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Five Things I Learned Working in an Office

12th June 2019

I’ve seen a few “n Things I Learned Working Remotely” posts in recent history, as people migrated to remote work from office-based work and described their experiences. I’ve made the opposite transition since moving to Sweden in 2015, and thought I would share some of my experiences.

Everyone’s experiences are different, but these are mine. These things have been learned since being required to show up in an office every day at prescribed times. This list is intended to be fun, but they’re only half-joking: there’re at least a few amusing anecdotes behind each item.

1. Sick Days Exist, and Are Glorious

When working from home, a light sick day can mean a regular working day, or maybe a late start. A really bad sick day can mean you just work from your bed, and are maybe quite slow or mildly unproductive. Illness doesn’t really have to get in the way of your participation in the work, and you don’t have to count or juggle the days to ensure you’re meeting your obligations.

In contrast, when work must be done from an office, working while even a little sick is painful and inconvenient. It is also incredibly rude to your colleagues, who would probably prefer to not catch whatever you brought in with you.

The lightest sniffle means you absolutely must stay home and not work. Feeling a bit sad? Well, you don’t want your colleagues to catch melancholy, so you should stay home. Spending the day reading a book, playing video games, or watching silly videos on the internet may seem like a waste of time, but you are really doing yourself and your colleagues a favour by not working while sick.

2. Your Schedule is Rigid

One of the upsides of working remotely is that nobody knows where you are when you’re working, so your schedule can be very flexible. Doctor appointment in the middle of the afternoon? No problem! Long lunch with a friend from out of town? Who cares! Car needs fixing? Any time! Any period not already booked with a meeting or call is pretty well open to whims.

When you work in an office, there is an expectation (often, a strict requirement) that you’re always there. Running out to drop your car off at the mechanic can be risky: what if someone walks by your desk to interrupt you while you’re not there? Even if you’ll “make up the time” after hours, nobody will be there to see it, so it would be as if the work was never done.

The middle of your day will have this eight-hour block where you can’t be anywhere else but your office. Whether you’re productively working or not, you absolutely must be in your chair so that your colleagues can witness your presence.

3. Clothing is Not Optional

Working remotely means the ability to do the work from wherever you want, without people nearby. This can mean that clothing is optional. Since nobody is actually watching you do the work, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Clothes or no clothes, good style or bad, only your family and pets will have any knowledge of the matter.

Showing up in the buff to an office, though, can subject you to many problems: from HR-related issues, to the negative effects of a cold office climate, to that colleague who just won’t leave you alone afterward. Clothing considerations need to be made carefully and deliberately when you work in an office.

Note: I have also learned that in Finland the rules are slightly more complex: clothing is still required in the office, but a lack of clothing is required in the office’s sauna. And there is an office sauna. Violating either of these two rules is simply not done, as far as I can tell.

4. Looking Busy is Paramount

In my remoting life, no matter the company or the project, the work was always the most important thing. It didn’t matter where I was when I did the work: I would switch between my home office, my sofa, the local coffee shop, the pub, the library, a plane, a hotel, or any other place I cared to. Nobody cared where I was, as long as I was getting the work done.

Since working in an office, though, I have learned that looking busy is the most important thing. Furthermore, I’ve learned from others that actually doing work can be completely avoided if you are really good at looking busy. The most valued contributors in some offices I’ve been in have been the people who are very good at looking busy, not the people who are necessarily doing the best work.

Starting at 11am and staying well more than eight hours is slacking behaviour, because you “come in late every day.” But starting at 7am can be basically a free pass to leave basically any time after lunch because you’re always the first one in.

If some work is done, and nobody sees it being done, was it really done?

5. Distractions are Welcome and Expected

When working remotely, communication is asynchronous. You ping someone, and they will respond when they are best able. If you need to have a call, you arrange a time in the future when both parties are in good shape to do so. This enables relatively long stretches of focused work.

I’ve found that one of the main oppositions to supporting remote working is that communication is harder when you can’t “just walk over” to someone. This is code for “I want to be able to interrupt you any time I like.”

In an office environment, you need to be open and available for interruptions and distractions at any and all times. You must be careful not to appear to enjoy such interruptions, though, because then you’ll be breaking the cardinal rule of “looking busy.” It’s a fine balance that takes practise to achieve.