Back to the office: adapting to 2020’s definition of “normal”

Written by Emma Barber

25th September 2020

a woman working on her laptop wearing a mask

We’re used to 13 being an unlucky number, 666 had a pretty bad reputation as well, but I think we can all agree that 2020 is now the number which will stand tall as the most terrifying set of digits (apart from maybe your ex’s number popping up, calling you because they “really have changed this time”).

2020 set Australia on fire, threatened World War III, saw the ever-present climate crisis continue, and then COVID arrived to REALLY top it off…and that’s just the summary up to March! 6 months down the line we’ve been deprived of our day-to-day social interactions, tried (and often failed) to take up an exciting range of new hobbies, and not even been able to eat at our favourite restaurants to make ourselves feel better. The world of work has been beaten to a pulp and forced to change radically so that everyone could work from home. After WEEKS of finally admitting that we can’t work in pyjamas, realising that showers really do need to be a daily occurrence, and slowly making our way through every packet of custard creams in the local corner shop with no witnesses…we hear in the news that some of us need to go back to the office!

It’s very understandable for it to all seem too much. We want the “old normal” – you know, the one where you could hug your friends and family freely, the one where you went to work as normal, and where the only scary thing about your commute was that ever-present fear of missing the train or being stuck in chock-a-block traffic on the day of a super important meeting at 9 am.

Now everyone’s anxiety levels are just a little bit higher. Did I wash my hands properly? Is my mask effective? Am I just hot because I’m in a jumper or is this fever? It’s constant.

So no wonder we’re all a bit nervous about going back to the office.

Take a deep breath and let’s tackle this one worry at a time:

1. How can I be safe in an office full of people?

After having been repeatedly bashed over the head with group limits and social distancing measures, it’s no wonder we’re worried about being around people again. It’s ok to feel anxious about that. Rest assured that companies have implemented multiple measures to adapt work spaces for COVID conditions. You’ll find one-way systems in place, more frequent cleaning rotas, and socially distanced work spaces. It’s true that we can’t control the behaviour of others, but we have full control over our own actions – bring extra masks if you feel you might want a fresh one, bring your own hand sanitiser (and hand cream!), remove yourself from someone’s company if you feel they are not respecting your boundaries.

If you’re still worried, the best thing you can do is talk to your manager. Encourage an open dialogue – how can they help you if they don’t know there’s an issue? It’s also very likely that you are not the only one who’s worried – you are not alone.

2. It’s been so long – what if I’ve forgotten how to do something?

It’s natural to feel a bit wobbly going back to something you haven’t done in a while – I imagine it’s exactly how a tightrope walker would feel after a long holiday! Trust your brain (it’s incredible). Maybe you can’t remember how to do something at work while you’re sitting in bed stressing about it, but once you’re in front of that screen or machine, it will all come rushing back (and even if you need to ask for a quick refresh from someone, there are certainly no rules against asking for help!)

3. After lockdown and such long term isolation, social interaction is now really draining – what if I can’t manage?

It’s true that now social interaction can be pretty daunting. It’s harder to relax because you always have to be that little bit alert to ensure everyone is being safe. Unfortunately, this does essentially delete the coffee break chats in the kitchen, but there’s nothing stopping you from going for a coffee break outside (plus the breath of fresh air can be really beneficial for the mind). The truth of the matter is that being around people again will be noticeably more tiring than before when you first start back. Once again, if it all gets a bit much, there really is NOTHING WRONG with asking for help. Let your colleagues know, let your manager know, and it’s also important to let yourself know. Tell yourself to give yourself a break! Don’t berate yourself in your mind with harsh words and the unfair pressure to “get on with it”. It can be helpful to notice what you are telling yourself and consider whether you would say that to a friend, colleague, or family member who was struggling. Or would it be too unkind?

You deserve the same kindness and gentleness you would give away to others.

In short, YES you will actively have to stay safe around others, YES there might be an adjustment period as you get back into old work habits, and YES it’s going to be draining. But remember, you CAN make every effort to personally feel safe, you CAN remember how to do it, even if you need a bit of help to get you going, and you CAN ask for help if it all gets on top of you.

Be kind to others, of course, but please be kind to yourself as well.

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