This informal CPD article on Returning to work after COVID – some tips for survival was provided by Dr. Claire Bonham, Director at IARS International Institute, a leading international think-tank with a charitable mission to give everyone a chance to forge a safer, fairer and more inclusive society.
As many workers start thinking about returning to the office with a mixture of relief and anxiety, I wanted to offer some reflections and tips on how I’ve found the return and some things I’ve learnt.
At the IARS International Institute we started back in our office in July, so we’ve had some time to get used to the ‘old-new’ ways of working. We are fortunate enough that we only have a small office-based team and an office that is big enough to accommodate us even in these socially distanced times. Given that one of our main activities is to deliver volunteering and research internship programmes to young people from the UK, Europe and further afield, it was a reasonably easy decision to go back. However, as the Director of the organisation and responsible for the health, safety and productivity of my staff, there were a few things that surprised me on the way which has let me to reflect on the following areas:
The ‘new normal’ is definitely not the old normal
Don’t expect things to go back to the way they were as soon as you start working in the office again. Remember how long it took to adapt to working at home? It might be like going back to normal but it is unlikely you will go back exactly to the way things were before. It’s amazing how quickly the body and brain can learn new patterns of behaviour relatively quickly if repeated often. I was surprised at how alien and unsettling working back at my desk felt – even though I’d only been away for four months. Using my desktop computer rather than my familiar laptop felt odd and the change of seat and the environment (from working from the dining table) took a bit of getting used to but were ultimately welcome. The biggest challenge however, was having to consciously keep distant from the staff team, which led to a feeling of disorientation, even though it had felt perfectly normal during lockdown. I experienced some of the feelings of loss of control and anxiety that I had felt in the early stages of lockdown which really surprised me – so give yourself plenty of time to get used to being back.
Make time for team meetings
Paradoxically, during lockdown it felt to me that we communicated better as a staff team than we did before – the lack of face-to-face contact meant that our weekly video team catch up on a Monday was precious and welcome by everyone, there was almost 100% attendance every week. But when we returned to the office and were able to speak face-to-face, the structure of having a regular weekly team meeting went by the wayside pretty quickly as we had the novelty of being able to talk to each other whenever we wanted. However, this meant that communication with the team was sporadic, and disadvantages people who work part-time or are not often in the office. Allowing people to dial in to the team meetings or be there face-to-face has helped, but I have really had to work hard to intentionally prioritise team meetings in order to ensure that everyone is included and has access to the same information at the same time.
Establish new routines
I suspect that, like me, many people enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time with family, take lunchbreaks in the garden if you are lucky enough to have them, and use the extra time not spent commuting on a new hobby; whether that is taking up exercise, cultivating your sourdough starter or reading those books that have been languishing on your bookshelves for years. Going back to the office can feel like a backwards step, so if you can try and take one of those habits back to the office with you it will help. Like many, I used to be an ‘eating-lunch-at-my-desk’ repeat offender and thoroughly enjoyed taking a proper lunchbreak in the garden during lockdown. Since being back in the office I have tried to take a walk at lunchtime or at least go and sit down in the kitchen area (albeit with staggered lunchtimes that are socially distanced from other members of the team). And if you have a longish commute then learn to celebrate that. I have been enjoying the time that my 50 minute train/walk commute gives me to properly switch off after the day – there is something therapeutic about turning off the computer in my office and leaving the building rather than just shutting the lid of my laptop and moving it off to one side at home, which doesn’t ever really feel like closure at the end of the day.
Be kind to yourself
The last thing I would say is that, whether you are going back to the office full-time or doing the odd day here and there, change is not always easy. Many people I have spoken to throughout the pandemic have struggled with mental ill-health or anxiety at one point or another, and have expressed surprise about how feelings of sadness, anger, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, happiness and joy have overtaken them at quite unexpected moments. For some, having had family time at home will have been a great blessing and there will be a feeling of loss, for others they might feel relief at having time away from children or family. There is no programmed response for what is happening right now and everyone will react differently to another change in the routine. There is no shame in that. We all need to give ourselves and our colleagues, time and space to find our place in this new phase.
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