As many of us head back to in-person office environments, others have already been back and gone remote again. During this time of yet more uncertainty after a long absence, readjusting to office life can be a challenge on many levels. Fear not! There are ways to cope with anxieties that come from reacclimating to in-person office settings, and even some things to look forward to!
Make a plan
Don’t allow your “what-if” scenarios to balloon into a web of ambiguous fear. Ask yourself what it is about returning to the office that worries you, and think through how you can face those fears, head on.
Nervous about discussing your back-to-work fears with co-workers? Perhaps it’s because you’re concerned that others aren’t as COVID-conscious as you, or vice versa. The most likely scenario is that everyone is experiencing some version of this anxiety, so getting it out in the open could help you all to feel more comfortable.
It can also be useful to think about specific scenarios and how you’d respond. Worried your office won’t take health and hygiene concerns seriously? Be sure you ask in advance what plans are in place (if they haven’t already been made clear), and don’t be afraid to inquire about any potential gaps in planning.
Naming your concerns and identifying what’s within your control helps limit their power over you, and aids you in deciding how to move forward. It can be tempting to try to shut down anxieties as they arise, but it will be more helpful to you to deal with them directly.
Ask yourself what you’re really worried about, whatever it is, and think about actionable ways to lessen your risks or address problems that may (or may not) come up.
Here are some examples:
I’m anxious that [CO-WORKER] won’t take COVID protocols seriously
- As we mentioned earlier in this piece, you have every right to voice concerns with your HR department or supervisor. Of course, we don’t suggest pointing fingers before anything actually happens, but trust that the leadership team at your organization are just as invested as you are (if not more) in the safety and well-being of the team. And if you need to have a more formal conversation to feel comfortable, that’s OK!
I’m worried I’ll be less productive in the office than I was at home
- You have an interesting opportunity here to recreate your workday when you return to an office setting. Are there things (either items or parts of your routine) that you can bring back with you and implement in the office? If you feel like the rush hour commute detracts from your productivity, perhaps you can have a conversation with your supervisor about switching up your in-office hours so you can avoid the evening rush. There are plenty of innovative ways to bring what worked for you at home back to the office, and in many cases, you need only ask.
Be specific. Letting your worries build up will only make the transition harder, whereas becoming an active participant in your next steps can give you more insight and confidence.
Communicate your needs clearly
Letting your team know your scheduling plans, comfort levels with different types of interaction, and general boundaries can help everyone succeed. It’s also likely that sharing your thoughts (politely!) will encourage others to do the same.
Consider asking if your office can have a meeting to discuss comfort levels and needs as you all return to work. If it seems difficult to kick off these conversations or get people to participate, start by sharing your own questions and concerns first. Ask people to express their top safety priorities, and be open to any questions that come up.
Clarity can also be helpful to prevent misunderstandings or hurt feelings as you redefine working relationships or develop new ones. Rather than leaving it to co-workers to read your mind, letting them know the reasons behind any worries or new boundaries can help them understand them and not take them personally.
If you’re not ready to hug, that’s ok—be upfront about it before it becomes an issue. If you’re worried about a co-workers’ differing stance on masking or vaccines, don’t be afraid to excuse yourself from conversations, or make it clear in advance that you’re not up for political discussions right now. Returning to the office will require a learning curve, and any steps taken to reduce miscommunications and angst will be helpful.
Approach co-workers with respect and empathy
Try to assume the best of others and remember that you’re not the only one who went through the trials of the pandemic. You may even find yourself causing others anxiety in ways you didn’t intend and couldn’t have anticipated. Maybe you’re the one who has been missing hugs for a year and they’re uncomfortable with physical contact, or have to think about an immunocompromised family member.
Try not to take anything too personally—everyone is just doing their best. Being respectful of others’ boundaries will be just as important as maintaining your own. Ask questions and listen when others tell you what they need. Be patient. There will likely be some trial and error as you all find your way to a new, and hopefully improved, way of life.
Focus on the positive
Things are going to be different, but different doesn’t necessarily mean bad!
While many of us have fallen into grooves that are more comfortable and less taxing than our former office routines, maybe we can trade our sweatpants in for perks we’ve missed during the pandemic. Remember boundaries between work life and home life? Or getting to wear an outfit that made you feel like a total boss? Maybe it’s the work friendships you’ve missed the most, or the immediacy of shared goals that in-person environments can cultivate.
Some of the things you liked better about working from home may be possible to replicate in the office. If you and your co-workers are concerned that you’ll slip back into less healthy habits, put time on your calendars to walk or exercise together, and bring healthy lunches rather than grabbing takeout. Prioritize breaks and work-life balance. This is a great opportunity to build healthy and important habits into your work schedule.
Returning to working in-person can also be an opportunity for more meaningful changes, and equity and inclusion should be at the heart of the workplace dynamics you’re (re)building. As you head back to the office, it’s important to consider whether your organization has taken the nation’s racial unrest to heart with actionable DEI initiatives, and whether you’re doing everything you can to support yourself and your co-workers.
You have the right to explore whether your organization’s policies have evolved, but you also don’t owe anyone your time or energy to explain or contextualize the events of the world.
Keep in mind that your co-workers of color may be anxious about things that aren’t even on your radar—office microaggressions, political opinions of co-workers, less privacy as they process traumatic occurrences—so do your best to be an ally. Listen more than you speak, and cultivate an environment that is more inclusive and respectful than the one you left behind when the pandemic set in.
Your transition back to the office may not exactly be “back to normal,” but it could be a chance to find something even better.
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Rosie Chevalier is a writer in Chicago who has written for Chicago Education Advocacy Cooperative, Points In Case, RobotButt, Reliving History, and more. She has worked with multiple theatre companies. volunteered across Chicago, and taught writing, acting, and improv to all ages. Her interests include dogs, the news, boats, holidays, and her family, and she's currently attempting to enjoy cooking.