June 23, 2021

My Brave Return to the Office

Jessica Benjamin head shot
Jessica Benjamin
Enterprise Account Executive
June 23, 2021

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I’m an enterprise account executive and I was hired last June at the height of the pandemic. Happily, I HAD met my manager once in person and I assured him that hiring me over Zoom would be a picnic. As the months went by, I got to know my coworkers over Slack, Zoom, and social media. It wasn’t easy but as my sales numbers got better and I started to get my job down I was really happy with my new role.

When the vaccine was available in Massachusetts, I was up at 3:00 a.m. getting appointments for my older, immune-compromised husband, and finally, it was my turn. I was thrilled and grateful to get my two shots of Moderna. And when Massachusetts lifted COVID restrictions I was excited to get back to the office … sort of.

I come from a place of privilege. My husband already worked from home. At my last job I worked remotely two days a week so I already had a home office and I don’t have kids so I wasn’t doing Zoom school duty that sidelined many women’s careers. My two dogs were thrilled to have both parents home all day.

I had some anxiety. Would people like me in person? And we were going to start out hot desking, something I had never done before. I was unsure what to do about office gear. I didn’t mind carrying a laptop back and forth but I also use a Wave keyboard to avoid repetitive stress injuries from typing and all the many power cords seemed hard to remember and like a pain to drag around. Every company has different policies so I did what seemed fair to me. Asked my company to buy me a few things (like a second Wave keyboard for the office) and bought a bunch of duplicate power cords and adapters myself. At my Workbar where we are currently hot desking I have a tiny locker so I stuffed my “work” keyboard and cords in there and ordered a magnet with my name on it to mark my territory.

I’m sure some people have concerns about commuting. I’m lucky, my office is nearby but I have noticed a lot of people seem to have forgotten how to drive! Drive slowly and defensively as your fellow commuters remember where they are going.

Then there’s the actual matter of COVID. As a vaccinated person I’m not afraid of getting it and bringing it home to my immune-compromised (and also vaccinated) husband as I was before. But some people aren’t getting vaccinated for a host of reasons ranging from conditions that prevent them from getting it safely to other concerns. Or they have unvaccinated children. And now HR and managers have to figure out what to do with these unvaccinated people. Having them continue to wear masks makes little scientific sense but that or having them work from home, when possible, seems like the best solution for now.

Our CEO and Founder Chris Forman told us that we are better together. He hasn’t been wrong yet so I thought I should give it a try. In the foreseeable future, he’d like those of us near offices to be in 3+ days a week. I’ve seen other companies go both ways, from abandoning offices altogether to requiring attendance. I like our hybrid solution and I think the great return will work best if it can be … consensual. I understand the problems this will pose for parents, unvaccinated people and those who have developed mental or physical issues over this past year. But since some people have managed to change as dramatically as transitioning their gender presentation during COVID I thought managing my social anxiety should be a piece of cake.

Like a lot of women, I had to rethink: what do I wear to the office now? In my case, it’s colored jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt, leather blazer, Frye boots, and minimal makeup. I have enjoyed watching people reimagine how they dress for work whether it’s more relaxed or new clothes to accommodate pandemic weight gain.

I went by initially to say “hi,” meet people in person, and pick up key cards. For my next act, I worked a half day in the office. Like a puppy who spent all day in doggie daycare I was so over-stimulated I ended up eating dinner in bed! I was exhausted. Now I’ve worked my way up to going in one day a week. I figure I’ll work my way up to 3+ by the time it’s a soft requirement, although I think my company would help me out if I was struggling to do it.

The biggest surprise is I LOVE my coworkers. We order lunch (compliments of Appcast) every day – hint to managers: this is a GREAT idea and perk. One day, I was on the phone with a client and a young guy in his twenties ordered me two lunches (sandwich and salad) to make sure I would get something to eat. As a curmudgeonly, um, older worker, I was blown away by his thoughtfulness. 

On another day, I went for a lunch walk with a coworker I hadn’t talked to much previously. He told me he was born in Mexico and lived there until he was 14 (half his life). He told me about the challenges of identifying as a Mexican and an American. Would a young guy I didn’t know have talked to me about this a year ago? Doubt it. The pandemic has made some people more introspective and I LOVE it! Our company is having a friendly competition on the app Strava for running, walking, and biking. I recommend this for healthy team building as some of our exercise routines have suffered over the past year – although, I did Zoom Pilates and am very flexible, I just can’t run a mile right now.

Returning to the office has been great for my mental health and the more I go, the less anxiety I have and the more I appreciate the great people I work with. And let’s face it, sometimes being managed over Slack occasionally felt like Kafka’s play, “The Trial.” I also made the biggest sale yet. Coincidence? Not entirely. 

How would I summarize my exploration of the return to work? With these quick tips …

For employees:

  • This is a great opportunity to reinvent yourself or try something new – want to change up your style? Begin biking to work every day? Stop drinking coffee (I kid, I kid). Use this time of transition to kick off new habits!
  • If you need help with your return, ask for it. Appcast has been a great source of support and also provides me with the resources I need to be successful. Employers know this has been a massive challenge for everyone and are doing their best to help when and however needed!
  • Reach out to your coworkers – whether they’re new to the company or new to office life, everyone can use a buddy or two at work. Check in on each other and provide that much needed humanness to embrace the camaraderie of office life.
  • Respect that we’ve all been affected by the pandemic in different ways and we’re all moving at a different pace. Show your coworkers and frankly, other people you encounter throughout the day, a bit of compassion.

For employers:

  • Communicate expectations and encouragements well and often with respect to in-office or remote policies.
  • Support mental health challenges as you would physical health challenges – they can be as, or more, debilitating.
  • Remind your employees of all the things they enjoy about being in an office with others and maybe add some fun perks, too! I know not every organization can provide lunch for their entire company every day but maybe it’s once a month or maybe it’s an afternoon out hiking or volunteering.

So, if you’re in my situation I recommend keeping an open mind and giving the great return a shot. You might make some cool new friends and have lunch in a restaurant! Awesome.

Will business trips and conferences come back as they were? Sounds like fodder for a follow-up blog post …

Jessica Benjamin is an enterprise account executive at Appcast. Follow her on Twitter at JLBHireCalling.

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