Now that a significant percentage of the population has been fully vaccinated, corporations are starting to call employees back into the office. The bulk of office reopenings seem to be scheduled for the week after Labor Day weekend, with the rest following by the end of the year. Hopefully a lot of employers will offer their staff the flexibility to work from home for at least a few days of the week, instead of returning full bore to the exhausting 9-to-5 grind of our troublingly capitalistic society. Amazon, for instance, has announced that it will only require employees to come into the office three days a week. And other tech companies like Twitter and Square will allow their workforce to remain fully remote if they wish. Neat, right?
Whether the return to the office is a few weeks or months ahead, you might be worrying about what that will be like. After over a year spent adjusting to the new normal of the home office, feeling comfortable in your old (or brand new) workplace will take some getting used to. Add to that a number of issues that have cropped up since the pandemic began, and the thought of sitting in a cubicle or office, surrounded by a bunch of other people, might feel understandably stressful. I racked my brain for some of the elements of working in an office setting that may be anxiety-inducing in hopes that they will make the return back to in-office hours a little smoother. If there are any that I forget to mention, feel free to leave them in the comments.
After over a year spent adjusting to the new normal of the home office, the thought of sitting in a cubicle surrounded by other people might feel understandably stressful.
For anyone who suffered through the daily anxiety of the pandemic or lost a loved one to the virus, concern about being in such close proximity to people who have elected not to get vaccinated can be frustrating. You might feel angry because you believe they’re being selfish, or unsafe because their vaccine hesitancy makes them potential carriers for the virus. Do your best to remain civil and counter any anti-vaccination conspiracy theories with facts, like this guide from CNN. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time a group of people have decided to believe in hearsay rather than science. While you can change some minds with the right mix of compassion and information, it’s not your job to do so. Unless you‘re the head of HR perhaps.
The Loss of a Hard-won Work-Life Balance
Before the pandemic hit, it seemed like we were all forever rushing around, with little time to spare for hobbies, self-care, and other non-work activities. The elimination of commutes and restaurant closures gave us a lot more time to rest and recharge. No longer were we dashing from the office, into rush hour traffic, then to the gym to squeeze in a quick workout, before heading home to grab dinner and catch up with your partner, family, or roommate before falling asleep, only to wake the next day and do it all again. Now with a return to the office, your 2-minute commute from your bedroom to your home office or kitchen table workstation may have turned into 30+ minutes of traffic and public transportation, which will only bring us back to the unbalanced state we were in pre-pandemic.
The only real way to counter this is to make a commitment to continuing the good wellness habits we developed, like engaging in relaxing activities and taking rest days. This is also the time to engage with others intentionally. Hold space for the relationships that are good for your mental health and let go of any social habits that no longer serve you. It’s okay to change.
Concerns For Personal Safety
One major concern held by many employees who are apprehensive about returning to the office is safety. How will employers clean and sanitize office spaces to protect employees? Will layouts be changed to expand personal bubbles? If vaccines will not be mandated, will temperatures be checked at the door? These are some of the questions on the lips of about 66 percent of the 1,000 remote workers surveyed earlier this year.
Check in with your managers to determine what safety measures will be put in place to ensure the safety of yourself and other employees, and voice whatever anxieties you have. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers provide safe, hazard-free workplaces for their staff, and retaliation against any worker who raises concerns related to COVID-19 safety is prohibited. You may file a complaint if you feel that this is the case, or if you feel as though adequate protections against SARS-CoV-2 are not being offered.
Steps you can take on your own are to keep washing and sanitizing your hands regularly, complying with mask requirements on planes and other forms of transportation, and monitoring your health for any symptoms of COVID-19.
The Masked 9-to-5
The good news is that the CDC has relaxed guidelines for wearing masks indoors, for vaccinated people at least. But due to vaccine hesitancy, that might mean that only a third or more of the employees within a given organization might be immunized, and that makes things a little complicated. We’re still not sure how effective the vaccines are against the different strains of COVID-19, so precaution is still advised.
Organizations may choose to have their staff wear masks in the office for safety reasons, which means getting used to wearing a mask for long hours. Workers in the service, transportation, and healthcare sectors have had to do this for a while now, but most of us only have practice wearing one for an hour or two, and it’s still really uncomfortable. Invest in some breathable, well-fitting masks, discard or wash after a single use, and go easy on the layers so as not to clog your pores.
The bottom line is that getting used to close personal interaction will take some time after being told for months that being less than six feet apart could subsequently be fatal. Most of us are just starting to enjoy little freedoms like grocery shopping without jumping six feet into the air every time someone passes by us in an aisle, or eating at a restaurant. Feeling comfortable in rooms with hermetically-sealed windows is kind of a big leap, but for some, there might not be a choice. Whatever your return to the office entails, try not to overwhelm yourself by worrying about things beyond your control. Just focus on the good habits that have carried you through the pandemic, and with time, you’ll find your footing.
Has your office announced plans for employees to return? How do you feel about it? Let me know in the comments.