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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

9 Tips for a Smooth Transition Back to the Office After Pandemic WFH

person carrying work bag, laptop, and travel mug walking into an office, their face and shoulders not visible
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As COVID-19 restrictions ease—and depending on your location, line of work, and professional circumstances—you may be facing a return to on-site work. If this applies to you, and you’re preparing to go back to the office part or full time, you might feel stressed or concerned. One survey of more than 4,500 employees in the U.S. and four other countries conducted in early 2021 found that every single one of them reported anxiety about returning to the office.

There are a slew of adjustments you may have had to make as you worked from home during the pandemic—and transitioning back to office work, a commute, in-person interactions, and even work clothes after more than a year without them may feel overwhelming. There also continue to be potential safety issues. “With the Delta variant...and high levels of vaccine hesitancy in some areas, returning to in-person work again can feel risky,” says Muse career coach Lauren Wethers. “I see this most often with people who have been particularly cautious about exposure due to pre-existing conditions—home is safe and the office poses a potential risk.”

Since living through a modern-day pandemic is unprecedented, so is reacclimating to office life during a reopening process. After drastically altering your work norms and habits over the course of months or a year or even more, you’re being asked to do so again—and some experts predict this second transition will be even harder.

Why Is Returning to the Office Stressful?

First, it’s important to identify what, exactly, is stressful to you about transitioning to on-site work. Here are a few common types of stressors and what they might sound like when you think them through:

  • Social: How should I navigate small talk and office politics? Will it be awkward to interact with coworkers in person? How do I reenter the office world—especially if I’ve undergone an important life change, whether it’s having a child, moving, or dealing with illness? How do I establish or reestablish boundaries and otherwise aim to have healthy workplace relationships? What if I’m not emotionally ready to stop working from home?
  • Safety: On top of the stress of regular office life, there are also potential safety issues. Are people vaccinated—and what happens if they’re not? Is my workplace taking the pandemic and its continuing dangers seriously? What’s the policy for voicing concerns about this? What’s the procedure if cases begin to spike again? What if I’m not comfortable with a situation that’s occurring in my office?
  • Work-life balance: How can I preserve some of the balance I had or positive aspects I appreciated when I was working from home? Will I still be able to incorporate the walks, family time, hobbies, or other habits I adopted while working from home into my schedule? Can I take what I’ve learned during this time into the office with me? Can I take a gradual approach to returning to the office?

Even though the context is unique, these worries are not. As a tutor and educational coach, I saw clients of all ages struggle with transitions. So I know it’s important to start by thinking through and writing down your concerns so you know what they are and can communicate them concisely and effectively. Then, formulate a plan to address your specific need(s).

Here are some tips to help ease the transition.

Ask Questions and Share Concerns With Your Employer

Your supervisor may already be communicating to you about plans to bring employees back to the office, but even if not, ask them about it. If there are elements you’re confused about or aspects that don’t seem to be well-defined, ask for details. If they’re not responsive or don’t have the answers, ask an HR representative about the company policy. A union representative, where applicable, might also have information, or someone at the executive level.

You might use language like this (whether your questions and concerns are about safety, as in this example, or any other aspect of the return to the office):

  • Restatement of policy: “I understand that employees will be required back in the office on September 1 unless there is a ‘compelling reason’ for them not to be.”
  • Clarification: “Is this including people who are unvaccinated? What safety measures have been put in place and what are employees expected to do when in the office?”
  • Specific concern(s): “I am worried about shared common spaces, employees who might not abide by these restrictions, and times of high traffic like the morning commute.”
  • Questions: “What are the company’s policies here? What if people are not abiding by restrictions? What should in-office behavior look like?”

This process can be an opportunity for an employer to bolster their response and for you to let them know what your needs are, especially if that requires some kind of change or exception to policy. Don’t feel intimidated about advocating for yourself: “Even fully vaccinated employees may have valid mental or physical health-related reasons for being reluctant to return to the office before they feel ready,” says Andrea Kamins, a licensed independent clinical social worker who provides psychotherapy to adults around work topics and has particularly helped patients struggling with burnout.

