In recent days, prompted by a number of experiences and conversations, my thoughts have turned to the return to work, and its potential complexity. Of course by ‘return to work’ I mean a return to the office for those of us who have been working almost exclusively from home for the last year and a half or so.
In some respects the homeworkers have had it easier than others. We may have battled with working from the dining table, Zoom fatigue and juggling work and homeschooling, but in other respects we have been protected from some of the greater difficulties experienced by key and essential workers. But that separation from workplaces, combined with the ways in which our daily lives have also reduced as we followed the directives to stay at home, to stay away from others, leaves us vulnerable to the culture shock of return.
A few weeks ago I went into my workplace for the first time since the pandemic began. The day was filled with a strange tension between what was the same, and then what was so very very different. My office itself, a time capsule. The desk calendar still showing March 2020. A wall planner for an academic year that never really was. The accessories of office life, just where I left them. These relics belong to a world that no longer exists.
Two other personal experiences have helped to shape my thinking. One of these was my first time on a rush hour train. Discomfort at being around so many people. Even more discomfort at the lack of masks and social distancing. The other experience was the simple return to an exercise class in person. Another ‘first time since March 2020’ situation and an utterly unforeseen emotional thunderbolt. The refrain running around my head… the last time I did this, the last time I saw these people, heard this music. It was…. Before.
As we plan for return, we simultaneously once again have the creeping anxiety driven by rising cases and the fear of what might be to come. There’s plenty of evidence of the toll Covid-19 has taken on our collective mental health, and whilst there may be date for the end of restrictions, we cannot expect that we will somehow recover, or even being to process our experiences, along the same trajectory.
The return will not be simple. The return will not, psychologically at least, be fast.
There is no return to normal. Employees will be returning to vastly changed workplaces. Many organisations will continue their own restrictions even if they are not legally mandated to do so. The use of public transport will be a very particular area of concern. People have been consistently told to stay away from others and that message will take time to unpick.
What should we do as organisations? First and perhaps most important of all, we need to be patient. To recognise that, just like the rest of the pandemic, each person’s experience of return will be unique and contextual. We need to provide the space for them to talk about their concerns and wherever we can, allow them to take the return at their own pace. Take the time to hear the fear, and not assume that everyone will be the same and have the same needs.
There is much that we can consider on a practical level too. We can provide training and guidance for people managers on the potential challenges and how to identify those who might be struggling. We can help managers to understand the impact of trauma, bereavement and anxiety, and how this will influence how their people will feel about return. Clear communication about the steps being taken to support employee safety in the workplace, and reducing the risk of infection. Ongoing wellbeing support is a must.
Finally, we can focus on connection and belonging. Helping our people to get together again (safely). To rebuild bonds and relationships. Reintroducing that valued social side of work.
The government say that the return should be gradual. Indeed it should. Not just because of Covid-19 itself, but because of the potential for return shock.