Adapting Back To Life At Work

Professor Hew Gill, Associate Provost of Sunway University

By Professor Hew Gill,

Now the pandemic is finally coming to an end we are all returning back to work and isn’t it a strange experience?  Have you noticed how uncomfortable your office chair is today?  How about those shoes you never really liked, are they pinching your feet a little bit more than you remember?  Everything at work seems familiar and in some ways it seems like only yesterday since you were in the office, but that was BC, before coronavirus, nearly 18 months ago and since then an awful lot has changed

Most of us probably thought that when we stopped working from home it would be quite easy to make the transition back to our workplaces, but the research shows that many people are struggling to adapt.  It may seem surprising that something so familiar is so difficult, but it’s actually because of our basic psychology.  When our society wants to punish people we deprive them of their liberty and force them to stay in one place, and since coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan this is exactly what has been done to millions of people from China to Canada.  We’ve all been prisoners for 1½  years, with the occasional parole, and now we’ve been released many of us are going through the same disorientation that happens on release from gaol.  This is because evolution has wired our brains to cope with unfamiliar situations, but made us bad at coping with well-known environments and routines that are disrupted or disjointed.

Amazingly, quite a lot of people actually enjoyed the first weeks of MCO because despite all the difficulties, they thrived on meeting the new challenges of lockdown.  Deciding who in the family would work in which room at home, mastering the new technology of online meetings, learning how to do everything electronically tested their creativity and they felt deep satisfaction at every problem solved because they felt they were in control.  Returning to work is very different, it’s about going back to a place where most things look the same, but the old patterns are different and we’re faced by changes we don’t control.   This is why so many people are struggling to make the change and it’s also why quite a few people feel almost resentful about being made to go to work at all.  Nothing will ever be quite the same again and as we make this difficult transition there are some simple things that we can do to make our lives much easier now and in the future. 

The first, and by far the most important thing is to take care of yourself.  Do your best to ensure that you are getting plenty of exercise, eating properly, and getting enough sleep because this will help you cope better with any situation. Uncertain times may affect you in ways that surprise you so be aware of your own feelings.  If for any reason you’re feeling stressed or unsure then let other people know and see if it is something you can work through together.  

There were almost certainly some things you liked about WFH, so as you manage the transition why not do something to keep those benefits?  In a survey done earlier this year PWC found that only about one in five business leaders believes colleagues need to come to work for five days every week.  If you want continue enjoying the benefits of hybrid working now is the time to negotiate with your boss so that you have more opportunity to WFH on a regular basis.  Point out the many good reasons for doing this including making social distancing easier at work, spending your commuting time doing something productive, being able to focus on major tasks without distractions, working different hours to match with colleagues or clients overseas, or even saving energy and carbon emissions.  If you have a plan for how and when you want to WFH then you can manage this transition to suit you. 

Always be patient and be positive.  Your workplace might look the same, but we all need to accept that there will be plenty of disruption and unexpected alterations as we learn to cope with covid becoming endemic.  There will be new SOPs in the months or maybe even the years ahead, and this means that there may be changes in the way in which you work, how your workplace is laid out, which facilities or services you can use, when you can WFH or take vacations, etc, etc.  Instead of being tetchy or angry, count to 10 and use your creativity to see how you can help tackle the latest challenge.  Other people like the person who helps to solve the problems, so play the game and do your bit to find constructive solutions.

As part of your planning make space in your schedule to re-establish relationships with all your colleagues. Providing you always follow SOPs closely, now is a really good time to start getting to know your colleagues again.  When you pass an open office door pop your head through it to say hello, make a point to have a cuppa with people you may not have seen face-to-face for months when you visit another workspace ensure you greet everybody you know and start to get to know the people you don’t.  Try to have some team meetings, not just for business, but also to socialize and to find out what it’s like to be in a large group again.  Social psychology tell us that the more we see and interact with other people the more we will like them and the more they will like us.  This social glue is very important because it builds the cohesion that helps other people feel happier and also makes us feel secure ourselves.  And remember, even when you’re wearing a mask, you can smile with your eyes!

Realize that other people may not be coping as well as you and try to make allowances for them. Some people cope with stress by being irritable, but others can become inflexible, unhelpful, or withdrawn.   Don’t just stand by and watch other people struggling, do what you can to help and this will make you feel a lot better about your own situation.  We all know how easy it is to give other people advice, yet how difficult it can be to take our own.  Helping other people make the transition back to work will make you and them feel much better, and it will also be a good way for you to learn valuable lessons for yourself.

The pandemic has made us all more aware of simple pleasures we used to take for granted.  Although work may never be quite the same again, see the post-covid world as a different place with new challenges and always remember that you are equal to them all!

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