Updated: Jul 22
Remember March 2020? When the management at your company first told you that you'd begin working from home, effective immediately? The uncertain smile from your manager, being thanked for being so flexible, and the assurances that it wasn't for long? I remember that. I also remember how many companies were exceedingly kind to their employees in the following weeks. Leadership sent out emails more often to keep everyone informed, managers learned how to use Zoom (and MS Teams, and WebEx, and Google Meet...), and articles were shared company-wide about the importance of mental health in the midst of everything.
Now it's April 2022. The work from home (WFH) era lasted longer than many companies intended, but now many are moving toward coming back to the office, if they haven't already come back. Whether you think that coming back is a great idea or the worst idea ever, it looks different in 2022. Not to say that it's unkind, it's just different. And I think the biggest difference between moving to WFH in 2020 and returning to the office in 2022 is the focus on mental health and on connectivity. In March 2020, discussions swirled around how to care for mental health and feel connected to your job. Now, there's less of those discussions happening for the return.
It is a real miss.
Coming back to the office after 2 years of cozily working from home has repercussions on mental health, just as the shift to working from home did. It's incredibly tiring for everyone to be plunged back into the environment of working in the office, and that fatigue taxes our mental health. For example, reconnecting with your coworkers and being more socially available for longer in the day is exhausting, just like learning how to feel connected while being physically isolated from your team was tiring in 2020. We had all trained ourselves pre-WFH to be sociable for a whole work day, five days a week. Now, returning to the office is overstimulating for many of us (introverts and extroverts alike), and re-socializing ourselves to be "on" for 8-10 hours straight is hard to do!
We're also missing that emphasis on keeping a strong connection to your job and to your company in 2022. There was a big push for that in 2020, and employee engagement surveys nationwide showed that employees cared a lot more than they had before about maintaining a feeling of belonging to their company. In 2022, it seems we've forgotten to keep having that discussion. Being suddenly uprooted (again) to come back to the office after being remote for 2 years might make your feeling of belonging feel more shaky. It sounds counterintuitive, but it's all about that feeling of comfort. And for those who didn't want to return, this decision feels forceful and callous, which may cause them to feel less connected to their job as well.
I want this blog post to be a reminder to you to be kind to yourself if you're going through that shift back to working at the office, and to keep caring for your mental health just like we did in 2020. Check in with yourself:
How am I feeling? If you're feeling great, great! But if you don't, don't try to power through it. Instead, acknowledge that the return to the office is weighing on you.
What specifically about the return is hard for me? Is it the physical presence of your manager? Perhaps there's a particular coworker who you wish to avoid? Or are you miffed that you were brought back when you felt that your productivity was better at home? Try to identify where your stress, anxiety, or other mystic bad feeling is coming from. And don't discount the possibility that it's coming from multiple places!
Can it be mediated? Are there conference rooms or solitary work pods at your office that you can shut yourself in if you need some quiet time? Are you taking your regular breaks? Is there an opportunity to discuss with your manager a flexible hybrid option? Not all office woes can be solved easily, but there are some that can. Finding solutions for those can help alleviate your stress and maintain your sanity.
And if you're a manager, consider talking with your employees more as they roll back into the office. Here's some questions you can consider asking them:
How are you feeling? I know, that's the same question as above, but explicitly having the conversation with your employee and checking the state of their mental health is the first step.
How connected are you feeling to your work? Your direct report may feel a little bashful answering this one honestly, but try to get a read on if they feel severed from the company culture and mission.
What support do you need from me? And really listen to the answer on this one! If your employee needs to adjust their workload for a little while or if they need help getting along with a coworker in person, be ready to supply what they need.
This is the second major shift we have had to go through, and it cannot be understated how these shifts affect us mentally and emotionally. We want to feel connected to our company, but we also want to feel comfortable. If either of those things are lacking, and if we're more worn out at the end of the day than we used to be, you can bet that mental health issues and burnout are just around the corner.