Now that things are reopening, many of us are preparing to return to work. Whether you’re already partly there, or still anticipating it, here are some things to think about as we ease back into a life that is closer to how things were before the pandemic — yet still so different.
Here are some suggestions for everyone as we return to work:
Embrace the awkwardness:
If you’re not sure how to approach a first conversation, or how to interact in person, acknowledge it. The other person is probably feeling the same way. When you break the ice, conversation can flow more naturally. Start by asking others about themselves and their work.
It’s okay if your appetite for socializing has changed. Some may be craving some interaction even if they were a bit of a hermit before, while others might have really gotten used to solitude and be yearning for some of that lost freedom. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your discomfort and don’t take it personally when someone tells you they wish they could be home away from everyone.
Meet people where they are:
Accept what people tell you about themselves — now isn’t the time to try to convince others of your opinion. (This doesn’t apply to a work decision, or direction on a project. Here, we are talking about people and emotions around returning to the office.)
For example, if someone’s views on vaccinations or socializing differ from yours, accept that they differ. For you, going mask-free indoors post-vaccination might feel freeing and joyful, but for the person in the next cubicle, it could be panic-inducing.
Emotions may be on the surface. Regardless of your views on vaccines, viruses, borders and economics, the last 15 months have been stressful. Full stop. If you’ve been on Planet Earth since March 2020, life has been stressful. That means recognizing that everyone else who has been through this has also been stressed — whether they see it, or not, whether they acknowledge it, or not.
Keep lines of communication open:
Talk to your coworkers. Share what you’re concerned about and ask what they’re concerned about. Ask what they’re most looking forward to and share what you are excited about.
Prepare with your family. Talk through what your employer’s return to the office scenario means for you and your family. What will you miss about being home? What changes will you need to work through together? What are you excited about going forward?
Celebrate the little things:
Be patient and kind to yourself. Start by acknowledging the stress that has been and that is still to come.
There’s a concept in sociology of “re-socialization” – the act of learning new social norms that are expected in your society. For most of us, we socialize early to our society and then tweak things a bit as teens as we become more independent and then as adults in the working world. Very few people ever have to re-socialize – that is, learn an entirely new normal.
Full re-socializing is difficult and incredibly stressful. A mild example would be moving to a foreign country and having to learn some new customs. A more severe example might be being sent to prison or joining a cult. However, in 2020 ALL OF US had to re-socialize to a world that forbade gathering, where hugging could make you sick or visiting a grandparent could threaten their life. We had to stop traveling, learn to walk one way down grocery store aisles and wear masks in public. Many among us had to become school teachers while also being parents and workers. It was exhausting because we were having to learn to survive by living differently than we had before. The social rules changed, dramatically and often more than once.
While the end of COVID may be in sight, and vaccines are helping us get there, the unfortunate reality is we’re about to go through another massive re-socialization. In some ways, it may feel like a return to the old ways and yet in so many ways it’s not going to be that either. It’s going to be a third form of society – somewhere between isolated lockdown, and life pre-2020.
To get through it, we have to acknowledge it, accept our inability to significantly change it and find ways to make it work for us. In other words, we have to build resilience, knowing it’s coming.
Part of the social readjustment may be about learning how to reallocate time and energy away from family and back to friends, colleagues and acquaintances, without losing the closeness built up with loved ones.
Some suggestions for Leaders and HR:
Acknowledge there was stress and anxiety in your workplace BEFORE COVID – and much of that will return like a tsunami, if it ever subsided.
- Consider the extra stress being felt by employees who joined the organization during the pandemic and who have never met their colleagues.
- Consider those who went on or returned from parenting leave.
- Some workers may have had strained relationships with each other that lessened during COVID and are about to re-emerge.
How are they feeling as some sort of return to work occurs? How are you helping your team build resilience alongside productivity as they return to work? Are you prepared to cope with your own return to work anxiety as a leader?
There has been much discussion about companies who have switched to an entirely virtual workplace – selling office buildings while fitting-up workers at home. Other companies have talked about a “return to normal” with everyone back at the office. For most of us, normal will now likely be a hybrid composed of some form of work from the office and work from home; in fact, this is what we’re recommending to our clients. But what does your hybrid look like?
First, it shouldn’t be entirely up to employees how the hybrid model rolls out. The reasons you are using a hybrid model are multitude and must all be considered. For example, you might want to think about:
- Limits on how many people can be in the workplace at once. What physical changes need to be made? What are the rules around the group gathering spaces (boardroom, lunchroom, etc)? What about public spaces?
- Given the limits, who needs to be there together? Will entire departments need to be together in person? Does the leadership team need to be? What about project teams? Discuss ideas and logistics with whomever you need to, to be prepared.
- Set up a schedule and communicate it well in advance to those who will be affected (in other words, everyone).
Once you’ve figured out what groups or teams need to be together, at least some of the time, decide which days and times are best. Again, consult staff, but make the decision that will work best for the company (and be prepared to handle criticism). There is NO WAY you are going to give everyone what they want, but it is important to seek input and consider alternatives to the one way you might be inclined to do it yourself.
While we advocate that wherever possible, employers consider continuing work-from-home for some days for those who want it (i.e., be flexible):
- Don’t overlook the risks of loneliness (which people may not be able to acknowledge).
- Remember the lost benefits of teamwork (which tend to be long-term and not seen in the moment).
- Consider the fact that some folks won’t be able to share their truth (“I need to work from the office because I’m in an abusive relationship at home,” or, “I need to work from home because my parent is ill and it stresses me out to think they may need help when I’m not there,” or, “My kids are making me crazy, I need to get back to an office.”).
Don’t base all your beliefs on an employee survey. Many organizations have done all-employee surveys sometime between autumn 2020 and spring 2021 to ask employees their preferences about returning to work.
Keep in mind that things are changing almost daily: Last week their kids were in school. This week, the kids are trying to learn from home, anxiety is high and Internet speeds are low. That survey was likely valuable in the moment, but does it still hold true? Will it hold true next week? Next month? The point is, with a return to the office, do what’s right for the company while being as flexible as possible, and be prepared to adapt that again, and maybe again, until you find the right spot for now.
Have honest conversations with employees:
- Make it safe for people to share their truth.
- Ask questions about what you need to learn.
- Acknowledge when you don’t know the answer and when you will commit to figuring it out.
- Ask for their input – good ideas come from all over.
How does planning to return to work make you feel? What would be helpful for you to consider? What can you do to be more prepared for yourself and your team?