Going Back to Work in a Pandemic: Tips on How to Adjust

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A group of coworkers in masks surround someone holding up a sample

Returning to the workplace in the age of COVID, after working from home, has a parallel to which we can all relate: returning to school after summer vacation.  We’re going back to a familiar place and familiar people, but the world has changed while we’ve been virtual. Returning to work during the global coronavirus pandemic has its own unique challenges.  Recognizing it will be a new experience will help us enter the mindset of being open to change and ready to roll with the punches, while also giving ourselves the space to be tired, anxious, unsettled, and disoriented.

How to prepare yourself for going back to work

The key to success is planning ahead.  What’s been different while WFH (working from home)?  We’ve only had to look professional from the waist up.  We’ve been able to work outside of our normal work schedule, possibly being lured to over-work.  We haven’t endured or enjoyed commutes while working remotely.  We’ve corresponded with clients and colleagues from a physical distance yet oftentimes have formed a more personal virtual connection.  We may have had silence in an empty apartment, or we may have been challenged by household interruptions or childcare issues, finding it harder to keep focused and productive.

How do we prepare to return to the office?  Start by visualizing your day from the time you wake up.  Pinpoint what will be different in your “new normal” and picture how you would manage the changes in your routine.  If your sleep cycle is going to be different, start adjusting to the new routine ASAP so it’s not as much of a shock to your system.  Be prepared to be physically tired as you orient to a more, or less, level of activity.

Select comfortable outfits that fit and make you feel confident. Will you be packing a lunch, or do you need to research places that are doing office deliveries or order pick up during COVID?  You may need to do a grocery trip focused on office food that’s portable, healthy, and refreshing.  Will your commute time replace activities you’ll now have to make time for outside of work hours?  Do you need to restock audio books or get the car ready for commuting rather than recreation?  Do you need to check out public transportation schedules to learn of any changes?  If you’ve been working barefoot, do your shoes fit?

How to prepare your kids and pets for when you go back to work

How do we prepare our pets to be without us during the day?  Our kids have been off for summer vacation and are now having to transition back to virtual, hybrid, or in-person schooling.  Our transition to the office can model the same skills and routine changes kids will be adapting to.   It’s best to hit this head on with a family meeting where everyone can talk about what changes they are going to have to make and brainstorm ways of coping.

Determine if you will need to hire childcare or ask a family member for some help if your kids are doing virtual schooling and you need someone to watch them. If online learning has been a challenge for them, consider getting them a tutor to help them feel more confident this school year. If you are worried that you won’t be able to enjoy as much family time now that you are going back to work, add some family time to your schedule. You can designate Sunday night as family game night or make a pact to continue eating dinners as a family. Creating a plan allows for everyone to adjust their expectations and feel more at ease with the changes in daily routines.

If you got a new pet during quarantine because it seemed the ideal time to raise a puppy or adjust to a rescue cat, your pet will be facing changes as well.  Perhaps you won’t be around as much and you may need to work on separation comfort with your pet.  Their feeding and exercise times may need to be more regimented with family members assigned responsibilities for pet care that jive with their new schedules.  Watching over all members of the family can be both rewarding and stressful.  Be ready for both.

How to manage your COVID-19 anxiety

What about the anxiety you’re feeling as you prepare to return to the office?  Accept that it is normal; we’re all feeling it.  See if you can pinpoint the source.  Once you identify the source, you are empowered to lower your anxiety with specific actions or accept that you won’t know until you’re there.   Is it coronavirus related?  Fear of exposing yourself to more people and contracting the virus, or bringing COVID into your home?  Is it the unknown of how coronavirus has changed the office, not knowing what you’re walking into?  Is it the change to eight hours of masks versus brief mask use in the grocery store that has you feeling claustrophobic and overheated?

Educate yourself on new policies and procedures put in place due to COVID-19, knowing that they may change often and abruptly.  Get an extra bottle of your preferred hand sanitizer to have at your workspace.  Virtually walk yourself through the office, familiarizing yourself with what changes have occurred.  Do what you need to do to feel safe and protected.  And accept that you’ll feel disoriented at first but will soon relax into a familiar routine.

How to cope with back-to-work anxiety

Do you have non-COVID concerns?  Will it be the first in-person realization of layoffs and missing colleagues?  Will you be excited to see your co-workers, only to experience everyone behind closed doors, working virtually with little in-person interaction?  Do you need to adjust from working independently to group work?  Do you have conflict with certain colleagues whom you’ve enjoyed an extended vacation from?  Is it uncomfortable to be returning to being around people versus working in your own virtual “bubble”?  Check in with your colleagues to see how they’re feeling and whether you have common concerns that need to be brought to management.  If you feel your anxiety is more than colleagues are experiencing or is causing major upheaval in your life, consider talking with a therapist for support.

Returning to work during a pandemic can be overwhelming, but taking steps to prepare yourself and your loved ones for the changes ahead can make the transition to “the new normal” much easier. Remember that these are unprecedented times, so be kind to yourself and take it each day at a time.

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