It’s hard to imagine. After nearly 16 months of remote work, and all the logistical and emotional baggage that came with propelling yourself and your family through the global pandemic, it’s time to return to an office that you haven’t seen since March 2020.
But everything feels different now. You feel different now. It’s uncomfortable to think about being surrounded by people all day-even people you know, like, and trust. The thought of sharing spaces with others is hard to stomach after more than a year of hand-washing, mask-wearing and worrying.
How do you get comfortable with this? How do you get your mind around your upcoming return to the office? See our tips below.
Consider what you need.
Many of us are more vigilant about germs now; for over a year, we’ve had to be. For much of that time, we didn’t fully know which risks were most pressing. We nervously washed our produce and sanitized surfaces as experts learned more about the virus and how COVID-19 spreads. It was a scary, stressful time.
So now, we’re going back to closed quarters with our co-workers. If the thought of shared restrooms, communal refrigerators, and coffee pots stir your anxiety, you are certainly not alone.
Your company, likely, has regulations around some of these anxiety producers. Learn everything you can about that protocol before you return. Pose all your questions to your management team and your HR partners. Make sure you understand the expectations. Secure your supplies.
Think about what you need to feel comfortable in a shared workspace. Maybe bringing disinfectant spray or wipes, for example, will make you feel comfortable using communal spaces like restrooms. Ask your HR partners if this is acceptable. Maybe you need to wipe down your desk and keyboard each night to feel safe and secure. Consider what feels right to you and secure the information and supplies you need as you think through your return logistics.
Dr. Mark Allen, author and lecturer in talent management, corporate universities, and human resources at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School points out: “Things will be different. The environment will be different (possible plexiglass, temperature checks, etc.). The work will be different (some people are still working from home, with hybrid meetings, etc.). The social aspects of work will be different (fewer people in the office each day, no birthday parties, etc.). Change is difficult under the best of circumstances, and these aren’t the best of circumstances. Our responses to change are always emotional, and we (and our bosses) need to remember that.”
Know your boundaries.
As you talk with your human resources partners, see what support and resources are being made available to staff, and honestly explore what you need. Trust your gut. If you are not comfortable, if this genuinely does not feel right or doable to you, listen to that. You have to be comfortable at work to be able to concentrate and to find your fit there.
A recent Glassdoor survey conducted online by The Harris Poll reveals that 7 in 10 (70%) U.S. employees who are currently working from home due to COVID-19 believe that workers should be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine to return to the office. And even after offices reopen, nearly 9 in 10 (86%) say they would prefer to continue working from home at least part of the time.
You matter more than your job. If this experience has led you to conclude that you need to be a remote worker for a while, pursue that, either via your HR team or by finding an arrangement that serves you better.
“COVID-19 has triggered a new wave of employee expectations, from incentives to get a vaccine to more flexible work options, even after it’s safe to return to the office,” says Carina Cortez, Glassdoor’s Chief People Officer. “Employers must take employee feedback into account to determine what is best for their workforce, including how to best support employees who plan to get the vaccine, and employees who do not.”
This means recognizing that the return to the workplace may not be a fit for you. If that’s the case, do what is available to you to change your situation so that you can find one that better suits you.
If your workplace requires staff to be onsite but doesn’t require vaccinations, and if that feels unsafe to you, then your professional culture is no longer a fit for you. Likewise, if your employer requires staff to get vaccinated and you’re uncomfortable with that, you’ve lost fit in your professional culture. The pandemic has cued plenty of cultural changes. Recognizing and owning which ones are suitable for you is an important part of getting acclimated to the post-covid workplace.
Support safety protocol.
If you decide to work in your office full or part-time, it’s your professional responsibility to support your employer’s safety protocol. “Be prepared for new requirements. Possible temperature checks, mandatory masks, social distancing. Don’t be resistant to these requirements even if you disagree with them. They are in place for your safety and the safety of your co-workers.” Dr. Allen shares. Workplace culture matters, especially now. Pull together with your team to make this work.
Dr. Allen offers this reminder: “I recently saw someone arguing with a security guard who was politely asking him to put his mask back on. This was in Los Angeles County, where masks are still mandatory indoors. There’s no point in arguing with the guard–he didn’t make the rules. Let’s all be prepared to accept whatever restrictions are in place–we’ve lasted this long under Covid rules–let’s accept that it might be just a little bit longer.”
If you want to offer feedback about the protocol, find the right way to do so. Learn who on the HR team is the right person to share that with; show your concern by offering help, suggestions, support. If you feel like you need to vent, do that work with your mental health professional, who can help you neutralize your feelings and manage them productively.
Recognize that this is a challenging time organization-wide. Sharing suggestions are likely to be appreciated, as is patience, kindness, and empathy. We’re not yet done with the pandemic. It remains a hard time.
Think about what you need. We’ve just weathered a global pandemic. None of us have ever been through anything like this. Find the help and support you need as you sort it out. Whether you’re feeling excited or hesitant about your return to the office, it may be helpful to find a coach, therapist, or counselor to help you get your mind around this transition. It’s a big change.
Our feelings about the pandemic tend to run deep. Many of us had to shoulder trauma that we haven’t fully processed as we saw family members suffering from COVID-19, and as we tried to cobble together emergency plans to protect the children and the seniors we care for in case we got sick. It can be surprising how the trauma resurfaces unexpectedly.
Take this opportunity to get the care that you need so that you can feel well-supported as you return to the office. You deserve mental health care that sustains you from within. Make that a priority as you contemplate this transition. You deserve it.
Keep in mind that the leaders and managers guiding us through the transition back into the workplace have also never been through this kind of change. Examining your feelings, being able to understand and articulate them is especially helpful during transitional times.
Have realistic expectations
Whether you are excited or apprehensive about your return to work, recognize that things stand to be different. Prepare for that. Dr. Allen points out: “Things won’t be like the Beforetimes. We are not going back to what life was like in February of 2020. We need to adjust to the fact that things will be different. And let’s not talk about The New Normal. That’s a myth. When we first go back, there will still be some Covid restrictions. Those will ease, and things will change again. There won’t be a Normal.”
We’ve been through a global pandemic. Many of us didn’t fully realize that something like this could happen. Take it slow as you get your mind around how to move forward. While it feels good to see our lives starting to look more normal, we’re different people now. We have to be kinder to ourselves and our coworkers.
“The best thing we can offer our employees is flexibility. Let those who want to work from home for a few days do it if possible. If people need flexible schedules, let them have it. We’ve all been through a lot–let’s do what we can to ease people back into the workplace.” Dr. Allen advises.
Best wishes with your transition. We’re all rooting for you.