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The Case for Returning to the Office and Making It Work

June 22, 2021, 8:00 AM

Late summer in 2016, I had just finished taking the California bar exam and moved to Southern California to begin work as a law firm associate. A self-professed workaholic, I knew that to have some semblance of work-life balance, it would be important to maintain separation between work and home.

To that end, I leased an apartment about eight miles from the office—far enough from work to make home feel like a getaway but close enough to keep a reasonable commute. For the first couple years of practice, keeping work and home separate worked fairly well.

One thing that helped in the early days of my practice was that my employer at the time only offered desktop computers to its associates. That meant that, by default, I worked from the office, including on weekends when necessary. Once I left the office, though, I largely took my mind off of work, or at least tried. That mental separation was vital.

Pandemic Boundary-Blurring

Fast-forward to March of 2020: Work and home became one and the same. There are benefits to working from home—I get it. We all love flexibility. And many of us enjoy the time saved from not having to commute.

But at what cost? Evenings become a normal part of the work day. And weekends become all but an extension of the work week.

After nine months of working from home last year, I was ready for a change. So when I joined a new law firm earlier this year and was presented with the choice of continuing to work from home during the pandemic or returning to the office, choosing the office was a no-brainer.

Reinstating Work/Home Boundaries

For many, the thought of returning to the office draws mixed emotions, including dread and perhaps anger. Others are eager to return but will likely approach any return to the office with some skepticism, and rightfully so.

Returning to work at my current firm, a small California intellectual property law boutique, was easier than I thought. Our IT infrastructure allows us to work wherever we prefer. And wearing masks, having private offices allowing socially distant work, and getting vaccinated made working at the office feel safe again.

Based on my experience so far, returning to the office can work as long as there is a resurgence of pre-pandemic work-home boundaries (to the extent that they ever existed), and an understanding from all concerned that a certain level of flexibility needs to persist.

Having returned to working at the office since January, here are some tips for making it work.

The two-office setup. The first step for making a return to the office workable is one that, due to the pandemic, some of us can already check off the box for: having a home office setup that closely matches the setup in the office (or vice versa, if your home office setup is better). What that setup looks like will differ for everyone.

My matching setup includes: a sit-stand desk, a 32-inch curved monitor, an adjustable laptop stand (useful for virtual meetings), a stand for my cell phone (which now serves as my work phone), and a wireless keyboard and mouse combo.

Practicing flexibility. Being able to check the first box above will put you in a position to check the second: practicing flexibility. The pandemic taught us that working from home can work, at least in moderation. And a return to the office will not un-teach us what we all now know.

While I work from the office most business days, the importance of being able to work from home when necessary cannot be discounted. Even when not necessary, the ability to work from home when I “feel like it” is revolutionary by pre-pandemic standards.

I’m a big believer that productivity sometimes requires a change of scenery. Whether that change of scenery is from one day to the next, or intra-day, having the right office equipment both at home and at the office allows transitioning from one workspace to another seamless.

Shutting it down. When opting for a change of scenery, it’s important to set a timer and shut it down when the threshold has been met. The metaphorical timer will allow you to prevent home and work from morphing into one.

On days when I do opt for a change of scenery, I cap the amount of work I do at home. Working from home last year, there was no cap—which had a damaging effect on my work and sleep schedule. I woke up late most mornings and worked until late in the day, frequently up to and past midnight.

Nowadays, when I work from home in the evenings, I typically call it quits sufficiently before midnight. I combine that with going to bed earlier, which allows me to wake up earlier, arrive at the office by around 9 a.m., and develop a sense of normalcy that evaporated during much of the pandemic.

Law Firm Return Plans

Speaking of things returning to “normal,” a trending topic of discussion is how law firms will approach their plans for bringing attorneys and staff back to the office later this year.

While some firms have announced preliminary reopening plans, it remains to be seen how those plans will play out in practice. In the meantime, it seems likely to be the case that, at least for those eager to do so, returning to the office can work but will require buy-in from relevant stakeholders.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Josepher Li is a registered patent attorney at the litigation boutique Armond Wilson LLP. Based in Newport Beach, Calif., his intellectual property and technology litigation practice spans nationwide in federal courts and before the U.S. Patent Office.