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FROM MASS EXODUS TO MEASURED RETURN | Creating Positive Anticipation For The Return To Work

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

I read an article in The Atlantic last week that suggested our Covid 2021 summer might be the best one of our lives. As vaccinations make their way into arms, and restrictions slowly lift, there will be plenty of pent-up eagerness to go around. Dinner in a restaurant? Going to parties? Entering my mom’s house further than her foyer without a mask? Sign. Me. Up.

The point of the article, of course, was to underline how much we’ve missed, and how ready we are to experience even the little moments again. Parties, travel, shopping; we will seek and hold dear the events, connections and places we’ve taken for granted in the past. No moment will be too small, and we will love every minute of it.

And yet, amid this ready euphoria and gear-up to normalcy, a dark and gloomy specter looms: the legitimate (and 365 day-old) fear of returning to the office.

People have experienced a full year of weird autonomy amid seismic disruption; core responses have been executed in survival mode for almost twelve months. That can result in some serious anxiety when it’s time to go back to working from a physical office. Workers are both longing for a return to business as usual, and dreading giving up their freedom (and comfy pants). In short, we’ve kept ourselves alive with a nationally enforced flex schedule, and some of us like it. In fact, some of us love it. We don’t want to abandon the known safety of our home offices for the unknown conditions of our workspaces.

Companies are hustling to keep employees safe and supported when it’s time to come back to their desks. You probably have a return to workplace plan (*see below if you don’t). It’s full of dates, names, and job functions, with locations of sanitizer stations and an order of company branded masks. But what if we could do even better than that? What if a return to the office held the same sweet anticipation as other parts of our lives? Here are three steps you can take to lessen the dread and inspire the anticipation of The Great Return.

Share your plan (*again, definitely have a plan), and share it early. People already experiencing anxiety may feel yanked from the safety of work from home into the perceived abyss of the office. This new stress will negatively affect their psyches, and their perceptions of returning to work. Happily, this is predictable and avoidable; people just need information. Let them know what to expect, what safety measures are in place, how shared hours onsite will be managed, and give them plenty of space and patience to ask questions and share concerns.

Negotiate your work from home policies now. People feel safe at home and some may not want to give it up. Whether you develop a blanket strategy for all staff, deploy different systems for different teams, or decide schedules individually, it’s time to build expectations around being allowed to work from home in the future. It’s much better to talk about it early and change it later than realize on Day Two that expectations weren’t aligned. (Unsolicited advice: Be liberal in allowing employees work from home early on, and ease back in to a more traditional structure as the weeks and months progress.)

Build a return to work committee and create things to look forward to. This would be easy to ignore, but it’s as critical to your team as social distancing. I’m talking about things like starting late on Wednesdays, no meetings after 4 pm for the first three months, a weekly office happy hour, a calendar with milestone ‘returning to normal’ dates, and yes, work from home days. It’s an opportunity to strengthen culture through trust, and to create experiences that you know your staff will appreciate, because they thought of them.

*Lastly, unless you’re on a team of virologists (which, if you are, thank you for saving us all), you will probably need some guidance determining the best whos, whats and hows of returning to the office. If you don’t have a return plan yet, read this article about the workplace return by Haworth and then call us. We can help you figure out the best way to support your team through their work environment, with the least disruption and maximum reassurance.

We’re getting there, people. We can’t wait to see you in the office.


President | Ringmaster burkeMICHAEL+

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