Navigating our way back to the office

The office environment is changing. Know how to be equipped for it.

Now that the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine and vaccines are widely available in the US, companies are preparing for employees’ return to the office. They’re doing this slowly and for good reason. The recent increase in COVID-19 cases is making them re-evaluate their protocols and timing. They want employees to feel “safe” AND they want to get back to a routine that benefits the business and employees.

The initial change and anxiety people felt in March 2020 with most forced to work from home is now factoring into how we feel about going back to the office. This is not unusual or unexpected because change is change. It’s always difficult to adapt when you feel you’re not in control.

We’ve gotten accustomed to isolating in our homes and working online. There was an element of safety in isolating. Now, we’re about to experience the change with returning to the office. Many companies are taking it slow and helping employees adapt to how they will be working in the future. And the resistance is present.

Large and small corporations are revisiting their workplace policies with the knowledge they’ve gained over the past 17 months. Several clients report an uptick in productivity because there is more trust and flexibility in getting the work done. There’s also a change in how managers are working with their employees. Over the past year, leaders have focused on outcome-based performance rather than time in the office or busy work.

Readjusting to working in the office along with workplace flexibility enhancements a company is offering has some issues. Here are three for you to consider.

Personal wellbeing
Going back into an office environment where you’re around people you don’t live with will likely be uncomfortable at first. It may feel unsafe, like you’re doing something wrong. Fortunately, after a few days or experiences of being around others, most people get used to it and the anxiety goes away. If that doesn’t happen, talk to your family or friends to see if they’re experiencing the same challenge. If you still don’t feel better, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to guide you through acclimating. There is no reason to suffer needlessly.

Your co-workers are going to return to the office with similar anxiety or differences of opinions on how to move forward. Co-workers may be territorial of their workspace or want specific precautions to be taken around them. For example, some people will want everyone to wear a mask, others won’t want to wear them at all. Consider the violence and confrontation happening on airplanes. People are getting into physical altercations over mask mandates. Don’t let this happen in your workplace.

Adding conflict to any anxiety you may have can cause situations to escalate quickly. You can de-escalate disagreements by being patient with others and showing compassion. Company leaders and managers can provide clear guidelines and expectations on behavior.

Changes in the workplace
Companies quickly adapted to remote work because the environment was universal–all office workers were working from home. With planning for the return to the office, however, many companies are establishing hybrid flexibility policies to address their employees’ needs. To be able to support a hybrid workplace, they need supportive hybrid technology. Many companies have some work to do to make the hybrid approach work so all employees (in person and remote) have the same access and quality to meetings and information. Until the appropriate technology is in place it may be frustrating or difficult to collaborate.

Other aspects of the office may change too. Coffee machines and water coolers may be touchless or there may be hygiene precautions put in place. Initially, visitors may not be allowed into the office. There are many considerations each company may adopt to ensure the safety of their employees. Adjusting to new technology, physical changes in the office and new protocols will quickly become routine.

What you can do
• Practice going into the office if your company permits it before the actual return date. The office will be less crowded and you’ll be more comfortable with the changes that have been implemented.
• Establish routines that help calm you.
• Pay attention to what triggers your anxiety or fear.
• Take the necessary precautions that make you feel safe.
• Avoid criticizing or judging others if they have different opinions or safety measures.

The most important action companies and employees can take is to be patient, show empathy and work together to create the best environment for their business.

Susan O’Connor is an internal communications expert and executive coach with experience working in various industries including pharmaceuticals, specialty chemicals and manufacturing. She currently leads Paradise Workplace Solutions where she helps businesses create or improve their communications to employees. She enjoys seeing her clients reach their goals, improve their business environment and lead rich and rewarding lives.