After spending so many months working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, you might be thinking about what the future of work looks like for you. Are you itching to get back into the office full time? Would you prefer a hybrid work setup? Or would you want to keep working from home indefinitely—either by asking if you could make your current job permanently remote or finding a new remote role (which you can search for right here on The Muse)? If you’ve only worked remotely during the pandemic, you should take a minute to consider what working remotely might be like when there’s not a global health crisis.
While no one knows for sure what shape remote work will take once the pandemic ends, plenty of people know what it looked like before the pandemic began—myself included. At my last job before The Muse, I went into the office every day for over a year before becoming a remote employee (while my coworkers continued to work in the office). Like employees all over the country, I’ve also been working from home since March 2020, and I can definitely see some big differences. Of course, mine is just one experience, so I spoke with a few people who’ve worked remotely both during and before the pandemic to learn about their experiences and help predict what remote work might look like in the future.
Here are 10 things you need to know before you commit to working remotely after the pandemic ends—the good, the bad, and the somewhere in-between. Keep in mind that not all of these experiences will be universal. They’ll depend heavily on company and team cultures, communication styles, the balance of remote and on-site workers, and a number of other factors. But knowing what others have encountered while working remotely outside of the pandemic will help you choose between in-office, remote, and hybrid work and prepare you for what working from home indefinitely could be like for you.
1. Communication Norms Are Different if Everyone Else Is in the Office
Throughout the pandemic, you might’ve gotten the hang of how to communicate with coworkers you’re never in the same building with. People are connecting via video meetings, messaging platforms, email, and project management and collaboration software like Airtable and Google Docs. And these methods work because everyone is dependent on them to get information, so you and your colleagues are all checking them regularly. With everyone working from home, “communication has been more intentional and consistent,” says Bill Peatman, a content marketing manager who went remote a couple years before the pandemic hit.
But when and if the majority of your team returns to the office, your colleagues may check these remote communication platforms less frequently. Victoria Shockley, a PR professional who worked remotely for a company that was mostly in the office before the pandemic, says, “I’d struggle with coworkers or interns who were unresponsive via Slack, constantly needing to ping them.” Ultimately, “It impacted efficient workflow.”
Meetings will also be different if the bulk of your team returns to the office without you. A video meeting with everyone on Zoom means everyone is having the same experience. But if you’re the only one on a screen while the rest of your team is in the same room, you might miss out on some of the discussions happening, have trouble reading body language, or find it harder to contribute your ideas. “With a group in a conference room, I couldn’t see everyone, and we weren’t all looking at one another. Side conversations went on that I couldn’t hear,” Peatman says.
You might also miss out on natural social interactions throughout the day when you’re not physically with your coworkers. At the job where I was one of few remote employees, we always had work-related conversations via Slack, so I didn’t find I was missing out on professional communication, but most of our casual conversations happened by talking over the walls of our cubicles—so I did feel cut off socially.
During the pandemic, most everyone was affected by the loss of social interaction, and many teams came up with ways to cope. For example, The Muse’s content team has had a 15-minute daily check-in where we all log onto Zoom and catch up on non-work stuff. The meeting mimics some of the chatter that would happen in the office. However, outside of a pandemic situation, many of these stand-ins may no longer feel necessary to primarily office-based teams.
2. You Might Miss Out on Team Bonding
Like casual conversation, team bonding outside of a pandemic often occurs in person. “Before the pandemic, one of the biggest negatives was missing out on the in-person activities with coworkers,” Shockley says. “No happy hours, no sitting together at the lunch table, and no after-work events or activities.” During the pandemic, things have changed: “Now that everyone is remote, not just me or a select few, we have all-staff huddles with the entire company three days a week where I see everyone face to face—at least over a screen,” Shockley says. “Plus, specific remote activities are planned to keep the staff spending time together, like going on Zoom for a virtual yoga class, enjoying a virtual holiday party where everyone creates their own charcuterie board, and more.” However, while many companies made efforts to hold virtual bonding activities over the past year, remote events are not a given if most employees return to the office.
Remember, this sort of bonding isn’t purely for fun. “The social aspect...is so important—not only to get to know the people you work with eight to 10 hours a day, but also for networking purposes and meeting clients,” Shockley says. Getting left out of team bonding could affect your work. It did for CJ Ahlquist, who worked remotely for several years before the pandemic. “I missed out on so much of the relationship and trust-building, I really felt at a disadvantage, and over time that became de-motivating,” she says.
