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Reconnecting at the Office

Getting over the awkwardness of returning to work

The “Great Wait” is almost over. About two-thirds of companies across the country that have put off reopening offices are looking to bring people back to work in early 2022, according to a Gartner poll. But a return to the office can bring with it a range of emotions: Anxiety, excitement, dread, anticipation or even anger. Whether returning to a hybrid schedule or full-time, resuming work at the office means a period of adjustment. Here are some benefits of returning to work, and how to cope with some of the not-so-great aspects. 

Socializing at work
When you hear the word “socialize” you might think of after-work drinks or lunch out with colleagues. However, socialization covers all of one’s human interactions with each other. Businesses benefit from these exchanges by keeping employees engaged and connected with their own team and others in the company. 

But how do you get past that awkwardness of picking up where you left off up to two years ago? One way is to admit to your human-ness and express how you feel in a simple way, like, “Well this makes me feel a little awkward, like the first day of school.” This more vulnerable approach may break the ice and put others at ease to talk about their feelings about returning to work. 

Jumping back into a team rhythm may be difficult. Communications consultant Susan McPherson suggests offering to help in her book “The Lost Art of Connecting.” In McPherson’s Gather, Ask, Do method, she suggests first think about what a meaningful connection would be to you. Consider making connections that don’t sound like you, look like you, or think like you. This encourages inclusivity. What special value or skills do you bring to this community of connections?

Then, ask meaningful questions of others so you know what is on their mind, or what is challenging for them right now. When you ask questions you learn, then you can go and do! Relate your special skills to helping, and follow through, being a reliable, responsible connection. You gain the resources to do your job better. You make more connections. 

Through the act of helping others, you are helping yourself in your career.

Get back on track
Laura Gallaher, an organizational psychologist and founder of management consulting firm Gallaher Edge, also suggests helping others as a way to further your own career.

“Focus on how you can be really helpful to other members of the team. Ask how your contributions will impact the organization as a whole, and essentially prioritize the team over self. Doing this will make you look like a confident go-getter that your leadership team will want to hold onto, reward and promote,” she said.

Returning to the office is also a good time to update your career plan. Write your primary goals and attach a timeline with actionable milestones to achieve. See my related article on making a career pivot for more details.

Set boundaries written on lined paper

Set boundaries
Socialization in a place of business could help an employee feel less detached and lonely. However, this same togetherness may cause some worry about COVID-19 exposure. Don’t be afraid to set your own boundaries for your workspace. If safe COVID-19 practices are not being followed, express your concerns to HR positively. Show how you want to do your best work, which helps the company. A client asked me to consult with a large group of staff in a tiny conference room, which I didn’t feel comfortable doing. They moved the meeting to a larger space where people could socially distance. 

People will have different viewpoints about COVID-19, vaccinations and masking. These views are private- we don’t need to have politically charged conversations at work. However, it is appropriate to be empathetic because we may all be at a different point in our confidence level regarding returning to work and taking part in group activities. 

Companies may want to consider extending work from home or hybrid work options for those positions that do not need a consistent office presence, and to keep talent who are not ready to return to the office

Benefiting from a return to work
Besides socialization, there are more key business drivers that are better achieved when people are in the same location. These include:

  • Collaboration: Screen sharing is okay, but when you can see and talk to each other, you can better read reactions, have more efficient communication and brainstorm new ideas. 
  • Coordination: Companies scrambled to put software and programs in place to coordinate remote teams during the pandemic. However efficient these systems have been, it is still a disruption to the normal flow of business. Office-based work provides stability for team functionality. 
  • Health and wellbeing: The pandemic helped focus on employees’ mental health needs. Companies can better address employees’ physical health, mental and emotional health by being available in person, developing new programs and conveying confidence that they can return to work safely.

One other item, productivity, can be a mixed bag. Research gathered by Canadian company RBM Direct shows employees working from home are 60% more productive than when working in an office. However, they also work 1.4 more days per month on average. A disciplined worker, one that can self-manage their time, may flourish working from home. A person with lesser time management skills or a more disruptive home life is likely less productive at home and may do better under the structure of an office environment.

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How business leaders can help
Companies can define a “new normal” for returning to work. Try to relieve uncertainty. Garner enthusiasm that everything is getting back on track and employees can once again focus on their career goals.

Defer to state and local guidelines for gatherings. This is not the time to schedule crowded group meetings and further some employees’ anxiety. 

Global management consulting organization McKinsey and Company suggests making the focus of communication the well-being of employees, not work. By creating a visual timeframe for specific organizational milestones, companies can show how they are pivoting from past to future. McKinsey also suggests a “welcome back” kit, to help employees navigate the new normal, and include information on where to turn for help or additional resources. For practical steps on how leaders can communicate with employees returning to work, see McKinsey’s detailed article here. 

Final thoughts
When COVID-19 began as a global crisis, most of us thought it was a problem that would go away fairly quickly. We are coming to realize that there are spikes and lingering effects, and some form of the virus will be with us for an unforeseeable future. However, we are learning to better manage how we live and work with the virus. As long as employees and leaders can communicate openly and candidly, we can navigate this together.

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