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Returning to the office? How to adapt back to office life

Category: Work-Life Balance, Return to work, COVID-19, stress at workplace, coronavirus pandemic, Hays


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Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in the UK, the last time I went out (apart from to the supermarket) was to see a venue for a Book Festival taking place in September that I’m a key interviewer for. I was actually excited at the prospect, but by the time I had got ready, got in the car, realised en route that I needed petrol, and eventually arrived… I felt quite stressed and needed five minutes to centre myself. 

When I finally got out of my car and entered the venue, I found playing the ‘socially distanced game’ of not getting too close to anyone and making conversation (through a mask) really weird, to say the least. 

Have the COVID-19 restrictions negatively impacted our ability be social, in-person?

While driving back, I reflected on how strange it will be for those of us returning to the office or work environment soon. Will we have lost the ability to function as per the old normal? And how will we all interact when Zoom and the virtual world has changed our communications so much? Has our ability to be social and to interact been damaged?  

As human beings, wired by the primeval part of our brains (the Limbic Amygdala) for survival, we have a negativity bias that keeps us on high alert for what is wrong (or a threat) and to seek comfort in what is familiar. Over the last year we, as an adaptive species, have made the unfamiliar (lockdown and working from home for many) familiar. So now, the reverse is true, and what was once commonplace will feel strange and possibly a threat. 

Of course, there may be real threats. For those frontline and essential workers who have been going to work there have been new checks and balances and rules that have been adjusted several times.  

How to adapt back to life back in the office

For most of us however, the repeat warnings from our governments to stay at home seems at odds with any requirement to return to the office, so the prospect of doing so will naturally feel uncomfortable to us. Add in that familiar ‘return to the office’ dread or apprehension that we used to feel after a holiday, with the added fear over commuting, it is hardly surprising that you may be feeling anxious as you leave your bubble for what seems like the unknown. 

Five ways to help you return to the office well

  1. If you find yourself feeling stressed, then share how you are feeling with your line manager or colleagues, not least because they are probably also having such feelings themselves.
  2. Practise getting into a good ‘return routine’ as soon as you can so that the time you have to get up, spend commuting or just being in the office are not at odds with your new body clock. This also includes getting good quality sleep and enough of it to be well rested.  
  3. Take frequent breaks during the day to walk in nature, do breathing exercises, listen to a meditative recording or just sit on a bench and enjoy your lunch. Physical exercise is a great antidote to stress so if you can, cycle or walk to work or do some physical activity that will also enrich your day. 
  4. To get yourself back into the right frame of mind for a return to work, remind yourself that you are familiar with what is expected of you in your office environment. Once there, practise being kind to yourself if it feels stressful or strange. 
  5. Do a ‘WFH Audit’ of the last few months. Ask yourself what has worked well while being away from the office. List the practices that have increased your productivity and physical and mental wellbeing. And explore how they can be transferred into the workplace. 

How to strengthen your social interactions back in the office

We are tribal and connected beings and a way to punish people is to forcibly separate and isolate them such as via solitary confinement in prison. Loneliness affects your hormones, and chronic loneliness has as detrimental effect on a person as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In many ways, this sense of connection is something the pandemic has taken away from us, and we need to find it again.

You may be thinking, well I have connected in lockdown so what is the problem? Invariably you will have connected with the people closest to you and less regularly. So even the prospect of having to be in a room with several of your peers may feel very unfamiliar and daunting. 

Whatever your circumstances during the pandemic, you have likely not had the mental stimulus or repeat usage of your social skills that you were used to – and, like anything that you don’t use much, these can weaken over time.  

In the case of your brain, this can lead to memory being impaired (this has been proven to be the case for people who have endured long periods of social isolation). So, just trying to remember that fact or the right way to say something while speaking to your boss may then cause you stress. A combination of feeling stressed, unfamiliar (or unprotected in primeval terms), combined with feeling a bit tired and emotional can lead to undesirable responses, such as anger or irritation or even a complete shutdown. Therefore, it is crucial that you ease yourself back in gently.

Here are a few of my tips to help: 

  • First and foremost, be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that you will get used to this again soon. Remember how clunky it was when you learned to drive, but how it soon became second nature with practice and an unwavering faith that it would be OK.
  • Do what you need to feel safe, such as washing your hands well and not rushing back into having big get-togethers – even socially distanced ones – unless necessary.
  • Being selective about who you hang out with, perhaps at lunchtime or after work, can give you psychological comfort and feelings of safety. What is key here is balance. You don’t want to be isolating yourself, and equally you don’t want to feel unsafe or overwhelmed by being around too many people at once. Keep the new bonds you have created away from the work environment as best you can. For example, if you have been at home with the kids for months, then check in with them at regular intervals during the day when you can. Put little notes into their backpacks in the morning that they will find during the day so that they know you are thinking about them too.    
  • When interacting with colleagues, try to avoid unnecessary stress, like frustrating conversations or debates. So it might be a good idea to steer clear of in-depth discussions around the COVID situation and the vaccines, or other contentious issues. Know your boundaries and speak up if you start to feel stretched or overwhelmed. 

Close your eyes and imagine how it will feel to have the sand under your feet, wind blowing in your hair and the freedom of a beach holiday again. Or if this is not for you, then imagine the desired place you will go when restrictions truly lift. Hold onto that feeling and remember how excited you were when you landed your job originally after an application and interview process. You wanted it. You chose it. On your first day I’m sure you were nervous, and it seemed very unfamiliar. It may seem unfamiliar again but remember the good aspects and that you choose it. Perhaps new eyes and a new perspective will make it a joy again.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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