3. In-Office Workers Could Be at an Advantage for Professional Development and Other Opportunities
Unfortunately, even though it shouldn’t be the case, it’s natural for teammates, managers, and company leadership to think more about the people they see in person every day. During the pandemic, employees haven’t generally been seeing any of their colleagues face to face, so employees “are all on the same playing field,” Peatman says. But if most of your team goes back to the office, remote workers likely won’t be as visible as those working in the same space as decision makers.
Even if you’re doing great work, it might be way easier for your managers to see the accomplishments and hard work of your colleague who sits right next to them. So as a remote employee outside of a pandemic, you may “wonder if you have the same access to decisions, opportunities, and responsibility,” as in-office workers, Peatman says. This decreased visibility can make you less likely to get tapped for stretch projects and other opportunities as well as to land promotions. Plus, it might be harder for your manager to see where you excel and where you struggle and make suggestions for you to improve as an employee.
Companies committed to equity among remote and in-office employees can put policies and practices in place to counter “out of sight, out of mind” tendencies—as can thoughtful managers and leaders. So you’ll want to assess your particular circumstances to help determine how much of an issue visibility might be.
4. You May Be the Only Person in Your Home Working From Home
During the pandemic, everyone you lived with (roommates, partner, children, other family members) was likely home all or most of the time. For some people, this could mean camaraderie and more quality time spent with loved ones. But it could also mean more distractions, less space to work, or spending too much time with the same people. For parents, the pandemic brought an entirely other set of concerns, such as having to supervise remote school while also doing their jobs.
Once lockdown ends, many adults will return to the office and many children will return to in-person school or daycare. This might mean a better work environment for you, or it could mean a more isolating one. And depending on your household dynamics, the balance of home labor can also shift if you’re not careful. For example, as a remote worker before the pandemic, Ahlquist was in a relationship with someone who worked long hours at an in-person job. “Being at home all day, I felt like household chores defaulted to me,” she says. “We really struggled to find balance.”
5. Being Remote Outside of the Pandemic Means Even More Day-to-Day Flexibility (Especially in Location)
Due to the lockdowns that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, working remotely has generally meant literally working from home. However, “The best part of working remotely before the pandemic was the freedom to decide where I feel most productive or where I choose to work on any given day,” says Libryia Jones, an IT project manager and remote work expert who works remotely herself.
Once society opens back up and transmission risks are lower, you might decide to work from a friend or relative’s house, a coworking space, or a coffee shop. If you’re banking on this perk of remote work, be sure to take into account the area where you live. As someone who worked remotely in a small suburb where the closest coffee shop was a 20-minute drive away, I can tell you that not all towns and cities are equally suited for remote work outside of your home.
6. Working Remotely Can Be Socially Isolating
During the pandemic, there was a level of camaraderie in remote work, Ahlquist says, not only within companies and households, but also among friends and within other social groups. Everyone was missing out on the casual social contact that came with “normal” day-to-day life and many tried to accommodate by doing more things virtually than ever before. For example, my friend group organized virtual game nights and even a book club.
Outside of the pandemic, you could be the only one or one of the few in your social circle who’s working from home. The lack of socialization during work hours may start to weigh on you—especially if you live alone. Even if you have a strong local network of people to spend time with, they may prefer to disconnect and be alone after a long workday or work week. Or you might not live close enough to friends to see them frequently—as I did when I worked remotely before the pandemic.
So apart from feeling isolated from your company, you may also start to feel isolated from everyone if you don’t take conscious steps to make sure you’re meeting your own social needs.
7. The Pandemic Caused a Lot of Outside-of-Work Stress
If you’re someone who thinks remote work isn’t for them based on your recent experiences, keep in mind that the pandemic itself added so many stressors and fears that don’t usually accompany remote work, Shockley says. The pandemic and lockdown, plus all the other turmoil of 2020 and 2021, has had an effect not just on our day-to-day moods but our mental health overall.
