As recently as two months ago, the 5-mile drive from the heart of Washington, DC, to my home in Arlington, Virginia, consistently took less than 10 minutes door-to-door, even in the middle of rush hour. Now that same 5-mile commute can take as long as 40 minutes. Gone, too, are the days when I could make a quick stop at Trader Joe’s on the drive home, find street parking in front of the store, and get in and out with groceries in less than 20 minutes.
As more employers require workers to return to the office—even if it’s just a few times a week—it’s likely that all the annoying aspects of our pre-pandemic life will start creeping back into our lives—hectic morning routines, traffic, encounters with annoying colleagues, limited time to pick up groceries, and even less time to exercise. All of the healthy habits we created during the pandemic—time for morning meditation, afternoon runs, and nightly family dinners—will be thrown into disarray, too.
“Most people have been working from home for 18 months, and they’ve gotten used to their new habits and are reluctant to change them again,” says Kalina J. Michalska, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside. “We were able to get rid of the annoyances of commuting and being in an office environment, where we have to accommodate our coworkers’ perspectives and goals.”
In fact, during the pandemic, we spent less time driving to the office or around town to do errands and more time pursuing our personal passions. Time spent traveling, such as commuting to work or driving to a store, declined by 26 minutes from an average of 1.2 hours per day in 2019 to 47 minutes per day in 2020, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Americans used the time they didn’t spend commuting to work doing things they enjoy. During 2020, leisure time increased by an average of 37 minutes per day for men and 27 minutes for women, according to the same study.
That might explain why many people are anxious or annoyed about the prospect of going back into the office. “Not only are our routines being disrupted again, but we’re reentering work and school while there is still a tremendous sense of uncertainty,” says Michele Nealon, president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. For instance, not every employer has decided exactly when workers will return to the office or how many days a week they will need to come in. Even if your manager allows you to continue working from home, you may worry about what effect remote work could have on your career opportunities if some of your colleagues are going into the office while you aren’t, she says.
Many employees are also apprehensive about the Delta variant, a mutation of Covid-19 that is considered to be more contagious than the first strain of the virus. Some companies, including Google and Apple, have pushed their return-to-office dates from September to at least October, and Amazon has pushed its office return to January 2022.
“Employees need to accept the fact that whatever the rules are for going back to the office now—for instance, two days week, with masks—it will likely change over time,” says Nancy Halpern, founder of Political IQ, a New York City–based management consulting firm that helps organizations resolve office politics. As employers struggle to figure out how workers should return to the office, employees will need to be patient, she says. “You’re not going back to the work life you had before,” Halpern says. “The work life you’re going to lead is not going to be settled. It will be frustrating.”