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In these times of COVID-related work transitions, do you have the choice to work from home on a permanent basis? That might have seemed like a dream option six months ago, but for others, one that is not so welcome. Yet, for many, it has become a reality. Plans to have workers return to the office have varied across the country, and even within cities, with companies realizing that finding a right balance is tricky and will likely not suit everyone.

In addition, the economic and environmental impact of large, unused office space has caused some companies to want to reduce the amount of square footage that is leased, sending more employees to work from home. Some employees are welcoming the chance and others are given little choice. Either way, many factors other than convenience and cost need to be taken into account before you order that cool new home office furniture or ask for your work chair to be couriered to your home.

Convenience – in the short term

Yes, working from home is convenient. Many of us have enjoyed sleeping a little longer when we don’t have to consider a traditional commute to work. Further, early morning meetings are no problem when all you need to do is look presentable (from the torso up) and have your coffee ready to go.

The reality is that there is a flip side to this, for many. Professionally, all of us need to feel productive and successful – we need to work, and to look the part, on a regular basis. If it hasn’t already, the novelty of pandemic working habits is likely to grow old fast for most. If you’re like me, you will crave a reason to dress more professionally, wake up at a time that causes you to move a bit faster, and perhaps even get back to that book you were reading on the commuter train to work.

Consistent distractions

In the home office world, we trade the common distraction of drop-ins from passing colleagues for all the things that can divert us in our home setting. Think mail carrier arriving with the next online order that we’re eager to get set up, children or pets wandering through, and nagging reminders to do laundry or tidy something up.

There are many people who make the home office work, mainly because they have developed disciplined habits. They have usually created a separate dedicated workspace that isn’t just a corner of the kitchen or dining room table (and certainly not the couch). They are particularly good at separating work and home time by not mixing the two, such as using dedicated “office hours” that they stick to rigorously. It is a learned skill, and one that takes time.

Psychology of the home office

Many years ago, a fitness trainer told me that your home is a place of rest and relaxation, not a place to sweat and get an 85-per-cent maximum heart rate. Among many active friends, I have only known one couple who has made the home gym work – the rest ended up using the treadmill as a place to hang laundry. The home office is not very much different.

When work and home are the same place, it is hard to separate the two – which is important for our mental well-being. In a traditional office setting, we’ve all had times when a big project keeps our mental gears churning long into the night, leaving us feeling that we can’t stop until it’s all done. We can work in a surge for a time, but at some point we get to go home. In working at home, a considerable challenge is shifting gears to get the mental downtime we actually need (not just want) to be effective contributors over the long haul. Can that be learned? Yes, but not easily in my own experience.

Finally, working at home outside our normal work social bubble can leave people feeling vulnerable and disconnected from the wider organization. Knowing you’re part of the org chart you can see online is different than feeling the buzz of the actual office. There are ways to overcome that, but they take a concerted effort on the part of leaders and co-workers to change the way we connect online and deliberately set aside time to reinforce a sense of belonging.

By all means, working from home should be an option – but it does not need to be a sole choice.

Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

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