June 9, 2020
Have these conversations before moving from your kitchen table back to your desk
After months of remote work, the leaders at my company recently announced on an all-team Zoom call that we will be heading back to the office very soon — in a modified way, following social distancing guidelines. It was an announcement we all knew was coming; many have already started migrating back to office life as states lifted their coronavirus-related restrictions.
Still, the news hit me in a way I didn’t expect: I was sad. When we first began sheltering in place, I hated working from home. I even actively looked for excuses to make trips back to the office — had I left something on my desk that I urgently needed? But eventually, I settled into a comfortable routine, learned how to be pretty productive in my new setting, and somehow felt more connected to my co-workers than I had when we were sitting right across from each other. And I couldn’t complain about the commute.
For workers making a safe transition back to the office — a situation that I acknowledge is an extremely fortunate one to be in right now — there may be a lot of mixed feelings and anxieties. I certainly had them. After that Zoom call, questions that had previously seemed abstract took on new urgency: What would this process look like? How would we minimize our risk? Would managers expect everything to be business as usual?
What I realized is that a return to the office will only succeed through radical transparency. There are conversations we need to be having with our bosses and our teams even before we step through the doors.
Here’s how to help make the process easier — and less anxiety-inducing.
- Set up a call with your manager to talk through your feelings and circumstances, as well as their expectations for you during this season. Be honest. Tell them if you have specific concerns about returning to work — for instance, you might have an intense fear of getting sick because you have an immunocompromised family member or roommate. The more context you can give your manager, the better chance they can help find a solution you’re comfortable with.
- Ask to talk through difficult scenarios that may arise in the months ahead, and the processes for handling them. Will everyone be required to wear a mask at all times, and if so, will anything happen if someone refuses? What if someone comes into work with a cold? Will there be a process for calling out a co-worker for their personal behaviors? These conversations may be messy and complicated, but it’s crucial to gain clarity upfront.
- Request that your manager or someone else in the company make these policies widely accessible. Talk to your teammates about how they feel about the transition. Ask if there are ways you can be mindful of their boundaries or more aware of their circumstances.
Letting your co-workers know you’re available to their feedback goes a long way. As the journalist Shane Snow writes on Forge: “If you want to be helpful and maintain your healthy boundaries, continually ask yourself this question: What action will help the whole team the most in the long run?”Are there any valuable lessons you learned while working from home that you can bring back to the office? If so, share them with your team, and ask your colleagues to do the same.
Some people have told me that in the past few months, they’ve had more one-on-one conversations with their co-workers than ever before. That might be something they’ll want to continue. The struggles of working parents have also finally come into the open. It’s important to keep remembering that everyone is still dealing with a lot, and “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t necessarily always the best answer. On that note, if you’re a manager, have realistic expectations about the transition back. While your team members might look their old selves, they’re very likely not feeling that way. Take things slow.
As employees likely won’t be taking vacations this summer, encourage them to unplug and recharge. Here are some ideas for how to spend a vacation day without leaving your home.While I’m nervous about soon joining my team back in the office, I’m also looking forward to easing into a new normal. We won’t get it all right, but if we commit to having important conversations using radical transparency, we’ll learn and we’ll grow as we head back to a world very different from the one we left.
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