Without question, remote work has gotten a lot of attention. That’s partly because nearly two years after 2020’s seismic shift, many professionals are still working from home. Yet despite all the headlines, the number of remote workers has been steadily declining all year. By the end of September, 28% of the office workers in and around New York City were back in their buildings –– a pandemic peak. In Texas, where COVID-19 restrictions were fewer and most workers avoided mass transit, that number was around 40% back in May.
What all this means is that a return to in-office work is in the cards for many. I’ve written recently about how introverts prefer remote work while extroverts can’t wait to get back to the office. Still, no matter what your personality type, if you’ve been working from home for months it’s normal to be nervous. For those of you who will be returning to the office, here are some ways to help you cope and make the transition as simple and safe as possible.
Acknowledge Anxiety (Don’t Bury It)
Even office lovers can feel some anxiety about going back. For many people, remote work was unexplored territory. It’s very novelty made it exciting and the challenges that cropped up demanded creative solutions. You might view returning to the office as getting back to routine. Except it isn’t routine any more. Your first day could mean dealing with masking and social distancing. If the conference room is crowded, you might get uncomfortable. Someone standing right behind you as you pour a cup of coffee can be an anxiety trigger.
Worse, many of us are already dealing with anxiety. Before the pandemic, one in ten people reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. Last year it hit 40%%.
It’s completely healthy to feel a bit of anxiety.
…Do you know what isn’t healthy? Ignoring it.
Unacknowledged anxiety can lead to a host of health issues including insomnia, overeating and even heart conditions. So it’s important that you talk through your concerns, if not with a licensed therapist then with a trusted friend or family member.
Take Baby Steps
What will your first day back at the office feel like if you start the morning racing from bed after your alarm goes off, struggling to find the right clothes, and taking the wrong exit during your drive in? Instead of starting off on the wrong foot, take the time to do some preparation. Therapists often recommend visualization, and the world’s top athletes use it as a tool for good reason… Find a quiet space and practice some deep breathing. Then imagine your first day –– getting up, getting coffee, getting dressed. See your commute and your workspace. Picture some interactions and visualize your day. The exercise should be calming.
You can also start running some sneak previews. Just as plays have run-throughs before opening on Broadway, you can do the same thing with going back to the office.
If you’ve become accustomed to sleeping in, then adjust your schedule a week or more before returning. Develop a routine. The same goes for lunch and afternoon naps.
If your work wardrobe has been bare feet and sweats for the past 18 months, “adult” clothes are going to be tough. So go through your office garb now. Try things on. They may need dry cleaning, even altering. Don’t beat yourself up for those pandemic pounds. After all, you aren’t alone. An American Psychological Association (APA) survey of 3,000 working adults revealed that 61 percent of them had “undesired weight changes” since early 2020.
It might be a good idea to start “dressing for work” even when you’re working remotely. Finally, think about making a trial run where you commute to work before your first day back. If you’re allowed in, take some time in your workplace. You can think about ways to spruce up your desk or even make a list of items to get for your first day.
Don’t Police Others (They’re On Their Own Journey Right Now, Too)
Many of us are craving a sense of control –– something that diminished quite a bit during the pandemic. Just don’t seek control by controlling others. It may feel perfectly natural to criticize how someone else wears a mask or when someone stands too close. And while you should stand your ground and make sure people give you needed room, becoming the office cop isn’t helping anyone. We are all fallible, we are all human. Make sure you bring your sense of humor with you to work along with that healthy snack.
Trust That Others’ Intentions Are Good
It’s easy to get annoyed with constantly changing messages and managers who seem a bit lost. Give them some slack. Give yourself some as well. Remember each of us is doing that best we can in literally unprecedented circumstances. My career coaching practice has been full of mental health challenges in the wake of the pandemic– things I’ve never quite heard before… Try to be kind, and when someone does something helpful, acknowledge it.
Don’t Abandon Your Healthy Habits
Truth is, many of us developed healthier routines during the pandemic. Those afternoon naps are restorative; homemade meals are better than fast food. And taking a lunch time stroll can recharge you mentally and physically. There’s no reason to jettison these habits. You might be able to nap in your car for fifteen minutes; planning a bit will make it possible to bring healthy food to work. Working in an enclosed building makes it even more vital that you schedule time for fresh air and physical activity.
Know That Separation Anxiety is Real
Pets aren’t the only ones coping with separation anxiety, their people feel it keenly as well. If you’ve gotten used to the random cuddles and sloppy kisses from your special fur baby, going back to the office will be even more painful. If you’re one of the 23 million households who adopted a pandemic pet, then remember they have no frame of reference for when you start working in an office. Buy some special toys, especially brain teasers. Consider getting a pet cam. Try to send them to doggie day care at least once or twice a week — they need to be resocialized as much as we do. Hire someone to walk your dog daily, do not leave them all alone for eight to ten hours. Generally speaking, cats handle alone time better than dogs. If you have children, they will also be coping with the shift back to “normal.” Expect some acting out and anxiety as you work together to develop a routine.
Finally, it’s okay if in the end you decide office life is no longer for you. Give it time, don’t make a rash decision. Still, life is too short to be unhappy. I suspect that many former office workers will be exploring remote opportunities in 2022.
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