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As areas of the country begin reopening with fewer restrictions on businesses, care facilities, and other institutions, office and work environments will open again soon, too—albeit with a much different look and feel than before.
Employees will likely share office space with fewer co-workers, allowing more employees to work virtually and work staggered schedules while following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC also recommends spacing work stations six feet apart, reducing seating from common areas like break rooms, and wearing face coverings at all times as the safest ways to reopen offices while helping prevent the spread of a novel coronavirus disease called COVID-19.
Two experts at La Salle University both agree these new post-COVID-19 elements of workplace life will take some getting used to, as will communicating with and being among co-workers again:
Jessica Brannan, Psy.D., director of La Salle’s Student Counseling Center, which provides mental wellness services to students including counseling, crisis intervention, psychiatric consultation, and psychological assessment
Sharon Armstrong, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and director of research and dissertations within La Salle’s Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) program
“We have certainly lost the in-person, face-to-face contact with our colleagues and, with that, what may come is some initial unease with reconnecting to each other,” said Brannan, whose areas of expertise include stress management, anxiety, and depression. “It will likely take some time to reacclimate and to recall what it is like to actually see and communicate with your co-workers in the flesh.”
Armstrong, an expert in cognitive science like psycholinguistics, reasoning, and problem-solving, agrees that communicating face-to-face again after several months apart will involve a re-learning curve. But with the return of in-person interaction, she said employees have an opportunity to cut through the clutter of electronic communication associated with working remotely by just having an old-fashioned conversation.
“It’s faster sometimes to have a conversation,” said Armstrong. “You see somebody in the hall, you bring up something and move on. And you can see right away when you’re talking to another person if they understand. You get a lot of feedback in an oral conversation. You get immediate feedback about whether you need to say more or say less or clarify from how people are responding to you in the moment.”
Brannan and Armstrong offered suggestions on how workers can gradually ease into office life after months of working remotely.
The first impulse might be to shake hands with or hug a colleague you haven’t seen in a while. Since greetings involving contact aren’t advisable, Brannan recommended other ways to let your co-workers know you’re happy to see them.
“I feel that a nice way to get across your sentiments is to simply say, ‘It’s so good to see you,’ or ‘I wish I could shake your hand,’ or ‘I wish I could give you a hug,’” said Brannan. “You might even gesture or mime an air hug.”
Another way to get past those awkward interactions is for co-workers to acknowledge the situation and talk it through.
“Talking about these things in general can be reassuring,” Brannan said. “Being sensitive to the adjustment in returning to work in our own ways will be helpful in making the transition a little easier for us all.”
After several months of communicating with colleagues through Zoom, email, and text messages, your vocal cords might not be up to the task of addressing a room full of co-workers in meetings, Armstrong said.
“It happens to professors every fall,” said Armstrong. “In the first couple days of teaching, people are a little hoarse. They’re overworking muscles in the larynx which they haven’t been using for such extended periods of time.”
Vocal trouble isn’t the only public speaking issue workers may encounter, Armstrong said. It may take a little longer to find the right words, even when speaking on a topic with which you are familiar.
“It can take a little bit to get the neurons firing,” said Armstrong. “Once you get back into talking about a topic, suddenly, it flows. You’re able to retrieve things much more quickly. You’re able to remember the exact words you’re looking for. Getting into that topic again primes the neuronal pump, so to speak.”
Several months working remotely may leave employees unaware that they have developed certain off-putting behaviors.
Whether it’s a home-office casual look, or talking to yourself while working, Brannan recommended taking inventory of your etiquette before subjecting co-workers to these newly developed peccadillos.
“I think we can all relate to having developed some idiosyncratic and potentially off-putting behaviors while working from home.” said Brannan. “I do feel that in some respects it will take some time to re-learn working and co-existing in an office environment, but we will adjust and get back to our previous routines.”
Office socialization could suffer, Brannan said, with hubs of office chit-chat like water coolers and break rooms likely a thing of the past.
Some workers could be returning to the office during summer months. Brannan recommends taking advantage of the nice weather.
“Going outside for lunch or even for a quick coffee break will be a good alternative to catching up with each other in the office,” she said. “This will be good not only for their emotional health, but also for their physical health. You can get some fresh air and vitamin D while also interacting with your colleagues.”
A return to the office could trigger anxiety as workers express or harbor concern for their mental and physical well-being.
The key to successfully managing anxiety upon returning to the office is self-awareness, Brannan said: Stay informed and consult with medical experts for reassurance, if anxiety is health related. If reacclimating to office lifestyle is causing anxiety, talk to your colleagues about how they can support you, while also giving yourself time to adjust.
“Also know your limits,” Brannan said. “If you feel that your anxiety is to a level that requires more support and intervention, (take advantage of) resources available to you.”
The Employee Assistance Program provides all La Salle University employees with expert support to help manage stress and anxiety, 24/7, by calling 1-800-854-1446. La Salle’s telemedicine service, Doctor on Demand, provides mental health services in addition to medical care. (These services are available at no cost to employees insured through La Salle, and for a fee for those who are not.)