on.

    1. Thank you! I didn’t make it intentionally, but I’m a creature of habit, and I was trying to avoid where I’ve planted bulbs in the lawn.

  3. Nice to see you back posting, AMB. I agree that one of the downsides of remote work is the challenge of integrating new employees into the office culture and providing solid mentoring. For people who are already well integrated and know who to approach for feedback in specific circumstances, remote work has huge advantages.

    1. Thanks, Jane! It feels good to be back on the blog, but I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to post. I am much happier while working from home, but I’ve never worked so much in my life. I just don’t have much time for reading or writing. I hope I will find a good “balance” soon.

      1. It‘ll come. You need to do what works best for you and your family. There’s a quote somewhere that says a woman CAN do it all, just not necessarily all at the same time!

  4. Well said. A fair and balanced opinion. And I love the solution of hybrid work. It really sounds like the best of both worlds. We need to create a culture of trust, where we believe that everyone is going to do their best, no matter where they are physically. You make an excellent point about enjoying one’s work is just as important as the work itself.

    1. Thank you! Yes, we need to build a culture of trust. Employers and managers shouldn’t assume that employees aren’t working just because they can’t watch them for eight hours a day. Treating people well by allowing them to have balance in their lives will pay off in terms of productivity and morale.

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