Dealing with Return-to-Office Anxietyby Natalie Theodosi
As human beings, we are conditioned to resist transitions or unfamiliar situations—even the ones we’ve been looking forward to.
“Familiar situations tend to be safer and more predictable for us. They allow us to let our guard down. In unfamiliar situations, we’re wired to be more on edge, and constantly on the lookout for dangers. Because of this, transitions tend to increase our anxiety. We’re always subtly on the lookout for potential threats,” said Dr. Alice Boyes, a clinical psychologist and author.
That’s why starting a new job or relationship, moving house, embarking on a big transatlantic trip, can all evoke feelings of anxiety, even if you’ve been dreaming of those scenarios for months, maybe even years, on end.
There's no doubt that the reopening of the world and the subsequent return to physical offices is sending waves of unease among professionals, irrespective of their age and backgrounds. When you become all too comfortable with life as a remote worker, it initially seems daunting to have to dress up and start socializing, beyond the screen, again.
So how do you overcome those early jitters and embrace the natural transition of working from the office or doing business in-person?
Make Space for an Adjustment Period
It takes time to form habits, good or bad.Acknowledge that and be understanding with yourself when you start to feel signs of resistance to your new lifestyle. If you’ve grown accustomed to living in tracksuits, conducting meetings exclusively via Zoom, and doing laundry in between calls, it’s only natural that leaving this comfortable bubble and commuting to an office again will create some initial turmoil in your mind.
Psychologists call it anticipatory anxiety, and it’s a normal reaction to anything we’ve had to abstain from for a prolonged period of time. Just like an athlete who has been recovering from an injury and is returning to training after a few months of being out of the game, you are likely to feel some initial stress about re-adjusting your lifestyle, dealing with the office environment again, and having in-person interactions.
Accepting the anxious emotions as a natural human reaction and allowing yourself to process them will make the transition that much easier.
Everything in Moderation
Moderation is another part of the success recipe: if you start by slowly exposing yourself to new environments and situations, your anxiety won’t be triggered as easily.
This means that if you have the opportunity to use a hybrid working model, start by commuting back to the office one or two days per week or scheduling a handful of in-person meetings on specific days, before filling up your calendar Monday to Friday.
Even if there are aspects of office life you’ve been inkling to return to (like post-office drinks or coffee breaks with your favorite colleagues), start small and try not to overbook yourself from the very beginning. Contrary to popular belief, you can have too much of a good thing— without moderation excitement could easily turn to overwhelm.
Design a New Routine
Having now experienced both office and work-from-home lifestyles, you have an opportunity to design a new routine that incorporates the best of both worlds. Write down the positive habits you picked up while working from home, and think of all the ways you can keep up with them.
If you were eating healthier, home cooked food while at home, you might just need to dedicate some time to prepare your meals in advance and take them with you.. Or, if you’ve been able to increase your productivity at home, you might need to start thinking twice about how many coffee breaks you take and strategically break down your tasks for the day using The Productivity Planner, while back at the office. If you’ve found that using the Focus Time technique significantly increases your productivity levels, continue working with a time blocking method.
There’s always a practical solution to be found, as long as you’re intentional about the habits and routines you want to maintain and the way you want to feel at the end of each working day.
“Our behavior and habits are very influenced by our environment. If there are habits you want to keep when you change environments and go back to the office, you’ll need to be very intentional about how you establish those. You’ll need to purposefully form those habits again in your new office environment, almost going back to square one. Without this, you’ll quickly go back to doing everything the way you did before,” advised Dr. Boyes.
Focus on the Positives
Your mind is indeed wired to resist the change and panic at the thought of a new working environment, away from the comfortable work-from-home bubble it has become so used to.
Yet you can play an active role in rewiring those thoughts by simply practicing gratitude and choosing to shift your focus on the positives. Think about it: What could you gain by returning to the office and meeting your co-workers in person?
There’s plenty to get excited about, from getting more creative with in-person brainstorm sessions, having long-awaited catch ups with colleagues, or even important discussions with your boss about your career progress.
During the transition, be extra diligent about journaling, reflecting, or–if you prefer–using your Five Minute Journal and noting down all the good things happening during your first days back at the office, no matter how small they might be: having a bigger screen to work from, a friendly atmosphere within your team, a word from encouragement from your manager, or the audio book you got to listen to during your commute. Day by day you will see your attitude transform, and the initial anxiety will be replaced with positive feelings about the opportunity you have to socialize, create and have fun, engage in new experiences, meet new people, and redesign your lifestyle.
Time to Reassess
If you’re still feeling weighed down by the possibility of returning to the office and seeing your team in-person, there might be an opportunity to grow and face some uncomfortable truths here too.
As challenging as those emotions are, maybe they’re a signal from your body that you’re in the wrong job. Ask yourself: Why are you really so fearful and anxious about getting back to working from an office? If the feeling is deep and persistent, it can’t be there just because you will miss waking up late and wearing comfortable clothes while working from your bed.
Listen to your feelings and try to understand what’s really causing them. Are you no longer inspired or challenged by your job? Is there someone you wish to avoid because of the negative energy they channel to you?
Get curious and dig deep to find the answers by delving into mindfulness practices like meditation and journaling. There’s a new world ahead and with it come opportunities to reassess your career and explore new paths.