At the very least, knowing exactly what to expect and being able to visualize your upcoming work environment may ease the stress of the unknown.

Work Out a Plan That Allows You to Integrate at Your Own Pace

It may depend on the work you do and the organization you’re at, but it’s worth asking whether it’s absolutely necessary for you to go back to the office five days a week right away. You might want to suggest a plan where you come to the office a couple days a week or only come in for half days to start.

“If it’s possible to ease back into the office, that can help to manage the anxiety that might accompany a sudden environmental shift,” Wethers says. The same is true even if you’re not returning to the office full time; if the goal is to adopt a hybrid schedule where you’re in the office three days a week, for example, can you start with one and build up to three?

Try to identify which aspects of the transition “feel most troubling to you,” Kamins says, as well as your specific sources of stress, and articulate that clearly so that you can make a compelling case for a gradual rather than abrupt return. Lay out a few different scheduling options and propose a plan so that your employer sees you’re working to balance your own needs with those of the job.

If your stress is about more than just the short-term transition, it’s worth noting that many leaders are newly aware of the benefits of working from home. If you want to advocate for yourself by trying to develop a different long-term workplace arrangement, consider proposing a hybrid work schedule or requesting a permanent remote setup. And make sure you know your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act if applicable, Kamins says. You may qualify for accommodations even if your company’s formal policy is to return to the office full time.

Speak to Coworkers You Trust Ahead of Time

Some of your work friends and colleagues may have the same hesitations and fears as you do. And they may have ideas that could work for you too, including how they’re getting to the office and how they’ll be keeping themselves healthy and happy once they get there.

Speaking honestly with those who empathize with you will also help you feel like you’re not alone. And when you do return to the office, make plans with them to get coffee, meet at each other’s desks, or otherwise catch up so you can engage in “soft” social interaction like small talk, which researchers have found is uplifting, fostering positive emotions and reducing feelings of burnout. Spending your first days back in the office around people you feel comfortable with will be less stressful than talking with a stranger or colleague you don’t know well. When it makes sense, you might even coordinate your schedules together so you’re in the office at the same time. Doing so may be especially helpful if you need to feel supported in taking safety measures.

Revisit (and Revise) Rituals Before You Head to the Office Again

Chances are, you had a very clearly defined pre-pandemic morning routine. It’s worth going over that routine ahead of time and getting back into the habit before you return to the office. Set your alarm and begin waking yourself up every day as if you’re preparing to commute. Dress for work, even if you’re not going anywhere yet. Pull out your professional attire and isolate the items that make you feel good so you can start putting together outfits (even if your office is super casual, you may not have been wearing the same kinds of clothes at home). Begin preparing so you’re not doing everything all at once on that big day.

You could even think about how to optimize your routine if you’re feeling industrious, such as cutting out habits that don’t serve you and adding in new ones. Maybe you want to avoid hitting snooze as much as you used to, for example, or you’d like to incorporate a walk into your commute. Otherwise, just work on getting back into the swing of things. 

If your budget allows, you might even treat yourself to an accessory or new item of clothing to wear when you go back to the office. It can serve as a small positive distraction in what might otherwise be a stressful scenario for you.

Use This Opportunity to Make Changes That’ll Boost Your Professional Happiness

Is there anything you’re dreading about returning to the office (aside from the on-site transition itself)? This can run the gamut from important issues like, “I want to feel more valued by my team,” or, “I need more one-on-one time with my boss.” It can also include small details, such as, “I want to stop taking minutes in meetings,” or, “I want my desk to be farther away from the noisy break area.”

Once you identify these stressful aspects of the return, see if there are any you can address proactively. The pandemic has forced many people to think critically about their work lives, evaluating what they like and what they really don’t—and you can absolutely take action based on what you’ve learned. This is the moment to make change, since everything from schedules to seating arrangements to team culture norms are in flux. There’s room for you to rebuild the work environment in a way that makes you happier.

