Going Back to Work “Post” Pandemic
How my office and colleagues are handling the transition
The world seems to be opening back up, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in our managers’ collective desire to see us back at our desks. In my own journey through the pandemic, I switched jobs from one that was allowing 100% work from home (which I considered a privilege) to a job that required 100% in-office work. For those now feeling the pressure to go back to the office, I’ll share how that has been going.
During the pandemic, working from home was a difficult transition both for workers and for companies. It exposed many problems with our broadband infrastructure. Removing our commute changed many work hour habits. Injecting work into our personal spaces necessitated changes to maintain work/life separation.
Even so, employees want to continue working from home. So much so that many employees would rather quit than rejoin office culture. Many companies promised work from home revolutions. Employees would be able to work remotely indefinitely and perhaps even move to lower cost regions and away from crowded and expensive cities.
Unfortunately, and to the surprise of few, many companies are reneging on those promises. On the negative side, we are all hearing that management wants to see “butts in chairs” again and companies need to justify their expensive office spaces. I’m also hearing positive reasons managers want in-office work; namely that innovation improves with in-person interaction, employees who are less visible tend to get fewer raises and promotions compared to in-office employees, and because separating work from home might also prevent burnout. I’m hopeful that we will eventually find a new compromise and that employees will continue to push for work from home capabilities that can be better for our wellbeing and for the environment.
But that all seems a long way off for me. I’ve been back at the office for months now. I’m watching my company struggle with the challenges many other in-person companies will deal with over the coming months and have dealt with the personal changes that come with going back to the office.
The first thing every business is dealing with is how to handle vaccinations. Do they and can they require vaccinations? Mostly they can, but other than some specific and sometimes obvious exceptions like hospitals and nursing homes, most are not making them mandatory. I’m seeing most businesses choose one of two paths, neither of which seems to be well received.
1) We’re playing it safe … until we’re not.
The first method I am seeing over and over is when a business asks employees to continue to observe the public health prevention measures we’ve come to know. Masking. Social distancing. Tele-meetings. Temperature measurements at the front door. My office took this path, and even while it was odd coming back to the office, this felt like a “normal” and cautious way to re-open the office. We even had vaccination clinics at the office.
Then one day, it was decided that “enough” people had been vaccinated and these policies were no longer needed. I suspect the company was trying to phase them out in some way, but without very specific direction, the end result was that employees simply reverted to (mostly) pre-pandemic behaviors. This was great for those folks who simply want a “return to normal”, but not great for those who are still nervous about vaccination rates, who are themselves unable to be vaccinated, or have family at home who cannot be vaccinated.
This approach caused those more cautious people who were just getting used to the in-office environment to leave again, either to request full time work from home or to quit outright. I see a very direct split of some people celebrating while others are pushing for more caution. And while I empathize with celebrating, having part of your work force cheering and another part feeling unsafe isn’t a good team atmosphere.
2) We trust you … too much
The second method I’ve seen is a company simply operating on trust. They request their employees to continue to observe public health precautions if they haven’t been vaccinated. Those employees that have been vaccinated don’t need to worry about it.
For similar reasons, this makes many people nervous and splits the workforce. Meetings are trying to accommodate both interests and failing to be as effective. Those with masks feel like pariahs or like they are inconveniencing those around them.
It also seems to encourage those who refuse to get vaccinated to ignore the policy outright and remove their masks, since they don’t want to be visibly marked or to get into arguments at work, defeating the whole purpose of the policy.
Can we do better?
Both of these methods seem to create tensions between groups at work. If any managers are listening, I would submit that a better method would be to engage the employees directly. Send out anonymous polls along with the company’s proposed next steps and data supporting those steps. If your company believes masking is no longer required because the employees have likely reached a 70% vaccination rate (the vaccination percent at which many people believe confers herd immunity) then share that information, your desire to eliminate masking, and a poll to see how employees feel about it. You may find that people prefer masking for a bit longer, or that some employees will want an option to work remotely rather than be around unmasked people. The transition will be much smoother with employee buy-in, data, and a variety of options employees can choose from.
Being around my office mates, most of whom are actually delightful people, is also simply exhausting at this point. After a year away I was not used to this level of socializing where I can’t quickly turn off a microphone or video monitor. It’s a skill that’s atrophied over the past year, and my extrovert muscles are constantly sore trying to work them back into shape.
First, the commute. Getting back in a car and losing an hour a day is physically (and financially) painful. As much as I needed a routine to separate my work from home life while working from home, the drive in increasing traffic is not preferable to, say, a fifteen minute walk break around my neighborhood.
I’m countering some of that negativity by getting back into my podcasts, toughening up my vocal chords with full volume in-car karaoke, and doing some more work on my car on weekends.
Second, the loss of personal time and freedom. This is the hardest part. I was enjoying taking the occasional lunch hour with my wife, working out during the day (while stretching my workday), and even turning my breaks into things I can’t do at work like playing a video game for a bit.
I’ve been trying to stick to better habits by taking frequent walks and water breaks and doing a quick exercise loop at my desk from time to time. Mainly I do my best to save some mental energy for my family when I get home.
When I first came back to the office, it took me a few weeks to not feel completely exhausted at the end of the day. Granted, I was starting a new job, but I think coming back in with the new rules is similar to starting a new job for all of us. It’s tiring and requires a lot of mental energy.
Do I wish I could still be working from home? Absolutely. Am I having fun seeing everyone? Also yes. Most of us will have no choice in the matter, so I’m trying to get back into the swing of things and maintain a healthy mental attitude.
Good luck to everyone in the same boat!
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