So consider the reasons 2020 and 2021 have been difficult and think about whether they’re circumstances that will improve before writing off remote work completely. Was working from home difficult because you felt lonely and/or isolated? Consider if seeing coworkers every day is the only way to solve that or if being able to casually see friends, family members, and others outside of work hours would fulfill you socially. Were you feeling stressed or down solely because you were trying to get your work done in the same place you use to unwind? Or did the stress stem more from fear and anxiety over a global health crisis—particularly if experienced a loss or got sick yourself?
8. People Have Gained More Understanding for Remote Work
Before the pandemic, my sources and I all experienced the stigma—from people both inside and outside of our workplaces—that remote workers don’t do anything or at least don’t do as much as their in-office counterparts. However, now that so many people have worked from home, they know this isn’t the case. Where you are has little to no bearing on how hard you work. “There’s more empathy all around—you don’t get the ‘must be nice’ eye roll” anymore, Peatman says. Ahlquist adds, “It’s been nice having a broader understanding that I am indeed actually working even though I’m in my pajamas.”
Before the pandemic, many employers were hesitant to allow people to work from home because tradition told them people need to be in an office to truly get their jobs done—or even that people wouldn’t work without being “watched.” Now, almost every company has seen what their employees are capable of while working remotely, so decisions about whether or not a certain individual can work from home can be based on actual experiences, not on speculation. As a result, many companies are becoming more flexible about remote and hybrid work.
9. Employees and Employers Have Placed More Importance on Employee Wellness and Mental Health
The pandemic and resulting lockdowns have affected our mental health. Working from home can also blur the lines between your personal and professional life and make it harder to disconnect from work and relax, which can lead to burnout.
As a result, many companies started to prioritize employee wellness, Shockley says. For example, her company “has not only given employees small appreciation gifts like face masks and herbal tea to help us relax our brains, but they’ve encouraged every employee to pursue personal development opportunities of their choice.” Meanwhile, other companies may have expanded their mental health support and/or coverage, given employees more leeway when they’re dealing with personal difficulties, or encouraged people to take regular breaks. One of my team leaders at The Muse even started giving us a number of days off per quarter to shoot for.
An increased focus on self-care, wellness, and mental health is great news for remote workers going forward. If you choose to work remotely, but begin to feel isolated or struggle with your work-life balance, companies are likely to be more receptive to supporting you and helping you make the changes necessary to stay healthy.
10. You Can Avoid Common Pitfalls of Remote Work
Working remotely in the future may present some challenges, but there are ways to overcome them. And the additional insight both you and the people you work with have gained throughout the pandemic can help.
Here are some tips from Jones:
- Be disciplined. You may have already learned throughout the pandemic that it can be difficult to stay focused and keep to a structure when you’re working from home. So find a method that works for you. For example, maybe you need a WFH schedule and you can experiment to find the best one for your work style and situation.
- Keep in regular contact with your boss and colleagues. Setting up many touchpoints and meetings with your teammates or boss is vital for making your employer comfortable with you working remotely long term, Jones says. It also helps you build strong relationships and keeps you top of mind for professional opportunities. These interactions can be professional as well as social—for example, a regular one-on-one with your manager or other teammates to catch up on work or an online “coffee” with a coworker every week or two.
- Track your productivity and achievements. Keep a record of what you do, how you’ve improved, and what results you get from your work as well as any positive feedback you get from coworkers, managers, clients, or anyone else. This will help you prove your track record as a remote worker and make you well prepared for raise requests and performance reviews. You can also share bits of this record with your manager regularly. For example, saying (or emailing or Slacking) something like, “Wow, the campaign I launched last week already has 3,000 impressions!” can keep your manager aware of your achievements between major checkpoints.
- Prioritize self-care. Self-care looks different for everyone both inside and outside work. When you’re a remote worker, boundaries are a form of self-care, so do whatever you can to create strong boundaries between your work and personal time. That might mean putting your work computer in a drawer on Friday and not opening it until Monday, letting your team know what hours you’re working, and/or letting the people you live with know when they can come into your home workspace or interrupt you. And schedule the things that make you feel good about yourself. Maybe that’s making time for meditation or exercise in the morning—both of which you can do outside of your home when there isn’t a pandemic! Or maybe it’s having lunch once a week with a friend who also works remotely so you can both socialize. If you’re looking for more ideas, you can read more tips for working from home here.