Navigating the Return-to-Office Maze

Around the world, people are returning to the office in-person in varying degrees, and as we are experiencing, this takes a lot of “sorting out”. It brings with it plenty of potential conflict and confusion, misunderstandings, and new challenges.

Accordingly, we felt it might be helpful to address this topic while many of us have a bit of extra time to think during this (usually) slower summer period (at least in the Northern Hemisphere!).

Below we have identified a few subject areas that we hope will help you through this journey. For us, the big themes are compassion – for others and for self – patience, understanding and creativity.

Recognize everyone is entering this new phase from a different place.

Some of us are still in a very cautious place; wearing masks in enclosed spaces (or even open spaces), getting booster shots, staying away from restaurants, bars, concerts, and sporting events. Some are done with anything pandemic. Most of us, however, are navigating the paths between the poles. This means we’re entering the maze from different places. So, let’s do our best to deal with the practicalities of those different choices rather than judging any given choice as right or wrong. Setting the judgment aside is much easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort.

Identify your comfort levels & ask others about theirs.

First, get clear on your own safety needs and comfort levels so you can communicate them to others in a clear manner. Then, check with others about their comfort levels so you have a sense of how to manage in-person interactions with them.

For instance, while it might seem odd, one thing you can do when you encounter a colleague you haven’t seen for a while, or when you meet someone new, is state your preferences by saying something like: “I’m comfortable shaking hands/doing fist bumps. How about you?  No problem at all if you’d rather not.” We’ve been doing versions of this (usually shorter and less formally than the example given here), and so far it has worked well.

Another option is sorting that out before meeting with someone (or in advance of a meeting, to avoid awkward “in the moment” situations). We have done this in some situations when organizing meetings and it was helpful. In one case we simply said that we want to encourage each person to do whatever they felt most comfortable to them with regard to mask or no mask, handshakes/fist bumps/elbow bumps, or simply a hello wave, proximity vs. physical distancing etc. It worked really well. Mind you, that was back in May and things have evolved since then, but as we get closer to September and the return to work & school and spend more time indoors, these things will likely become more relevant again.

To reiterate: try not to judge a choice as right or wrong. Someone with strict preferences might be dealing with medical challenges, or maybe they’re living with an immuno-compromised person. On the other side of the coin, someone who isn’t observing any protocols probably feels their choices are perfectly safe and reasonable.

Unless their choices impact your safety, put a smile on your face and get on with things. After all, just because people make different decisions and have different values than you, this doesn’t automatically disqualify them from being worthwhile co-workers and colleagues.

Now is the time to rethink your work-week structure.

Many of us who worked solely from a home office, and especially those of us who took pride in having a strong work ethic, spent the past two and a half years overworking. If you’re someone who worked late into the evening, or started very early in the morning (or both), and might have also put your nose to the grindstone on weekends, now is the time to ask yourself whether your work ethic is driving you or whether you’re driving it.

A quick reality check? Ask yourself what your life would look like if you created a healthier work/life balance and were kinder to yourself.

Aerial view of a highway interchange maze

Or, you might be someone who found that working from home – away from the distractions of the office and without the daily commute – honed your productivity and improved your work/life balance, so you want to keep it going. Also, you might have health / safety concerns about returning to the office. Or maybe demands have been placed on you that weren’t in your life pre-pandemic, such as the arrival of a child/caring for an aged parent.

Needless to say, your ideas about how you’d like to structure your work week will have to mesh with the needs and requirements of the organization and/or team you’re involved with. If the schedule they’ve set up doesn’t work for you, set up a meeting with your boss/team leader to sort it out. Ask them what’s important to them and when it’s necessary for you to be physically present. Listen closely and check to make sure you’ve understood them correctly. When negotiating, you always have to find out what the other party wants and needs and combine those with your wants and needs to find an optimal solution. It’s worth also getting clarity on your email, text, and video call availability.

Suggest a month’s trial, and revisit after that.

If you need advice, talk to someone who understands what you’re facing. Odds are high that they’ll be able to offer some useful suggestions. The good news is that in this particular context, there are many people who can relate.

Last but not least, our headline advice matches what we suggest with regard to negotiations in any context:

Treat this endeavour like a puzzle to solve instead of a battle to win. Accordingly, treat your boss and colleagues like joint problem-solvers instead of opponents.

None of the above advice will magically make this process easy, but we hope it can help you navigate the maze a little more successfully.

Best wishes!

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