Leaders everywhere are exploring ways we can safely return to offices, months after stay-in-place orders mandated work-from-home policies. Returning to the workplace is a complicated decision with many considerations, and the health and safety of professionals, their families and others must be the top priority.

However, as the virus continues to pose a threat, returning to many pre-pandemic office setups may not be feasible for quite some time. Some companies will maintain work-from-home policies for the foreseeable future, and a few have announced a permanent transition to a fully remote workforce.

I have to admit that when I first started to fully work from home, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve since come to appreciate benefits of remote work but recognize the challenges it brings. We now have a unique opportunity to reimagine the future of the workplace, including its role on our health and well-being. 

Wellness while WFH: unexpected benefits

Since 1980, the average American commute has gotten nearly 20% longer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For years, workers have spent hours each week driving or riding public transit to the office. This doesn’t count business travel to conferences or to visit clients around the country and world.

Working from home has freed professionals from the stress of commuting and traveling. Not only is this yielding increased productivity, but it means more time spent with families, exercising or just catching up on well-earned rest. Kelly Grier, EY’s US Chair and Managing Partner and Americas Managing Partner, recently shared that she’s using this newly found free time to increase her running mileage. 

Personally, I’m enjoying the flexibility of being able to walk around my neighborhood while on conference or video calls. It’s easier to fit in daily workouts when I’m not rushing to make an early flight or catch the last train. I’m also enjoying nightly dinners with my family, where we catch up and relax over a home-cooked meal. These are the positive benefits of working from home full-time that I’d like to continue cultivating, even when we return to the office.  

Blurring boundaries, increased stress

I’m deeply grateful I’m able to work from home. There are many essential workers, from healthcare providers to grocery store clerks, who do not have that privilege.  I’m also grateful that EY has invested in the technologies and infrastructure to ensure we can effectively work remotely from clients’ offices, while traveling or at our homes. As a firm, we were well-prepared for this sudden shift to a virtual workplace.

Even with the ability to effectively operate remotely, with schools closed, working parents are juggling childcare or homeschooling in addition to full-time professional obligations.  While some workers have home offices, others must find space to work in crowded apartments. With my desk just 20 feet from the kitchen, I struggle with mindless snacking throughout the day, and find myself reaching for innutritious foods more often than I’d like. 

All of this is eclipsed by the physical, mental and emotional burnout of living through a public health crisis. Some of us have been sick, while others took care of ill family members. We have been isolated from friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. Meditation and mindfulness, both proven to address stress and anxiety, have helped me stay centered amid so much uncertainty. As we continue to live through this pandemic and beyond, it is important for leaders to stay calm and focused. 

The future of wellness in the workplace

As we try to return to business as usual, leaders may want to reconsider discretionary business travel. The last few months have proven that workers at home can be efficient and connect with customers while enjoying time with family, catching up on sleep and exercising more. As a bonus, less travel means a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, thereby improving environmental wellness, too.

Leaders should also re-examine their benefits offerings to ensure they address the challenges of working from home. Flexible work schedules, liberal leave policies and increased sick days can help ease the burdens faced by working parents. Further, comprehensive employee wellness programs are shown to boost workers’ engagement, reduce stress and build camaraderie – even among virtual teams.

Lastly, if companies continue working remotely, they should redefine work-life balance. Leaders must appreciate that for many, living rooms are workplaces, or bedrooms have become offices. Encourage your teams to be considerate of colleagues’ working hours and their workload as they communicate and schedule meetings. We recently launched an email etiquette campaign that reminds our people to respect others’ boundaries and be mindful of standard working hours. These recommendations not only align with our culture and values, but will help foster a culture of respect, thoughtful collaboration and an overall focus on wellness. 

We are at an inflection point. Entire industries, offices and cities will be forever changed by this pandemic, and our lives won’t be the same. We should think about a new definition of workplace wellness, keeping the good things of working remotely while addressing the challenges. Let’s prioritize well-being among professionals as we live through and beyond this crisis.