Returning to the workplace – thrilling or threatening?

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant many of us have worked remotely for almost two years. Restrictions have lifted, with many employers, businesses and our government eager to get employees back into the physical workplace. For some people, returning to the workplace is a mark of normalcy, an opportunity for social connection, a rhythm and routine that we’ve been missing. But for others, the prospect of transitioning back into the in-person workplace, is anxiety-inducing. If you are feeling uneasy about returning to the workplace, know that you are not alone.

A 2021 global survey by Limeade Institute* of 4,553 full time employees from Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States who were working on-site before the pandemic but now were working from home, found that 100% of respondents indicated some degree of anxiety about returning to the workplace. The survey  indicated that the top return to work sources of anxiety included: exposure to COVID-19 (77%), less flexibility (71%), and commuting to work (68%). These results indicate that most of us are not only worried about our health and safety, but also concerned about losing our newfound autonomy and flexibility.

Our brains love certainty, predictability and autonomy. Our lives are changing again, there’s more unknown factors with some feeling the pressure to be back in the physical workplace. Change and uncertainty activates the stress/threat response in our brains and body. How we deal with stress in our lives is different for everyone, yet what we do know is that having both proactive and reactive tools, resources and strategies is a powerful combination to help us navigate life’s ups and downs. 

The secret ingredients to transitioning back will be in the preparation, planning, and taking the time to understand your own needs, thoughts and feelings and that of others.  Here are 10 ways you and your team can navigate  your return to work and ‘resetting normal’.

  1. Reflect and lean into your thoughts and feelings.

Take some time to explore and uncover how you’re thinking and feeling about the transition back into the physical workplace. Write down how you’ll benefit as well as what you may have to give up in exchange for more “in person” interactions.  The cognitive trick here is acceptance. Once you can acknowledge your thoughts and feelings for what they are, that allows you to move on to next steps and into taking action.

  1. Talk early, talk small, and talk often.

Obtain as much information as you can about the changes to your working schedule and environment. Find out what flexibilities are available to you. Having answers to your questions ahead of time can help ease your return-to-work anxieties by giving you more certainty and predictability. Team members and leader should talk regularly and openly about the transition and how it’s working. It’s not a one time conversation to set and forget. Keep the conversations alive. Talk about what is and isn’t working from an individual, team and organisational perspective.

  1. Be kind to yourself and others. 

For some this is a welcome change, for others it might be anxiety inducing, and some might even sit somewhere in between. Be patient with yourself and each other. Show compassion and assume positive intent. Go into conversations with curiosity about what you can learn and how you can build greater understanding. We’re all working this out together.

  1. Simplify your week. 

Look at all elements of your life and work out what each day of the week looks like, knowing what is required to make it as stress free as possible. What can you eliminate? It’s not just about fitting more in! Streamline and simplify where you can. Don’t forget to get organised, pack your lunch and snacks! Your home kitchen isn’t just metres away from your desk anymore!

  1. Be realistic about what has to change.

Get clear on what is changing for you. Identifying it can help relieve some of the worry as it allows you to move into action. Keep in mind that your mindset around what is productive in the office might need to change as you reconnect with colleagues, customers and clients. You might look at scheduling and prioritising work to be done in the office and home so that it makes the most sense. Make conscious decisions about what must be done, should get done, could get done on each day of the week. It’s going to take some adjustment in all aspects of our lives. Think about it as work/life harmony.  

  1. Trial it, learn and adjust.

We’re all still working this out and it’s going to take some adjustment not just for ourselves but our teams and even our families.Agree on individual and team plans and give it a go. Schedule review dates to check in on the arrangements and what you’ve learned. Keep making adjustments if you need to along the way in order to find something that works for the individual, the team, customers, clients and the community. Getting back in the physical work environment regularly will help remind of the incredible benefits of being together and getting out of the house!

  1. Autonomy isn’t gone, it might just be changing.

For many people, working remotely saw a huge rise in our autonomy. Heading back to the workplace doesn’t mean that autonomy is gone. Take a moment to reflect on the choices you have and focus on the decisions you still get to make. Talk to your leader or team members about decision making and how they are navigating their own workday. Your autonomy is not lost,  it might just be changing shape and it may even morph into something even better.

  1. Safety first, always.

Read over your workplace COVID Safe Plan  so you know what is expected of you and others. Knowing the policy can help you advocate for your own safety and comfort. You are also free to set clear safety boundaries with your colleagues. Don’t forget that psychological safety is just as critical as physical safety in our workplaces. Spend some time exploring this with you team to understand how safe your team feels and address any concerns you or the people around you may have.

  1. Your wellbeing is essential. 

When worry and rumination of the unknown starts to rise, sometimes the best first step is simply to pause and breathe. You could practice mindfulness and meditation to bring about a greater sense of calm and clarity of thinking. You can also try practicing radical acceptance—the knowing that while you cannot control life’s circumstances or other people’s behaviour, you can control your own perceptions and responses to them. You can also try letting go of the need-to-know—allowing the mystery of life to unfold moment by moment. Our wellbeing is central to our ability to cope with stress and continue high performance. Think about how you can be looking after your physical, emotional, mental, and social wellbeing to best prepare yourself for changes.

  1. Connect with people.

While your experiences are unique, there are elements that are shared. Find ways to engage others in conversations and collaborative work, and take some time to share your feelings about the transition. The workplace can be a great source of meaningful connection and we can all share in each other’s experiences, ideas and wisdom. We don’t have to do this alone. We’re all in this together, working it out as we go.

Whether you’re thrilled to be heading back into the physical work environment or you’re feeling a little anxious or apprehensive, there’s something here for all of us. We can all be more conscious of our own and each other’s experience. We don’t need to take the entire staircase at once, just one step at a time. We’re in this ‘resetting normal’ together. It might take us days, weeks or even months but just like most things in life, there’s usually even better things to come and new benefits to uncover.

* Sandhu, R. (2021). The new normal: facing the challenges of returning to work. Limeade Institute.