Reach out to your supervisor or HR. Explain clearly what you want, laying out a solid explanation for why it should happen: “I’d like to move my desk to the fourth floor. More of the coworkers I work closely with sit there, which will allow us to be more efficient, and I need the quiet away from the break room to be able to more effectively complete my time-sensitive tasks.” You’ll only want to ask for one or two things at a time, so prioritize the requests that will have the most significant impact for you.

Set Boundaries and Practice Enforcing Them

As you visualize going into the office, this is the perfect time for you to think about what you need from your fellow coworkers and how to communicate that effectively. Identify what boundaries you need to set and be ready to state and reiterate them: “I’m not ready to talk about what happened to my family during the pandemic,” or, “I’m keeping six feet away at the moment.” If this is challenging for you—as it is for many people—write down what you plan to say “or say it out loud in front of a mirror,” Kamins says. “Solicit feedback from a loved one whose opinion you trust to ensure you’re coming across clearly and respectfully.”

Luckily, Wethers says, “We can anticipate most of the conversations we’ll be having surrounding coming back to the office,” from discussing new protocols to acknowledging the strangeness of reacclimating to talking about all the ways the team has changed since everyone was last in a room together. Reflect on what’s important to you so that “in the moment, when you’re faced with a potentially uncomfortable question, you’re not trying to decide how to respond,” Wethers says. “No one has to know that you rehearsed.”

The same goes for others: Respect your coworkers’ needs. Some may be absolutely delighted to be back in the workplace. Others may not. Plenty may be practicing social distancing, wearing masks, or otherwise protecting themselves. Parents may struggle to spend so much time away from their kids. Introverts might find it absolutely exhausting to suddenly be around so many people all day. In other words, each colleague may have a number of stressors, like you, and be having a tough time with the transition and the demands of work.

Be Gentle With Yourself

Perhaps you’ve made a plan to take on the workplace—but you’re still stressed for when the day comes. If an in-person meeting doesn’t go well, or you feel like you didn’t advocate for yourself as effectively as you could have, or you “messed up” a conversation with a coworker, know that mistakes and failures are going to be a part of this process. You’re only human, after all, and this has been a taxing time. The people around you very likely feel the same way you do. When you feel comfortable, speak openly about your stress with people you trust. Know that you’re doing the best you can, and that what you’re doing is enough.

Seek Out Professional Help

Experiencing stress in response to or in the wake of a public health crisis is common and normal. It’s OK to acknowledge that you could use professional help during this time. A skilled therapist or another mental health professional can help you manage your anxiety triggers, develop better communication skills, make a transition plan, and address negative feelings you have as you go back to “normal” after a long, mentally exhausting period. “It’s important to have a space to discuss your feelings without being shamed or put on the defensive,” Kamins says. There’s no judgment involved, and there isn’t a power dynamic or career implications as there might be if you speak to a supervisor.

If you haven’t already, look into what mental health resources are available via your workplace—sometimes there are free consultations or online services. If none exist, see what services might be covered by your insurance. If therapy is out of reach, consider turning to close friends or a supportive partner who can help you through the transition.

Take Other Steps if Your Stress Is About More Than the Transition

It might be hard to see this time as an opportunity, but there’s no better moment to take stock of your work life and see what could be improved. It’s also a good time to assess whether your stress is centered around the transition, or if it’s more about the job itself.

“Monitor your feelings throughout a typical workday,” Wethers says. “Do you only notice stress levels spiking when you’re sent an email about what the parking situation will look like when people start commuting again? Or are you dreading even sitting down at your laptop in the first place?” she adds. “If it’s the latter—if the stress or anxiety accompanies you throughout your day and not just when you start thinking about the transition—it might be a sign to dust off your resume.” In other words, if the stress is actually about your job or company, it might be time to reflect on what you want and need and kick off the search for a new job that can give you a happier, less stressful experience.