Back to the office

Back to the office
How to prepare for re-entry into our workplaces

Have you ever seen any film footage of astronauts returning to earth and getting out of their capsules? Their legs are wobbly and they are usually being helped out by a team on the ground. But they usually have a smile on their face though, relieved at being back on solid ground.

Read time: 4½ minute | Author: Gordon Tinline - Business Psychologist

When we leave lockdown and return to our own version of the next era of work will we feel like these astronauts? Disoriented and weak and struggling to find a solid footing again? Perhaps not as extremely, but the analogy is not completely farfetched.

In some ways the period of isolation from our usual workplaces, colleagues and friends might have felt like being in a space station far away and detached from our previous life. In addition, we are probably not returning to how things were before COVID-19. Interestingly, three astronauts who recently returned from months in the International Space Station reported feeling like they had come back to a different planet!

Three important areas to think about as we prepare to go back to the office

So, as restrictions are easing in many countries what can you do to prepare for re-entry and to adjust to the next era of work? There are three overlapping areas I think it is worth focusing on:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Productivity and work performance

1. How can you maintain or improve your physical health?

Have you been taking more or less exercise during lockdown? What has your nutrition been like?  Have you been having one or two glasses of wine too regularly? Some researchers have believed that for some time now we have been experiencing a less dramatic or visible pandemic than COVID-19, one of physical inactivity.

Many people seem to have increased their exercise levels during lockdown. However, there is a hypothesis that the already active have become more active and the less active more inactive. No doubt research will emerge which will give us robust evidence around this, but it is possible that we have polarised around exercise.

A systematic review of the neurological rewards of exercise a couple of years ago suggested regular exercise tends to become its own reward and as a result is likely to be sustained as a habit.  However, it did not rule out the possibility that for the less active, not exercising produced neurological rewards in terms of minimising the energy costs of exercise. In other words, the initial pain, or thought of it, might prevent the gains from exercise but once the gains become frequent the pain is less debilitating.

So, if you have been taking more exercise during lockdown you should find it easier to sustain it than someone trying to increase their levels from a low base. If you want to increase your level of exercise, then finding ways of integrating a little and often into your working day, post-crisis is probably the key.

One tip is to link exercise to something you already do habitually. For example, do five star jumps after brushing your teeth in the morning or go for a 10-minute stroll outside after every meeting! This may seem strange, but by forming an association with behaviour that is already automatic or deeply ingrained in our daily rituals, the linked exercise will become habitual overtime.

2. How has the lockdown affected you psychologically and how can you manage this

There is little doubt that maintaining mental health has been more challenging for many people during lockdown. So, as we emerge from the most severe restrictions, what can we do to try to improve our mental health?

The five ways that the UK Mental Health charity, Mind emphasise are worth focusing on as we prepare to re-enter our workplaces:

1. Learn – what have you learned from lockdown that you can take forward as the restrictions are eased?

2. Connect – what opportunities do you now have to reconnect with people that are important to you?

3. Take notice – can you take a more mindful approach to life? For example, when in a green space outdoors, really concentrating on what you are experiencing through all of your senses. When you are talking to colleagues, fully attending to what they are saying.

4. Give – being kind to others and generous with your time and attention has significant paybacks for your own mental health. How can you integrate more of this into your behaviour and how you spend your time?

5. Keeping active, which I have covered above.

Interestingly these five ways have also been suggested as important for mental health through the isolation phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. How can you improve your productivity and performance post-lockdown?

Rather than just reverting to our old behaviours as soon as possible, there may well be practices we have been forced into during lockdown that we can continue to apply to improve our productivity and work performance in the next era of work, post-crisis.

Perhaps video calls could be used more frequently going forward, to improve efficiency and time management? Have you found more time to reflect on your priorities and your sense of purpose in terms of work and the rest of your life? Perhaps you have found spending more time with your close family has made you realise how important it is to maintain this as we return to spending more time outside of our homes.

Reflecting on what you want to keep in terms of how we have worked during this period is useful, but this will only turn into action with active planning. This can occur at an individual or team level. One way of capturing these reflections and turning them into practical actions is to do a re-entry plan.

How to construct your Back to the Office plan

So, as restrictions on lockdown begin to ease, how can we plan to capture our lockdown lessons to improve our working lives, post-crisis? I suggest the following:

1. Set a time frame for implementing your learning. A good starting point would be to identify what you want to establish in your first two weeks back.

2. Open up a discussion with team members and colleagues to identify shared lessons from lockdown, commitments in terms of what you want to change and what you want to ensure continues.

3. Consider the three areas highlighted above as a structure for identifying actions to maintain or improve physical and mental health, and productivity and work performance.

4. Regularly review changes implemented and adjust them to deal with the realities of the next era of work.

None of us would have wished for COVID-19. However, as with much of adversity in life, we can learn from it and build our individual and collective resilience. This is most likely to happen if we actively reflect and plan based on our individual and shared experiences.

Would you rather work from home than go back to the office? Then find some tips to discuss this with your employer.

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