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The back to the office “scaries”

The back to the office “scaries”

An Insight into: Returning to work

The phrase “we’re all in the same boat” became popular yet contentious when we suddenly found ourselves working from home at the start of the pandemic. People’s experience of lockdown, including working from home, varied widely depending on a massive range of factors including childcare and home-schooling requirements, available desk space and Wi-Fi speed, so you could say we were all in the same stormy sea but we definitely were not all in the same boat. I think there is a similar scenario now that we are facing a return to business as usual, and in particular the return to the office.

Some people have continued to go into work throughout lockdown, others haven’t seen their workplace since March 2020 and many people are somewhere in between those two extremes. How they feel about “freedom day” and a return to the hustle and bustle of the office is likely to depend on a vast range of factors including how long they have been working from home and how they found that experience.

At Ashcroft most of us, including myself, have been working from home for over 7 months now, since the start of lockdown number 2. It has become “the norm” for the vast majority of us, as it has for many firms in the last 16 months, and therefore the return to working in the office will feel like a big change, and us humans are generally very averse to change. So, it isn’t remotely surprising if you are feeling anxious about going back to the office.

I promised myself that I would go into the office at least once in April, because I knew that I needed to get out of the house for the sake of my mental health, but I kept finding reasons to stay at home so it was the 28th April before I made it in! As someone who is prone to anxiety I wasn’t surprised that it took me a while to build up the courage to go to the office for a day, despite being truly fed up of working from my living room and only seeing people through a screen. And I did get anxious beforehand, worrying about everything from having forgotten how to drive, working out which shoes would be comfortable for a whole day (my feet have become very accustomed to slippers…!) to wondering if I could still make social chit-chat!

I assumed that this was just my usual anxiety showing itself but having spoken to colleagues who have also made it into the office it seems that this is very common, even for people who don’t normally experience anxiety. And it’s worth remembering that for us this isn’t really a “return” to the office, as the new office location means we are facing a new commute, a new parking situation and a new office layout (albeit a much improved office!). Whilst other firms may have decided against relocating in the middle of a pandemic (we do like a challenge!) it is likely there will still be differences for returning employees to get used to such as a new layout to allow for social distancing or a one-way system to adhere to.

We had lengthy discussions about what the “new normal” should look like and have settled on a minimum of 3 days in the office a week for the majority of employees from the 19 July (restrictions permitting – fingers crossed). However tricky it is, the decision about how often to ask employees to come into the office is just the first step in the process, implementing the agreed upon policy and ensuring all staff are comfortable with it will almost certainly take longer. It would be easy for employers to underestimate or overlook the apprehension felt by employees at the prospect of the return to the office; typically the individuals making the decisions will have been into the office more regularly than the rest of the workforce and as such are less likely to developed anxiety about the return.

Our approach has been to encourage all employees to make a gradual return to the office in the run up to the 19 July, even if it’s just a day every couple of weeks. Whilst this involves some additional logistics to ensure that social distancing can be maintained we are finding that people are appreciative of the opportunity. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has braved the office has been glad that they did and have kept coming back to the office. From a personal perspective It has definitely improved my mental health being in the office twice a week, interacting with people face-to-face and having the usual pointless and yet often hilarious office banter. Exploring the various lunchtime options that are available from the new office is an added bonus!

For employers looking to help employees back into the office, or employees who are feeling apprehensive, here are some tips:

  • Remember that it is normal to feel anxious/apprehensive/nervous – others will almost certainly feel the same so be open and honest about it, talking always helps.
  • Have a “trial run” – if you drive this means you can check the car still works after months in the garage, ensure there are no new road works to worry about and you can use Google maps to get an idea of your commute time in the current traffic levels. If you use public transport you should at least check whether the train/bus times have changed since you last made the commute.
  • As the scouts say “be prepared” – pack your bag and decide what to wear the night before (this may mean dusting off some trousers without an elasticated waist…)
  • If you have any specific concerns, then raise them. You probably won’t be the only one.

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