How to make returning to the office less painful

(NEW YORK) — While some tech companies, such as Twitter and DropBox, have said that employees may work remotely forever, many companies are planning a partial or full return to the office this summer or fall.

For other workforces, that transition is already in swing. Among adults who are employed at least part-time, 61% say they currently work from a location outside their home, 19% are exclusively remote and 21% work partially from home and partially from another location, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey published in June.

For those making the switch from fully remote to in-person or hybrid work, the key to a successful re-entry is staying true to the spirit of the word “transition,” experts say.

“What transition really means is that we need to ease into it,” said Dr. Victor Carrión, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. “There’s going to be this impetus to completely return back to normal, but the reality is that life is different now,” he said. “We not only want to be resilient, but we want to be adaptive.”

Instead, workers and bosses should approach the transition period as a different animal than either working from home or pre-pandemic office work. It’s a chance incorporate the best parts of each and synthesize them into a better model of work, as well as process trauma from the pandemic that led to remote work in the first place. Workforces that skip the synthesis and processing steps may do so at their peril.

“There’s a human impulse right now to suppress and move on and return to normality,” said Ezra Bookman, a New York-based ritual designer who consults for companies and communities. “I think that that’s part of the energy that we’re receiving from leadership. That’s the very American way of dealing with trauma: suppress and move on.”

One tool for processing that trauma and creating a tangible transition back to the office could be creating a ritual around it, Bookman explained, but cautioned against a topdown approach that doesn’t engage with why employees might be hesitant to return to work in the first place. Rituals aren’t likely to have much effect if leaders aren’t modeling vulnerability, treating workers as individuals and engaging with their concerns. “I think that what leadership does in this moment is going to be super, super important,” he said. “No ritual is going to magically change the imbalance of power and the fact that employers are not listening to their employees,” he said.

With all that in mind, there are practical steps workers and bosses can take to make the process easier for everyone, as well as a guide to creating a personal or collective back-to-office ritual.

Step 1: Go slow

“People who jump too fast may find themselves feeling exhausted very quickly,” Carrión warned. He recommended gradual re-entry as opposed to heading back to the office five, or even three days a week.

“If your goal is to be in the office four days a week and you’re unsure about the delta variant and only feel good going one day a week, go one day a week,” he said. “Once you’ve dealt with that, you can work toward your goal.” During that transition period, self-care is equally as important as it was during the height of the pandemic. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Avoid leaning on alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms. Remember that everyone had different pandemic experiences and it’s okay to go at your own pace.

“It’s going to be different for different people,” Carrión said.

Step: 2: Acknowledge the pandemic

Part of returning to the office should include reflecting on why we left in the first place, experts say. Holding a moment of silence for those who died of COVID-19 is one potential place to start. Depending on the size of your organization that moment of silence could be with the whole company or just with your team. Bookman suggested pausing and reflecting for 3.9 minutes, in honor of the 3.9 million people who have died worldwide from the virus.

“That gives people permission to say we’ve acknowledged, we’ve made space, we’ve recognized the loss of life,” Bookman said.

Step 3: Create a ritual

Acknowledging COVID as a group is a good springboard for a ritual Bookman calls a “litany of losses.”

Either as group, or individually, people can write down everything they’ve lost over the past year. It can be helpful to read that list aloud or have someone witness it, Bookman said, but you could also do this exercise alone.

“Write down every single thing that you’ve lost and then hold onto that paper until you don’t want it anymore. Until you’re ready to let go.” Then Bookman recommends getting rid of the paper in an intentional and symbolic way. You could burn it, bury it, put it out to sea or use any other method that speaks to you and isn’t part of your regular routine. “Something more than putting it in the recycling bin,” Bookman advised. “It doesn’t mean that the all those things magically go away and suddenly you’re fine with it, but it does give you a different point in your psychological map.”

Carrión recommended a different twist on a litany of losses: writing down your experiences over the past year to incorporate them into your memory and build a personal narrative around them. “If we don’t, some experiences may not be processed and they may continue to be in our brain, nagging us and getting in the way of our functioning,” he said.

“It is very important as we transition we don’t forget the year that has passed.”

Tips for managers and team leaders: One size does not fit all

Making Carrión and Bookman’s advice a reality requires a flexible and empathetic employer, they both acknowledged.

“People feel very differently about returning to work, and they’re all occupying the same space again,” Bookman explained. Some may have had the best year of their lives and spent more time with their kids, he noted. Others, who lost family members or friends or had their marriages fall apart, are still grieving. Still others may have been totally isolated and crave socialization.

Carrión seemed to agree.

“I think managers need to be very sensitive about the differences between individuals. They can not think that there is one solution or formula for everyone,” Carrión said. “They may have to tailor approaches to different individuals and create environments in the workplace that are supportive and promote coping and self-care.”

As for employees, if you can do so safely, speak up about your concerns and needs. “I really want to encourage people to not be chill,” Bookman said. “This moment to be direct, to be brave. Chances are everyone else in the room is feeling similarly and will feel relieved that someone is stepping up to advocate for a smarter, healthier, more real, honest and authentic return to work.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.