Why You’re So Anxious About Going Back to the Office
Jul. 8, 2021 Harvard Business Review
If you’re feeling social anxiety about returning to the office, you’re not alone. Many folks are feeling unsettled. After over a year of remote work — and seeing our coworkers only on screen — the idea of seeing everyone again in person can feel overwhelming. And, since the Covid landscape is still in flux, it’s hard to feel sure about how long the “return to normal” will last.
You might be wondering why getting back to the office is rattling you so much. After all, you coped with office-life before. Here’s why the transition back to our glass towers might feel surprisingly difficult, and how to ease your reentry.
1. Transitions naturally spike our anxiety.
A lot of human psychology has an evolutionary basis. Familiar situations tend to be safer and more predictable for us. They allow us to let our guard down. In unfamiliar situations, we’re wired to be more on edge, and constantly on the lookout for dangers. Because of this, transitions tend to increase our anxiety. We’re always subtly on the lookout for potential threats. This reaction has an adaptive basis, but it can feel quite exhausting.
Think of how you’ve felt in your first six months in a new job. That’s a stressful period for many people as they learn new skills and procedures, and the cultural norms of their new workplace. Although you may be returning to your old job, a lot has changed, and it might be helpful to expect to feel the same type of adjustment stress. Give yourself the same grace and self-compassion you would if you were starting a new job or embarking on transition, like starting college or grad school. See this article if you need specific tips for how to be kinder to yourself.
2. Whenever you’ve avoided something, you’ll feel anxious about returning to it.
Imagine an elite gymnast who has been out for several months with an injury. They weren’t purposely avoiding training or procrastinating. They were benched because of their injury. Yet, when they return, they’re likely to feel a lot of anticipatory anxiety about performing moves they routinely performed before.
That’s how anxiety works, across the board. We feel anxious about anything we’ve “avoided” even if the break was externally imposed. If you’re a parent, you might find yourself feeling anxious about being separated from your child during the day, even if this was routine in your family before. Or, you may feel anxious about making small talk or managing other people’s personalities at work.
What’s the solution? Like the gymnast, when you gradually get back into your previous activities, your built-up anxiety will naturally subside.
3. Social relationships and boundaries have changed.
Pre-pandemic, it’s highly unlikely you knew much about your coworkers’ health decisions. Now, you’d probably quite like to know who in your office is vaccinated and who isn’t. Pre-pandemic, your colleagues may never have seen your home or your children, but now they have, thanks to all the Zoom meetings.
As people return to the office, some coworkers will likely become influencers. They’ll lead office culture and norms in terms of how many Covid precautions are kept up, and how vigilantly. Other people may be ostracized. For example, if they’re someone who chooses not to vaccinate and to keep masking, when everyone else wants to take their masks off for good. This shakedown may make the preexisting pecking order and popularity contest of the office even more obvious. For example, if “cool” coworkers are eschewing their masks, going out to lunch, and acting completely as before, but “picky” coworkers are still masking and eating lunch at their desks.
Likewise, some coworkers may be thrilled to get back to the office and find it helps their productivity, whereas other people may be feeling the reverse. People’s circumstances and natures are different, so your perspective won’t be identical to someone else’s. If a leader or coworker is shouting from the rooftop about how we need to get back to the office to regain productivity and camaraderie, they’re probably overgeneralizing from their own perspective and experience.
The solution to all of this is tolerance, acceptance, and refraining from gossip.
4. Be intentional about retaining the best parts of WFH and office-life.
Working from home was a big natural experiment. You might’ve learned a bunch about what helps and hurts your productivity, and helps you feel happy. Some of these insights will be practical, like you learned you really need the two huge monitors you had at the office. Or, you might’ve found yourself eating a better lunch at home, or taking more walks, and that those behaviors helped you mentally.
Some of your insights into yourself may also have been social. What did you learn about the social rhythms that best support your productivity? Did you develop new strategies for getting deep work done? Did you manage interruptions differently? Did you develop more efficient ways of communicating? What did you miss about seeing your coworkers in-person? What did you miss about not going to conventions or doing business travel?
Our behavior and habits are very influenced by our environment. If there are pandemic habits and pluses you want to keep when you change environments and go back to the office, you’ll need to be very intentional about how you establish those. You’ll need to purposefully form those habits in your new (but old) office environment. Without this, you’ll quickly go back to doing everything the way you did before.
Good habits that felt solid and well-established when you were working from home (like lunchtime walks or healthy lunches) will become very fragile when your environment and routines shift back to the office. You’ll need to establish these habits almost from square one, as if they were completely new habits. This is because habits need consistent cues, and the cues you had at home will likely no longer be present, at least not in the same way.
Feeling anxious about going back to the office doesn’t mean you’re fragile or have poor coping skills. There are good reasons that these types of transitions spike our anxiety. Try the tips mentioned here to navigate the shift as smoothly as possible, and to better understand the perspectives of your colleagues and how they may be navigating the transition back, too.