In the coming weeks, as quarantine restrictions loosen, companies around the world will begin bringing people back to the workplace. While some may be eager to finally get out of their house, a good number of people are still anxious. And if you’re among them, you aren’t alone. Seventy percent of over 1,000 workers surveyed by PwC said there are several factors preventing them from wanting to return to work, with 51% citing fear of getting sick as their major worry. For others, fear of using public transportation and having no reliable solutions for childcare or homeschooling are also concerns.
These fears are neither surprising nor irrational. Though the transition to work-from-home (WFH) may have proved challenging, the transition back to the workplace may be harder. This is, in part, because of how our brains make sense of unexpected change. When we transitioned to WFH several months ago, there were few precedents guiding us. Figuring out how to turn dining rooms into offices and basements into classrooms — all this was foreign. Feeling “lost in the unfamiliar” made sense, and as our adrenaline kicked in, we became more resourceful, creative, and eventually, adapted. But, even when it is induced by stress or necessity, creativity often feels rewarding. When we conquer something we’ve never done, we feel a sense of pride, not just for the result, but also for overcoming our fear and inexperience in doing so.
When we go back to work, however, we will expect a return to the familiar. Our brains have an autopilot mode that is comprised of shortcuts we’ve made to help us undertake routine tasks with minimal mental effort. That’s why you can drive to work without ever remembering how you got there. However, back at the office, if your brain reaches for the autopilot version of a familiar routine, it will get short-circuited by your new reality. When that happens, you may feel “lost in the familiar.” Where you park, having your temperature taken, where your desk is situated, standing six feet apart from people in line for the coffee pot, and wearing PPE are just some practices that will contradict what your brain expects. It may only take ten seconds to adjust, but that shift requires enormous mental energy, and you may be making it many times a day for the first few weeks back.
To prepare yourself for the transition back to the office, here are some approaches to minimize the stress and adapt as quickly as possible.
Monitor your anxiety. You may feel inclined to hide your anxiety about coming back to work, feigning confidence and positivity in the face of so much unknown. Alternatively, you may be unaware of the extent to which you are wearing your anxiety on your sleeve. To whatever degree you feel concerned about returning to work — regardless of your inclination to hide or broadcast it — pay close attention. Most importantly, find someone to talk to about it. If that’s not your boss, try someone in HR, or consider investing in a coach or therapist.
Mismanaged anxiety can lead to unwanted consequences both to your health as well as to important relationships. For example, you may find it difficult to sleep or turn to stress eating. You may become rigidly legalistic to regain a sense of control. In one organization I work with, a woman was so anxious about being back at work that she took it upon herself to police everyone’s adherence to PPE protocols, understandably annoying those she admonished. Whatever form the discomfort you are feeling may take, stay on top of how you acknowledge and address it.
Stock up on patience and flexibility. You should expect the protocols your company has in place to shift over time. New information and changing conditions, sometimes through trial-and-error, will require your company to adapt, sometimes on the fly. Manage your expectations with patience and flexibility so that each time something changes, you don’t become irritated or nervous. Try not to perceive change as your company “not knowing what they are doing.” More often, it’s a positive sign when organizations are open to learning and improvement, even if they must do it as they go.
Your brain will likely continue to scan for autopilot options to familiar routines — you might even be surprised by how quickly it creates new shortcuts. But you must be mindful of not settling into comfort too quickly. Three days after you’ve adjusted to your staggered start time, for instance, it may change again. You’ll be less frustrated if you set your expectations beforehand.
Finally, be compassionate toward your boss, especially if you aren’t their biggest fan right now. Keep in mind that they are experiencing the added pressure of managing their own transition alongside helping you manage yours. Until we learn and adjust to what does and doesn’t work to keep people safe and productive, everyone will need extra measures of empathy and agility. Trust that things will get smoother as everyone learns together.
Manage expectations. We often form assumptions about other people to ease our discomfort with ambiguity. The more uncertain things are, the faster and more absolute our assumptions become. Whether you lead others or are an individual contributor, this applies to you. What you are actually capable of, what you need, and what you are thinking may not match what others conclude. Pre-empt misassumptions by speaking up when you need to, and by finding a respectful, honest way to self-advocate. If you are still working out childcare or homeschool logistics, let your boss know that, and if need be, ask for flexibility in your schedule. If you are feeling unsafe about your health, voice your concerns in a considerate way that doesn’t convey a sense of entitlement or demand.
If you lead others, they will assume you have all the answers about new policies and protocols, and you may get asked questions for which no satisfying answer exists. Learning to provide honest responses will be key to showing good leadership. Proactively alert people to any impending changes you hear about, and let people know what you are doing to stay informed on their behalf. By effectively managing others’ expectations, you help ensure they don’t become obstacles to an already complicated transition.
Be a source of joy. One of the best ways to make the transition smoother is by finding ways to make it better for others. Strike up conversations that create a sense of lightheartedness among your team. One organization I work with has made a weekly practice of sharing their “WFH mishaps” as well as their “unexpected WFH delights” — a practice that can be easily translated into the office. Humorous and inspiring stories can give rise to a new sense of community. Be especially mindful of those colleagues who are still working from home. They may begin to feel left out or worry that they are missing in-person opportunities. Show them sensitivity by taking extra steps to make sure they feel connected and included. They will be grateful.
In the workplace, find creative ways to replace the instinctive hugs or high-fives you once routinely exchanged. When people innocently forget to follow a PPE protocol or fail to catch themselves when their “autopilot” shows up, find goodhearted ways to laugh about it instead of getting frustrated. If your team isn’t particularly close, use the transition to build new levels of trust and camaraderie. Doing these things won’t eliminate the stress of fighting a pandemic, but it will make the fight less intimidating as you bring joy to others, and in the process, to yourself.
Stay focused on the bigger story. The transition to whatever the “next normal” is will be laden with unknown bumps and possibilities. Much of that is out of our control. Further, the transition will feel different for each of us. Our highs and lows won’t always match those of others. What we can manage is our responses to our transition, and how we support others through theirs. When the transition feels discouraging, for example, have a prompt to restore hope.
Try this question: “A year from now, if someone asks how living through Covid-19 changed me for the better, how do I want to answer?” Regardless of the difficulties you’ve suffered, you get to decide how this shapes the person you want to become. Ponder those possibilities every day, and allow them to bolster hope when you need it.
Remember, we are living through an unprecedented moment in history. This pandemic will change the world in ways we’ve yet to understand. Many of the unknowns ahead represent extraordinary opportunity, and we each get to decide what part we play in that unfolding story. For the many moments during this epic story when the word “together” has taken on an entirely new meaning, our transition back to work will redefine it yet again. What part will you play in making it mean something extraordinary?