Tips For Going Back To The Office

With the world learning how to live with the virus, things are slowly opening up. For some, this means going back to the office. Psychotherapist BEN PORTER thinks through how this change affects us and shares a few tips to consider as we re-enter our physical work spaces.

Depending on who you speak to, from managers to staff, returning to an office after lockdown brings up an array of responses. Our minds like to predict what’s coming (which is one of the main reasons why this pandemic has been so difficult to handle emotionally) and we all have preconceived notions of what the future might look like. You may have feelings of anticipation, relief, fear, anger, or dread.

In the aid world, we know that reverse culture shock can be more difficult than adjusting to life abroad. Some of the top distresses of reverse culture shock include: feeling disconnected from others, being overwhelmed by novel environments in what is supposed to be familiar, or having developed in some ways that others haven’t and vice versa. All of these apply to what we’re facing with a return to an office. When it happens, it will probably feel different from what we expect. And the way we manage those expectations will have a sizable influence on our wellbeing.

Have you ever had the experience of being away from a partner or loved one for a period of time? While apart, there are feelings of longing to be with the other person as well as adjustments that need to be made while apart. Reuniting with this special person is blissful… until it isn’t. All of the sudden, ways in which you’ve adapted to being on your own come into conflict with ways of doing life together, and the turbulence of reuniting ensues.

Sometimes the good energy of missing each other fades away and the threat of doing things differently takes centre-stage. You’ve learned new dance moves and they’ve learned new dance moves; can you relearn to dance together? Working from home has afforded us a degree of doing things our way. Moving from home working to an office taps into preferences for independence, autonomy, and control versus interdependence and collaboration.  

“Moving from home working to an office taps into preferences for independence, autonomy, and control versus independence and collaboration.”

Ben Porter

In a blog last year, when we all thought that returning to a brick-and-mortar office was imminent (ha-ha), I used an analogy of decompressing like a scuba-diver coming to the surface. To adjust to differing levels of atmospheric pressure, scuba divers need to pause and equalize at various points on their ascent. You may feel like racing to the top of the surface (full swing in the office) or feel quite comfortable staying where you are (home-working). In either case, making a slow and steady transition allows you to adjust along the journey and set a firmer foundation to move ahead.

Here are a few tips to consider as we re-enter our physical workplaces, whether it is 1 day a week or 5 days:

Start with the basics. I won’t use this short blog to rehash the things we all know to do for our wellbeing. Suffice it to say, taking care of our wellbeing isn’t a gap in knowledge as much as a gap in implementing what we know. Eat, rest, move, connect. What are the barriers to staying on top of these, and what can you do to re-institute these practices?  

Communicate your ideas and your needs in transitioning from home or furlough to part-time or full-time work in the office. Voice concerns with your manager and co-create solutions. Ask for information on your organisation’s COVID-safety plan. Assume that management is doing the best they can and are learning the unprecedented skill of returning staff to an office. Be clear about what is most important for you. Thrive has a separate blog with advice for organisations to consider during re-entry into physical workplaces.

Let your inner perfectionist take a break. Don’t plan to get everything right all the time. Prioritize what you would like to do well. What is the most important thing you’ve learned or realized about working from home that you would like to carry forward and how can this be incorporated into your new working environment? 

Compassion for self and others. Remember that it has been a very tense 18 months and resilience levels may be running thin. A top skill will be giving yourself permission to have bad days, as well as understanding when other people have bad days. There have been a whole host of losses, and grief is not a linear process.

Maintain awareness of our innate negativity bias. This bias that helps us avoid and survive threats is important, but often misleading and unhelpful. On average, 80% of our automatic thoughts are negative (National Science Foundation 2015), which means we may naturally assume the worst, run imaginary catastrophic scenarios, or entertain self-limiting beliefs to the detriment of our wellbeing. Within a global pandemic, our negativity bias has more confirmation, justifying our anxious brain. Yet we know that negative or anxious thoughts narrow our thinking, reduce creativity, and sap essential energy. Practice catching negative thoughts and create space to decide how you would like to respond to them. It may be that your worry is well-founded, but usually it’s misplaced and could stand in the way of progress.

Feeling tired is normal. Many of us have had those days after moving to a new culture where we looked back on the day, couldn’t remember accomplishing much, but felt flat-out exhausted. That’s because our brains had been absorbing huge amounts of novel stimuli, and processing novel stimuli makes the brain work much harder. The office environment will likely look and feel quite different. Make sure to give your mind time to catch-up and assume that you may feel more tired for a while. 

Humans are amazingly adaptable. Shifting gears into a new routine can be stressful, but over time these new rhythms will become your own. Do you remember the first day at school or in a new job? Sometimes the new normal seems untenable, but then somehow you adjust. Remind yourself of how resilient you’ve been in the past and acknowledge your strengths. 

If you would like some support with transitioning back to an office environment, please get in touch for a consultation with a counsellor or coach. We would love to hear from you.

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