Finding Our Way Back: Re-entry into Office Work

The optimism of spring is palpable this year as many of us eagerly await the chance to return to our favorite restaurants, see coworkers and friends, travel, enjoy live music, and plan for re-entry into office work.

If you are anything like me, you might have some mixed feelings about transitioning back into shared work and living spaces. Am I eager to see people? Yes! Do I wonder if the spaces that used to bring me joy and connection will still do so when I return to them? Yes.

Am I curious how people have changed, and do I worry if I will forget important details about my coworkers? Also yes. More than once in the past six months, I have left an in-person conversation feeling like I managed to forget all social norms and graces. I am sure I am not the only one.

As we shake off hibernation and venture out again into the spring, what will we need? What do we expect and hope for?

These are some things I am thinking about as I prepare for re-entry into shared spaces.

It’s gonna be hard.

Let’s be real: we are not going back to the same lives we had. Many of us have been holding on to, “One day I will get back to X again,” and there is a good chance X is not the same or does not live up to the idealized fantasies of the past year.

Re-entry will bring with it a sting of grief as the reality of what we have lost continues to sink in. There might be friends you won’t see in the office anymore and loved ones who won’t be at the next family reunion. You’ll remember the favorite watering hole that didn’t make it, and the community might not fit anymore.

We are returning jagged and changed, each with our own particular story within this shared story. We need to take time to feel the particular grief of our story, and that is hard work. Give yourself and those around you grace.

Listen deeply and start slowly.

Much like reuniting with friends and acquaintances for the first time after the summer break in school, there is a lot to catch up on… and sometimes not much to say. The conversations often followed a similar pattern: “Hi! How was your summer?” “Good, how was yours?” “Good! Ready for school to start?” “No, not at all.”

The conversations of re-entry sound similar. “How was last year for you?” “Oh, you know, 2020 was quite a year.” “Yeah, it was. Glad we are on the up.” This doesn’t get us very far.

As we reconnect with one another after more than a year of isolation and disconnection, we have an opportunity to listen deeply to stories of those we’ve been far from. Instead of “How was your 2020?”, try, “What are you carrying with you from last year?” Or, “How are you different than the last time I saw you?” Or even, “What did you learn about yourself in the past year?”

Questions like these tend to elicit longer responses, so make time and space for them. Start slowly. For many of us, our socializing muscles have atrophied and we don’t have the social stamina we did before. There is a good chance that the chitter-chatter around the water cooler will be wobbly and unpracticed, and that is okay. Take a break when you need it.

It’s okay to say “no.”

Before the pandemic hit, I had activities almost every night of the week. I loved the routines and fast pace, but I was getting burnt out. Then it all went quiet. The only activities I had were nightly walks and a weekly gathering of a couple of friends.

With activities restarting, it is tempting to return to the blazing speed of pre-Covid life. Honestly, as excited as I am to get back, I am tired. My capacity for socializing and being “productive” is limited.

If this is you, too, go easy on yourself, and give yourself permission to opt out. FOMO will live on, but remember that we all missed out on a lot in the past year. There is a good chance we will survive missing out on one more thing.

As we transition back to pre-pandemic spaces, we will need to have grace for ourselves and others. None of us are walking away from 2020 unchanged or unscathed. If you are willing, share what you are looking forward to or worried about in regards to re-entry into office work in the comments below.