How to Navigate Returning to the Office
When COVID-19 first hit and cities issued stay-at-home orders, everyone’s major concern was whether or not they could adjust to a life of isolation. “It will be over soon, right?” was the universal phrase being uttered worldwide across virtual meetings and calls, over the course of March and April.
Now however, months into this new normal, we have all adapted (to varying degrees) to a world in which the pandemic is not yet over, but in which we are all learning to exist alongside it. As we enter Fall, cities have been lifting restrictions, businesses are being allowed to reopen, and companies are looking to call their employees back to the office. Many individuals and entrepreneurs are also looking into finding designated workspaces again.
Though we cannot predict the future, it is likely that cities will remain open to a certain extent despite the pandemic and with these changes in the air and the number of cases fluctuating, many have renewed concerns about what returning to work and the public world is going to look like. It is a stress called “re-entry anxiety” – a combination of fear of exposure to the outside world and health-related anxiety about COVID-19.
For many, this fear arises in the context of having to return to the office. There is so much more uncertainty that exists in our new world and people are going to have to learn how to navigate it, especially as the working world begins to open its doors again. Managing public transport, using public facilities, and how to share space with colleagues again can be nerve wracking to say the least.
Many companies are looking to call their employees back to the office, even within the uncertainty of the pandemic, and it’s understandable why. For those who work in creative industries, it has become much harder to create space for collaboration and unplanned brainstorming when all of your meetings are virtual. We are all waiting for lulls, muting and unmuting our microphones to speak only when the opportunity presents itself – much like our younger selves raising hands in class. Due to these limitations, certain fields of work need a communal space to come together to produce their best work.
Another reason is that companies are going to face larger organizational commitments with prolonged remote work. Now that we are months on from the start of this whole endeavor, companies will have to start looking into restructuring their performance and accountability indicators if remote work goes on for much longer.
Having an entirely remote team calls for different arrangements and this feat may not be possible for some organizations. We have seen multiple accounts of cybersecurity threats in the virtual work world and the financial cost of tech support, cybersecurity software, and hardware for a distributed team can be too much for some businesses.
Company culture is also a common loss that is being talked about during the pandemic – many employees have lost their sense of their work culture and sense of belonging. They are not getting the small interactions and happy exchanges with their colleagues that help them feel like they are a part of a collective. With this new sense of isolation added to the physical separation, companies are looking to help their employees come together again.
However, returning to the office is not just a company-level desire. If you are not one of the people who are being asked to return to the office, you may still be interested in returning to a workplace again. We know that many people are struggling with remote work, especially when it does not have an end in sight for some. With crowded home spaces, childcare obligations, and small apartments, a lot of people are finding it harder to work from home every day.
Mental health is a universal worry and many are finding that their productivity and morale are continuing to decline with remote work. Whether you are being asked to return to the office or you are looking into finding a workspace outside of your home, re-entry anxiety is a normal feeling in 2020. That said, there is a lot you can do to help yourself transition back into the workplace.
What to do?
Know What Is Safe:
Follow the guidelines put in place by your respective government. Take note of how many people can be in one space at a time and remember to wear a mask when you are indoors or when you cannot physically distance from others. Try your best not to touch your face and mask, while also cleaning your hands frequently with hand sanitizer or soap. Try to stay 6 ft away from others when possible and make sure the people around you are also abiding by the guidelines.
Know Your Boundaries:
If you are worried about branching out of your routine, it is important to figure out what your boundaries are prior to making changes. What would it look like for you to go somewhere? What are your limits? If you go somewhere and there are too many people not abiding by the guidelines, will you leave? If someone sits next to you on public transit, will you move? Being sure of your boundaries prior to trying to make changes will help ease some of the uncertainty. Knowing what to do if you are uncomfortable gives you an instant plan of action.
Understand the Difference; Deliberate Risk vs. Uncontrollable Risk:
Going to work is a necessity, either because your employer is asking for it or for your own productivity and wellbeing. This is uncontrollable risk and it is accepted because essentially everyone is potentially exposed to COVID-19 at some point in their daily life. Whether that be from going to the grocery store or going to work, it is okay to explore the realm of uncontrollable risk as this is learning to live in our new normal.
Deliberate risk is different and can be exemplified by not wearing a mask when expected to or going to large gatherings with numbers higher than the allowed limit. Differentiating between the two can help you come to terms with branching out of your comfort zone and trying new things. As long as you are being safe and following the guidelines set by your government, it is okay to increase what you are exposed to.
Check in with your Employer/Workspace:
If you are being asked to come into the office, make sure you know what the new protection protocols are. What is your employer or office provider doing to keep you safe? What is the protocol when someone is feeling ill? Know what safety measures are in place and what the rules are being implemented. This will keep you as safe as possible and also help in regulating everyone else’s behaviour.
Flexible workspaces, such as The Professional Centre, have implemented new safety measures for both individual entrepreneurs and company offices to ensure their space is as safe to use as possible.
If you are an individual who is looking for a designated workspace away from home, sitting in a café right now may not be an option. You cannot control the actions of every person who walks in off the street and with physical distancing measures in place, you cannot guarantee you will always find a spot. One option is to look into renting a desk at a flexible workspace provider. Flexible workspaces are safe and controlled workspaces with rules and procedures that will help you adjust and give you a secure space to work in.
We are definitely not suggesting that on your first try you get on the subway, go to the office, take a cab, go shopping, and have dinner at a restaurant. That would make anyone feel overloaded! It is important to break up your tasks and set small goals. If going back to the office is a priority, start with going in a few times a week. Test your limits and see what you can manage.
The first few tries may be difficult and you may experience moments in which you feel unsafe, but it will eventually become easier. You will get more comfortable with each day you try, and the more you get used to, the more you will be able to do (all while being as safe as possible). Remember that it is not all or nothing – this is the long haul.
Start Sooner Rather Than Later:
The longer you put it off, the larger the anxiety and fears will become. We all have to adapt to this new normal and everyone is going at their own pace, so try to implement new small experiences every few days. This will build up your emotional tolerance to new experiences.
Do Not Rely on Crutches:
Do not start substituting your anxiety for a crutch. This means staying away from substances like alcohol, nicotine, and drugs. These can lead to prolonged mood imbalances and can contribute to actually feeling more anxiety in the long term.
Finally, remember that you will make it through this. Humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable and that includes yourself. Remember when you thought prolonged quarantine was unheard of? You did it and you will find that it is the same with returning to the office. Every day, the fear and anxiety will lessen, and you will start to adapt to our new normal. Everyone is in this together and we will all find new ways to exist and evolve while the pandemic continues.
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