How to return to the office after the Covid-19 pandemic
From dealing with anxiety to getting your mojo back after months on furlough, here’s how to return to the workplace happily and safely
How to cope with anxiety over returning to the workplace…
According to Evelyn Cotter, founder of SEVEN Career Coaching, it’s natural to be anxious about the shift in lifestyle that comes with returning to the workplace. After all, many of us feel comfortable with our new routine and the slower pace of life we’ve created for ourselves working from home. ‘Going from the safety of your home space – which you've adapted to working and living in so intensively for the past few months – back out to the big bad world, will naturally create some sort of anxiety,’ she reassures.
What’s more, the very real risk of contracting the virus is still a valid concern for many. ‘Throw in the pandemic conditions and multi-layered uncertainty, and it's really a perfect soup for even the most tough-skinned of us to feel anxious,’ says Cotter, adding that the best way to approach the return to the office is to ‘go easy on yourself’, slowly building back up to your former routine. ‘Don't jump straight into a packed week of after-work gym sessions, dinners and drinks; just start with your commute to the office. Acclimatise, rest properly and build back up,’ she advises.
Freelance career coach and consultant Hannah Salton agrees, suggesting that those who feel anxious about the return to office-based work should have an open and honest conversation with their employer, explaining their concerns. ‘It’s understandable you may feel nervous, but your employer won’t know this unless you share it,’ she points out. ‘Try and engage in an open dialogue to discuss options, and see if a compromise can be agreed.’
Dealing with new frictions arising…
Of course, no two people’s experience of the lockdown has been the same. Once back in the workplace, both Cotter and Salton predict potential frictions arising between those who feel fired up and ready to return to a fast-paced routine, and those struggling with the transition and new demands.
‘Everyone works at a different pace, so expect natural frictions between those wanting to return to 'normal" immediately and others wanting to retain some positive aspects of balance that the lockdown brought,’ cautions Cotter.
Salton agrees. ‘Many employees are feeling confused and vulnerable at this time,’ she says. ‘The ever-evolving government guidelines can also add to a feeling of uncertainty and a lack of control. While employers may be keen to get their workers back to normal, many people’s personal and home lives have been severely disrupted, and [so they] won’t be able to slip easily back into normal office life,’ she points out, stressing that while employers can make their offices safe, their measures won't necessarily extend to their employees' commute.
Adopting a positive mindset…
So, how do we embrace returning to the office? ‘If, after a full discussion of your options with your employer, you decide you will start to move back to the office, try and be proactive in making your experience as positive as possible,’ suggests Salton. ‘Plan your travel route in and leave plenty of time so you aren’t rushing.’
For Cotter, it’s about adopting a ‘growth mindset’. She says: ‘everything is an opportunity for growth and everything is beneficial to your development; find the positives and remind yourself that whatever pace you're moving back at, it's okay for you and you're doing your best.’
Finding your mojo after months on furlough…
While for some, the return to the workplace comes after weeks spent working from home, for others, it follows a significant period of being on furlough. For the latter, not only will this have been a seismic shift in routine, but a knock to their confidence and sense of professional self.
‘Many people are experiencing a huge lull in personal confidence and motivation,’ confirms Salton, adding that confidence can be improved using a three-pronged approach: self-awareness (which can be gained through asking for feedback and practising self-reflection); mastery (achieved through upskilling and self-development); and nudging yourself out of your comfort zone (through training, networking, or doing more public speaking or presenting). ‘Seek opportunities to try new things and talk to new people, and your confidence will naturally grow,’ she explains.
Cotter believes the best way to build confidence is to focus on what you enjoy about your job and on boosting the morale of others around you. ‘Use your expertise to help others – giving is a great way to boost morale,’ she says. ‘Remember three pieces of great feedback you've been given for your work or impact, and continue to affirm your worth and value,’ she adds. ‘Ultimately, you can remind people how much you were missed by coming back strong and assured.’
The benefits of returning to the workplace…
There are, of course, several benefits to re-separating your work and home life, and returning to a communal workplace. ‘A lot of people are greatly missing the social aspect,’ points out Cotter. ‘Also getting up and having a routine, having somewhere to be, having a reason to shower, get dressed, to look your best and ultimately feel together.’
In Salton’s experience, many people even miss the commute as it's this that separates their working day from their home life. ‘Many also miss the camaraderie of conversations around the water-cooler, and from a work perspective, many workers feel they do their best work when surrounded by others with similar goals,’ she says.
A case for continuing to work from home?
Many companies have defied the government’s 1 August return-to-work date and set their own targets for migrating back to the workplace, with some reassuring their workforce they won’t be expected to return to the office until 2021.
But what if your employer has asked you to return to the workplace when you’re really not ready to do so? Do you have the right, as an employee, to continue working from home? ‘Ask to have a confidential chat with your manager and explain your concerns fully. Try and avoid ultimatums and stand-offs, but be clear and honest about your reservations,’ suggests Salton.
‘I would try to understand your why first of all,’ says Cotter. ‘Is it anxiety driven? Is it a realisation that you don't like your work, your role, or the company? Get clear first and then go to your manager to see if you can find a solution,’ she adds.
‘[The lockdown] has brought about an incredibly sobering and drastic change. Humans don't like change, they like the apparent safety of familiarity, but change allows us to grow and expand, so go easy on yourself re-adjusting, but also choose to see each change in the most positive way you can,’ concludes Cotter. ‘Those who adopt a growth mindset shine out brightly and are sought after in whatever they do.’