The last year has brought many challenges, not least the challenge of working from home.
Yet as workplaces slowly open up, a new challenge presents itself – anxiety about the return to the office.
Many of my clients confess to mixed feelings at the thought of being back alongside their co-workers.
For all the difficulties, the last few months have offered respite to introverts or those who struggle to play an active role in large groups. They’ve often found it easier to communicate through video calls where a virtual ‘hand-up’ can signal intention to speak more effectively than trying to talk over louder co-workers in person.
But even people who aren’t introverted and who love the social aspects that come with being in the same room as colleagues must adapt to being back in the office.
Most of us – including many working on the front line – have been routinely contact-less for more than 400 days. We’ve grown used to it, and change – even good change – can put us on high-alert to risks. It’s especially true when you add uncertainty into the mix.
We don’t yet know what the new working world will look like. Many of us are returning to jobs that have changed in organisations that are less stable than before. Employers may not yet have the answers employees seek.
These return-to-work anxieties may feel familiar to anyone who’s ever had an extended period of unemployment or maternity leave.
In my capacity as a coach, I’ve helped many people struggling to communicate at work. They’re often prompted to seek help at times of change or after career breaks when their confidence has dwindled. They can often feel alone in their struggles. But one positive of the new world order is that everyone’s in the same boat.
Here’s how we can navigate the return to work together:
KNOW YOU’RE IN GOOD COMPANY
The single most effective thing you can do to release your return-to-work anxiety is share it. The simple act of saying that it feels strange to be back could be the ice-breaker you need to start to connect again.
INTRODUCE NEW MEETING PRACTICE
The “hands up” sign in virtual meetings gave quietly spoken members of the team the opportunity to contribute on an equal footing with louder members.
Ask to maintain some of the good meeting etiquette that we adopted working from home. Putting a real hand up to signal your intention to speak in a meeting can keep it on track.
CHOOSE WHO WALKS THROUGH THE DOOR
Returning to work after a break is a golden opportunity to re-evaluate.
The pandemic provided much-needed perspective for many of us. Work that once seemed all important and all encompassing may now feel like just one thread in life’s rich tapestry.
Use this opportunity to reset and re-enter the workplace as you mean to go on.
One of the best pieces of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years is that people will take you as you take yourself.
Memories are short and the working-from-home gap has provided opportunity for a little reinvention. A more vocal, more confident, thought-leader can stride into the office without fear that colleagues will think they’ve had an overnight personality transplant.
AND IF YOU’RE A LEADER… OVER-COMMUNICATE
According to research by Stanford University, gossiping relieves anxiety. At times of heightened stress, be prepared for anxious team members to fill the silence with unhelpful speculation, now that they’re back at the water cooler. Of course, the noise may not always be grounded in truth, which in turn can lead to more anxiety.
If you’re a leader, communicate early and often. Be candid about what you know and what you don’t. You may not have all the answers your team seeks but by being open and inviting their questions and input you foster trust, even if you can’t give them immediate certainty.
Our anxieties are rarely rooted in the here and now: they’re more likely to spring from regrets about the past or fears about the future. For the nervous speaker, worrying about what might go wrong or what others may think if them can make them avoid speaking up altogether. But we’re bad at predictions. After all, cast your mind back 18 months. How worried were you then about a global pandemic?
Hard as it may be, sometimes the best we can do is just stop… breathe… focus on this moment and let the future take care of itself.