Returning to the Office: Whether, When and How?

May 2021

“[Microsoft] plans to remove restrictions only once the virus acts ‘more like an endemic virus such as the seasonal flu,’ an executive wrote.”

In the U.S. and some other parts of the world where Covid-19 vaccines have been available for a few months now, we’re approaching a strange, exciting, anxious and complicated moment: What exactly can we start planning to do now, and when?  Specifically, my leadership coaching clients and organizations with non-essential workers are grappling with the question, How do we plan a safe return to the office?

One of my immediate instincts as a coach is to offer my clients’ inherent wisdom right back to them, and in this case that’s easy to do because I captured the biggest pearls in this blog last April!  As it turns out, the “Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic” during the emergent transition to lockdown tend to mirror – like bookends – much of what the experts are saying now about the back-to-office transition, only in slo-mo and with these three additions:

Thoroughly inquire about the myriad ways you, your colleagues and your organization are very different than you were before Covid-19 arrived. 

We’ve all been transformed – in fundamental, even sacred ways – by our “liminal experiences” of the past year and we are not the same people we were in the spring of 2020.  How do these changes, collectively, affect your organization’s culture and thus inform your design of practical teamwork-supporting plans for whether, when and how to return to the office?  (Check out this short summary of a recent Harvard study showing that 80% of workers do not want to return to full-time office life; and most of those who do want to come back to the office are parents.)  Most organizations in my clientele are already experimenting with hybrid arrangements. What leadership and management strategies will offer you and your employees psychological safety in a hybrid re-opening phase?  (As for physical safety, Google may be showing us the future of office design for long-term hybrid workplaces.) How does your own state of consciousness about leading through this in-between time determine what’s possible for the organization as a whole?

Clarify what the pandemic revealed to you and your organization that you want to keep, and commit to it now.  Make “live lightly” one of them. 

Covid-19’s disruptions to American culture starkly illuminated gaps and subverted our assumptions to the extent that they actually provide a blueprint for societal-level change.  Of course, this it true on organizational and individual scales, too.  For example, many of us have experienced (welcome or unwelcome) opportunities to recapture our “beginner’s mind,” recalibrate our priorities in life, percolate on creative projects, (re-)turn to poetry, and deepen our accountability for racial equity.  What have been the pandemic’s “silver linings” for your organization, your team, and for you?  What have you and your organization learned so far during Covid-19 that you intend to keep, and how will you invest in those commitments with sufficient time, money, energy and attention?  Now that you know how much of an illusion “control” can be, what agility practices will you and your organization employ to “live lightly,” as Jim Dethmer of the Conscious Leadership Group describes it

Cultivate even more (self-)compassion and empathy.  

We are all really tired at this point, and for good reason!  So cut yourself some slack, and cut plenty for everyone around you, too.  Many of us are “languishing” (the “neglected middle child of mental health” between depression and flourishing), even if thus far we have fared relatively well in the pandemic.  And then there are those of us who have not fared well, financially or in health or career or family life – and those who have lost loved ones – particularly in the BIPOC populations disproportionately affected by Covid.  With self-compassion and empathy for others, keep learning about how to maintain well-being in response to the trauma that perhaps you and almost certainly your colleagues of color are going through (in terms of Covid, yes, and also the trauma surfacing amidst the movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder).  Continue expanding your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts and working on your own antiracism.  In DE&I and in everything else, seek to balance accountability with forgiveness in a way that serves the purpose of growth-oriented learning, both your own as well as others’. 

Additional Resources:

  • This is a nerve-racking time, and I recently absorbed some new information about how to view anxiety as a habit that can be unlearned.  In this podcast interview of psychiatrist Jud Brewer by Ezra Klein, I was struck by the role of curiosity in unlearning anxiety, and I also thought it was interesting that research is revealing a mental “flavor” shared by curiosity and kindness.
  • Consider taking the Intercultural Development Inventory®, or IDI®, “the premier cross-cultural assessment of intercultural competence that is used by thousands of individuals and organizations…[to build the competence] to achieve international and domestic diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes.”  Inexpensive for what you get, in my opinion, the inventory is administered like any other web-based instrument, and includes a live debrief session with a certified IDI practitioner.  I found my IDI experience to be accurate and inspiring (even though the assessment showed I have a very long way to grow to get where I want to be in terms of how I handle my encounters with cultural difference).
  • Contemplate this reflection by the late African-American activist and writer, Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
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