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July 13, 2021

Ask the Expert: How can I make a smooth return to in-person work?

As COVID-19 restrictions lift, many people are finding themselves getting called back to in-person work environments after 16 months in remote settings. 

 

To help those grappling with anxiety and uncertainty surrounding this return to "normal," Angela Hall, associate professor in Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, offers tips for making the transition as smooth and stress-free as possible.

What are some tips for adjusting from a work-from-home back to a nine-to-five schedule? 

  1. Practice! Practice getting up early, putting on your work clothes and even retracing your commute. Things like that can get you physically and mentally prepared to get back to the office.

  2. Create a daily, a weekly and even a monthly schedule for yourself that you continuously update to not only hold yourself accountable and stay on track with events and meetings, but to get a psychological boost every time you check something off the list.

  3. Set new ground rules for interactions with your co-workers. In some offices before the pandemic, hugs and handshakes were totally fine, but now those norms may need to be reconsidered. Just because someone was comfortable with that before doesn't mean they'll be comfortable now, which is why having a conversation about boundaries and comfort zones can ease those anxieties.

  4. Be generous with your time when scheduling meetings and assigning yourself tasks. Not only will you probably be juggling virtual and in-person meetings, but you may also have a bunch of people coming to your desk to say hello, especially when you first return. Realize that you may not be as productive as you think you'll be right away.

  5. Finally, use this transition as an opportunity to hit the reset button. This is an opportunity to revisit and possibly revamp how you do things at work, so try to put a positive spin on that and think of ways to improve your workday. 

What are some tangible ways that employees can practice self-care during the workday if they feel anxious or overwhelmed?

 

  1. First, know it's totally normal to feel stressed out right now. Just like it was very stressful when we first went home, this is a new kind of stress. As humans, it’s very stressful any time there are major changes, so give yourself some grace and know it's okay to be anxious.

  2. Take time for yourself, even if it's just five minutes. Things like practicing meditation, listening to calming music and going for a walk can make a very big difference.

  3. If you feel comfortable, lean on your co-workers. Research shows that social support acts as a buffer between stressors and actual feelings of stress. Be willing to talk to your co-workers, laugh with them and commiserate with them — it can be helpful for both of you.

For employees who may be asked to come to the office more often than they may be comfortable, what are some good tactics for addressing those concerns with their supervisors?

  1. First of all, be transparent and proactive. Bring your concerns to your boss before you return to the office full time, feel miserable and become resentful. Schedule a time to talk and be open and honest about your concerns.

  2. Arm yourself with data. Be prepared to prove your flexibility and productivity with whatever metric you use to measure your success at work, whether that's quotas, numbers, ratings, etc.  Let your success over the last year-and-a-half talk for you.

  3. Explain your reasons behind wanting to continue working from home at least some of the time. Does the quiet environment help you focus? Does the lack of commute allow you to get more things done? Explain how working from home benefits you and your work performance simultaneously.

  4. Finally, predict and address your boss' concerns. Is your boss worried about maintaining a lively office culture? Productivity? Acknowledge these concerns and show how you plan to address them so they won't be an issue later.

Finally, what are some things employers can do to help their employees transition smoothly back into the office?

  1. Don't expect things to be perfect as soon as people come back. Strongly consider a hybrid model to ease the transition.

  2. Have regular check-ins with your employees to discuss comfort levels and individual concerns. Make sure they can still perform everyday office duties, like using a photocopier or using their office phone, as these are skills they haven't used in over a year.

  3. If you can, try scheduling meetings for midday rather than early in the morning or at the end of the day. That way, as employees are still getting used to waking up early and spending an entire day at the office, they don't miss any important information if they're tired or burned out.

  4. Finally, be open to feedback and employee ideas about how to make the transition smoother and what improvements can be made to make the workplace even better. Keep in mind that even though things may not be exactly how they were before the pandemic, they can still be great in their own way. 

By: Liz Schondelmayer

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