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Gen Z, millennials struggle with love-hate relationship to the office

As the debate over the merits of in-person versus remote work continues to rage in companies and cities throughout the US, one thing has become painfully clear: There is no right answer.

Some people have returned to the office full time while others have maintained the workplace flexibility they discovered during the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 60% of all US workers are either remote or in a hybrid arrangement, according to an October report from Future Forum, which also found that workers with schedule flexibility show the highest scores for work-life balance and productivity.

People’s preferences for time spent on-site still widely vary: While 88% of remote-capable employees would like to be in the office three days or fewer, Gallup found, they’re split on how many days, exactly, they want to come in.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed almost everything about the way we work, including what role, if any, the office should play in our lives. Some people have found it to be a place to recover social connections lost during the public health crisis, while others see it as an impediment to achieving their optimal work-life balance.

As people around the US renegotiate their social contracts with work, their relationship with the office is evolving: Some have found that they miss their morning commute after months of working from home, while others are deciding to quit their in-person jobs after spending their entire career in an office to work remotely.

Pining for the office after months apart

Madison Turner never thought she’d work in an office again.

The 25-year-old started a remote job as a communications and marketing consultant in early 2021 and had grown to love the quiet mornings she spent working from the couch or kitchen table at home in St. Louis with her two cats, who could curl up next to her while she called clients and wrote newsletters.

But something was missing.

“I really missed the watercooler talk I used to have with co-workers at previous in-office jobs,” she tells CNBC Make It. “I forgot how much I loved seeing the people I work with every day.”

Madison Turner

Photo courtesy of Madison Turner

Craving the pre-pandemic sense of camaraderie she’d feel sitting alongside her boss in a long meeting or venting about a tough project over lunch with a colleague, Turner decided to leave her remote role after ten months and start a new job that would require here to come into the office five days per week.

Turner started as a marketing manager at Truly Gifted, a professional gifting service in St. Louis, in September — and so far, returning to the office full-time has been “incredible,” she says.

Now, Turner says she is less tempted to work late because she will leave her laptop at the office, and it’s given her more opportunities to bond with her co-workers, who will often offer to pick up coffee for each other on their way to the office.

“I’ve seen the biggest improvement in my work-life balance since returning to the office full-time,” she adds. “I used to feel like work never really ended when I was remote, and would always end up working a couple of hours working from my couch, but now, it’s easier to remind myself that when I leave the office, work is over.”

Leaving the office in search of a better work-life balance

Gina DeGeorge loved her job working in the human resources department of a large car manufacturing plant outside of Charleston — but during the pandemic, it became almost impossible to do.

Her son, who has autism, was suddenly home most mornings and afternoons as his classes and therapy sessions went online. DeGeorge had to return to the plant in early 2020 after a short stint of working from home during lockdown and struggled to find consistent child care — she also felt like her son’s progress suffered when she wasn’t around.

“He’s my number one priority, and I couldn’t be there for him the way he needed me to be by being gone all day at work,” DeGeorge, 43, says.

“I don’t feel guilty or judged for stepping away from my desk for a few minutes anymore.”

Gina DeGeorge

People operations coordinator at CircleCI

DeGeorge started applying for remote jobs in the spring, which she hoped would have more flexible hours. In June, she landed an offer to be a people operations coordinator for CircleCI, a remote software firm.

Transitioning from an in-person to a remote job has “exponentially improved” DeGeorge’s work-life balance, she says, as it’s easier for her to drive her son to school and his therapy appointments. Plus, she adds, working remotely has helped her better prioritize self-care in her schedule, whether it’s taking a walk or running an errand between meetings.

“My manager really encourages us to block off time on our calendar that we need to ourselves, whether it’s for lunch, checking in on our kids or something else,” she says. “I don’t feel guilty or judged for stepping away from my desk for a few minutes anymore.”

Married to the office no more

Before the pandemic, Sinead O’Donovan considered herself to be an office devotee, always aiming to be the first one at her desk and the last to leave.

She started a new job as an associate at G2, a software firm headquartered in downtown Chicago, in December 2019, and was eager to learn as much as she could about the business by shadowing her boss and sitting in on different meetings at the office.

Sinead O’Donovan

Photo courtesy of Sinead O’Donovan

Her excitement, however, quickly turned into exhaustion. “I was working long hours trying to get up to speed on things and get time with my extremely busy boss,” she recalls. “But then I’d finally get home and I would just need to lie down … I fell asleep a couple of times before I could even cook dinner.”

G2 directed employees to work from home at the start of the pandemic, re-opening its headquarters in 2021.

At first, O’Donovan, 27, was surprised by how much she enjoyed working from home. She missed the structure of clocking in and out of the office every day, and seeing her co-workers in-person — but after weeks of working remotely, O’Donovan found that she had more energy and was able to focus better in her home office, where she could be heads down on a project for hours without distraction.

The firm doesn’t have a return-to-office mandate, but O’Donovan, who was recently promoted to chief of staff, decided to resume her commute in August 2021, working from the office 1-2 days per week, as most of her colleagues come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Going to the office fewer times each week has been a welcome change of pace for O’Donovan. She still looks forward to catching up with her boss in-person — and drinking the kombucha on tap at the office — but she sees the benefits of remote work, too, like being able to drive her grandmother to a doctor’s appointment during her lunch break .

Prior to the pandemic, O’Donovan thought she had to be in the office full-time to get ahead at work. Now, instead of a requirement, she views her trips to the office as a nice-to-have, a chance to network and collaborate with colleagues she might not talk to every day.

While O’Donovan is open to returning to the office full-time, having the freedom to choose where and when she wants to work has been “really nice,” she says.

“The pace of work feels a lot more sustainable,” O’Donovan adds. “I’m less tired, and now, I’m more excited to go to the office because it feels purposeful and something I’m choosing to do instead of just something I’m required to do for my job.”


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