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What do workers miss most about the office? University of Houston explains

Looking back at months working from home, what did employees miss most from the workplace? Graphic via UH.edu

The commute, the water cooler talks, the in-person meetings. Have we missed these things? Or can the research enterprise, for the most part, stay virtual?

“Many people who have been working from home are experiencing a void they can’t quite name,” said Jerry Useem in The Atlantic. Maybe getting back to our old routine will do us good.

Tracy Brower in Forbes wrote, “Many of the reports of increased productivity were early in the pandemic. Some have dubbed this ‘panic productivity,’ attributing the early perception of increased productivity to the adrenaline boost people got from the sudden shifts in the nature and location of their work. Job loss was rife, and people may have been working like crazy in the hopes of staying visible, relevant and ensuring their boss thought they were still adding value even from home. But in the words of W. B. Yeats: “Things fall apart.”

Studies are showing now that we’ve hit our breaking point a year and a half into the work-from-home onset. What do we miss the most?

The commute

It can’t be the commute. Or can it? The work-from-home boom will lift productivity in the U.S. economy by five percent, mostly because of savings in commuting time, said Enda Curren in Bloomberg.

But Useem wrote specifically about commuting, and what he found was incredible: in 1994, an Italian physicist named Cesare Marchetti noted that throughout history, humans have shown a willingness to spend roughly 60 minutes a day in transit. This explains why ancient cities such as Rome never exceeded about three miles in diameter. The steam train, streetcar, subway and automobile expanded that distance. But transit times stayed the same. The one-way average for an American commute stands at about 27 minutes.” What are these 27 minutes, on average, good for?

There are people who love to drive — it gives them a sense of control regarding their day. On your morning commute, especially if you take mass transit, you can clear your head, decompress, make errand-esque phone calls or listen to audiobooks and podcasts. That’s not all we miss, though.

The office

Michael Scott on the television show, “The Office,” said he makes “20 little trips to the cooler” and recounts the “20 little scans I do of everybody to make sure everything’s running smoothly, and the 20 little conversations I have with Stanley.”

We may take considerably fewer coffee or water breaks than they are used to at the fictional Dunder Mifflin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy to stand up, stretch and make small talk with a co-worker for a short spell.

According to SparkHire.com, fostering a sense of office camaraderie helps teams to perform better, improves their ability to work as a team and boosts employee retention rates. And university environments are meant to be experienced in person. The public art on campus, the leaves in the fall, all of the sensory cues that remind us we are in a collegiate atmosphere matter.

The doppleganger

Next, lets introduce the concept of the double self: the work self and the home self. One needs to transition to the other.

Jon Jachimowicz of Harvard Business School was quoted in the Atlantic as saying: “If you respond like a manager at home, you might be sleeping on the couch that night. And if you respond like a parent at work, its weird.”

So, it behooves us to make a real, tangible transition from home life to work life. If your institution has not opened back up yet, you can do this by dressing like you would at work. It will make doing chores around the house less tempting if you’re dressed for your actual job. There are other things you can say to yourself or rituals you can perform to get ready for working from home.

These are readily supplied as you actually get back to the office or the lab. Showering, coffee stops, small talk in the elevator all signal that our day is really beginning.

The thank you note

Some researchers were deemed essential workers and never worked from home, and even started shifts that were different from their older routines. Much research work needed to occur in actual lab spaces. If this applies to you, then consider this a thank you card from your colleagues who want you to know that while some of us were zooming and plugging away on computers at our kitchen tables, we acknowledge the struggle it was for you to cover every shift, every day.

For instance, David Brammer, D. V. M. , DACLAM, of University of Houston Animal Care Operations said of his staff: “Excellence is difficult to define but unmistakable when observed. Within Animal Care Operations, I have found excellence. He went on to say that his staff encountered a variety of challenges, all while maintaining the highest standard for animal care. “By adjusting to the new normal rather than abandoning standards, focusing on the completion of tasks, working hard and staying positive, the staff of ACO successfully set an example for others to follow.”

One last thought

It definitely comes down to what your institution’s leadership has decided about back-to-work schedules, whether they be full time on-campus, at-home or hybrid. There’s something to be said for being able to adapt when in a pinch. It doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that things can’t transition back to the way they once were. Versatility, remember, is an indispensable trait.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Here's what Houston research news dominated this year on InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


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