As the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout the world, people are experiencing dizzying changes in how they approach their work and the workplace. Some are able to work from home fulltime, others are given the choice about where they work, still others are being asked to return to their offices…and then asked to work remotely again.

For those who choose to go back to the office – or are required to – what can they expect? “People may be surprised that things aren’t like they remembered,” said psychologist Piper Meyer-Kalos, PhD, LP, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “What their day looked like in the office probably won’t be the same. It’s created a bit of uncertainty for all of us.”

Forgetting routines

Barb Daiker, PhD, RN

For Department Administrator Barb Daiker (pictured here), PhD, RN, people coming back into the office may need a refresher course about how everything works. “If you haven’t been in the office, you may have forgotten how things get handled,” she said. “One employee who had only been in once over the past two years came in and said she didn’t remember how to do the mail. Nothing had changed about the mail, but it had been a long time since she had done it.”

Some people coming back into the office are experiencing quite a bit of anxiety. Meyer-Kalos has some suggestions for handling it. “One of the most important things to do is to communicate,” she said. “Talk with your supervisor; make sure they are aware of any anxiety you may have. If you’re struggling with things or things are harder or different than you thought they would be, make sure someone is aware of that.”

Plan a short visit
Daiker recommends planning a short visit and arranging to have someone you know be in the office at the same time. “You don’t need to be there all day, but I do encourage you to step through the ritual of going to work – parking your car, coming up to the office, and going into your space.”

But what if what an employee wants to feel comfortable and that just isn’t possible? “You need to talk with your manager about what can and cannot be changed,” said Meyer-Kalos. “Get what you need on the table, even if it feels unrealistic. Then you can talk about what both of you can do to make it work for you.”

What makes you anxious?

Piper Meyer-Kalos, PhD, LP

It all depends on what’s making you anxious, she continued. Is it about getting sick? Being around people? Wearing a mask all day? “In general, one of the biggest recommendations is ensuring you’re taking care of yourself – getting a good night’s sleep, practicing mindfulness and relaxed breathing to help ground yourself in the present moment,” said Meyer-Kalos (pictured here). “Integrating that into a regular practice can help you settle so when you do go in, you’re in the best possible state.”

One of the weirder things about returning to the office is the emptiness. “People are bringing this up a lot,” said Meyer-Kalos. “They say, ‘I’m being asked to come back but it’s lonely in the office by myself.’ This is where communication with your manager becomes critical. You need good information about why it makes sense for you to come in. You also need to be flexible – managers do, too. We’re all learning through this. You might discover that it’s really hard to be there by yourself. One of the things you can work on with your manager is if you can pair up with someone and not be there alone.”

Walk the hallways
Daiker, who is in the office several days a week, makes sure that she connects with someone as soon as she arrives. “If you have a reception area in your office, there is usually always someone there,” she said. She also walks the hallways. “I’m an extrovert so I’m seeking people,” Daiker said, laughing. “Sometimes, people can be afraid about being in certain spaces. We have a library near our front desk, and we encourage people to work in there if it makes them feel less anxious.”

As the Omicron variant continues to wreak its infectious havoc, more employees are being asked to work remotely again. What should they be doing to foster connection? “That’s tricky,” said Meyer-Kalos. “It’s getting harder the longer we’re away. I suggest that managers reach out more to staff members for check-ins, both individually and in groups. Maybe once a week, they could have office hours with an open Zoom meeting and employees can just drop in to connect and discuss any issues or questions they may have.”

Different ways to connect
Daiker advises thinking about different ways to connect with others because frankly, Zoom can be exhausting. She suggests making phone calls, texting or using Google chat. “You can do things on these platforms that help you foster connection,” she said. “Phone conversations also don’t include that strange speak-over syndrome that comes with Zoom.”

Everyone agrees that there seem to be new “rules” pertaining to office work as a result of the pandemic. “One of the unwritten rules is that even when in a space and masked, people are generally keeping some distance between each other,” said Daiker. “I’m also hearing that people are asking if they can give someone else a hug. There’s more permission-asking in general. If I’m going to touch something, I’m going to ask first.” And if in-person meetings are scheduled, there is always a remote option, she added.

The challenge of masking
Masking in the office can be challenging for some. “A lot of people feel they get mixed messages about masking,” said Meyer-Kalos. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they don’t know what the etiquette is. Organizations should clearly define their policy about masking and use gentle reminders to enforce it. We want to be good stewards, but this is as relatively new behavior.”

Finally, people are tired. “That’s the other thing we have to remember, both as employees and managers,” said Meyer-Kalos. “We have to remind ourselves to take a breath and center ourselves, focus on the here and now. To be compassionate, both with ourselves and others. I think of a phrase I’ve used many times: ‘help me to understand.’ Start from the place of wanting to make this work and have a conversation about it.”