The Terrain Has Changed – Back to In-Person

The world is opening back up.  The number of people going out to restaurants and seeing relatives is creeping to a small majority, around 53%, and New York City is set to fully re-open July 1.  We are re-emerging from a global pandemic that impacted each individual in a unique way.  Some are coming back with unexpected loss weighing on them, some with energy and excitement and some with fear.  There is impatience to return to pre-COVID times and hesitancy and doubt that those times could still exist. The impact of remote working, lockdown, extreme and enduring stress will continue to have impact on your team members, in seen and unforeseen ways.  And everyone is emerging with a different perception and lens, especially if they have been working remotely.

I worked-from-home for around two months at the start of the pandemic.  There were things I liked about it, like never having to leave my pajama pants or the ability to take a break and walk my dog in my beautiful neighborhood or kiss my newly minted husband.  But as the third month began, I felt my productivity shift and I knew I needed to get out of my makeshift bedroom office.  Safety measures in place, I returned to my office and never looked back.  Zoom meetings began taking their toll as I wanted desperately to be back in the room with our members, so it absolutely blew my mind when I realized I was the only one of my friends to be vying for a return to office life.

One of my closest friends, Megan, shifted to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic and her company has yet to return to the office.  She works in marketing for a healthcare company and after two trips back to the office to get personal things and desk set-ups she was good to go.  Now, she revels in the freedom of work-from-home.  Her productivity improved as she was able to start her day later (without her usual long commute).  And the ability to simultaneously complete some small chores here and there and manage a schedule around her new puppy and his daycare gave her more energy to attack her projects.  She felt the effects of remote working in some of her interactions with her team and the Zoom meetings that keep piling on her schedule, but it wasn’t enough to outweigh the pros.  Now, as her company has begun polling team members for a return to the office, she is in discussion with her manager to stay mostly remote, with a few days here and there, and is looking to spice up her working days with coffee shops and different locations to keep her fresh and focused. She and her significant other enjoy busy social schedules, and even with a large part of her role being content creation, she recognize the importance of in-office collaboration with her team members – just not as a daily tool.

My best friend, Tyler, is a successful manager at Deloitte.  He is single and before COVID hit in 2020, he was preparing to move to California to head a project with the government there but got stuck in Florida when everything shut down.  He worked from his parent’s home for months, managing his projects across three timelines – California, India and Florida.  To get out of the day-to-day monotony, he began traveling to some of his favorite places, like the mountains of North Carolina, and would work during the week and hike on the weekends.  Now, he was able to leverage his ability to productively manage projects across different time zones to achieve his goal of relocating to Denver, Colorado.  He will continue working remotely and connect with the Deloitte office there.  While he’s enjoyed the break and freedom of his schedule, he’s anxious to travel for work again to get in front of clients and out of the back-and-forth emails.

And then we have James, who ran the marketing department for a well-known cruise line when the pandemic hit.  They were thankfully able to diversify and learned a lot when their bookings fell to nothing.  James has a young family, with a 5 year old son.  Their family was an unexpected blessing and James found himself focusing on the importance of building his career to support them versus quality time with them.  The pandemic changed everything for him.  He realized some of the things he has missed and now relies on a more flexible work schedule to stay connected with his son.  His company is choosing to allow some freedom and yet he would be the first to tell you how relieved he was to work from his office again.  He relies on personal connection and derives energy from working with others.

These are just three Millennial lens’, in various stages of their life, that might be representative of some of your team.  For all of us, the pandemic brought hardships and blessings.  We were able to refocus on what is most important and learned how to create order in our lives amidst all the chaos.  With this order came comfort and after all the change in the last 14 months, it’s hard to let that comfort go.  And yet, we can all recognize the value of connection and getting back to working together.  It becomes a process of balancing the lessons and priorities that 2020 showed us, with the need to collaborate with co-workers and leaders and reconnect as a team.

There are other factors at play here, and reasons why breaking remote working habits and getting people back is more important than ever.  One of the mental impacts of the pandemic is poor ‘cognitive functioning.’  According to Catherine Loveday, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Westminster, this is brought on by lockdown and limitations that led to many days, and even months, to be the same day after day.  The brain is wired for activity that is stimulated by new and different things so the lack of stimuli created what is known as a ‘brain fog.’ There were studies done on this during lockdowns, where individuals listed problems with attention, time perception, organization and memory.  Those who began to go out after restrictions were lifted saw great improvement, while those who continued to shield themselves improved more slowly.

Adam Grant, author of Think Again and Originals, has another name for it: languishing.  In speaking to his friends, he worked to understand the similarities in what we were all feeling.  “It wasn’t burnout – we still had energy.  It wasn’t depression – we didn’t feel hopeless.  We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless.”  Languishing is similar to brain fog, it’s a sense of stagnation and emptiness and Adam predicts this will be a long-term emotional symptom of the pandemic.  He calls languishing the neglected middle child of mental health, the void between depression and flourishing.   It dulls motivation and disrupts our ability to focus.  Naming this emotion is a good first step in terms of an antidote.  Other ways to combat it is setting boundaries, giving yourself uninterrupted time and focusing on small goals.

The transition back to the office, and back to the real world, is going to be hard.  There are many factors that come into play for each of your employees’ unique situations – some factors you’re aware of and some you are not.  Standing still is not the answer, and yet as companies look to rally their teams together and gather once again remember to lead with empathy.  Companies, people, and leaders especially, need to be kind right now.  As Scott Mann says it’s time to go below the water line and connect as if your life depends on it.  That means focusing on real conversations with real people and listening to their perspective.

As we go back to the life we knew before, the terrain has changed in ways we could have never imagined.  Support your team, learn their lens’ and be ready for a few setbacks as the world adjusts.  Above all else, be kind.