If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself in a situation like this a few times over the last year. A friend invites you to a gathering. They assure you that everything will be safe, outdoors, social distance, masks, you know the drill.
You feel torn—on the one hand, you would love nothing more than to just cut loose and sip rosé with your near-and-dears. On the other hand, you feel a nagging anxiety. What if everyone has one drink and decides to relax all precautions?
We’ve all had to negotiate these uncomfortable realities for more than a year now. The truth is that even if we know a situation is theoretically within the bounds of Covid safety, it can be hard to silence the anxiety that has seemed to pervade many social situations outside of our “pods.”
I’m getting stressed just writing this! And the truth is that it’s totally normal to feel anxious in this type of situation. After all, anxiety comes from a time when we were all fighting for survival.
A paper examining the biological roots of anxiety describes anxiety as “a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential.”
Ahem, like a giant global pandemic that literally travels through the air to infect us? Anxiety-producing much? Of course we’re all feeling heightened stress levels now that we’re confronting the biggest threat to our collective health and safety in our lifetimes.
Thankfully, many of us have gotten good at navigating the reality of socializing during Covid. We should all give ourselves a pat on the back for having the awkward conversations, keeping our masks on and saying “no” when we didn’t feel safe about a situation.
But what about when these same considerations and boundaries apply not just to our personal lives, but also our professional ones? How are we supposed to navigate these difficult conversations if it may feel as if our jobs, our very livelihoods are hanging in the balance?
Well, if you’re feeling a bit of anxiety about what the future might hold when your office reopens, or transitions to a hybrid model, or about any aspect of what reopening might mean for our work lives, I’d like to share a few thoughts and insights about this complicated transition time.
If you have mixed feelings about heading back into the office, you’re not alone
Last year, early in the pandemic, it seemed as if most of us couldn’t wait to get back to our usual places of work. A survey from May of 2020 found that 72% of remote U.S. workers were eager to return to the office.
In these earlier months, we were still hoping that Covid-19 might just be a short blip on our collective radar, and that we would be able to return quickly to a very similar version of “normal.” Perhaps as time has gone on, we’ve realized that a lot of the changes and adjustments we’ve made will likely be at least semi-permanent.
Or maybe we’ve all just gotten a little more used to the pajama bottoms and meetings from our comfy couch lifestyle. Whatever has changed over the past year, it seems many workers have more complicated feelings about returning to the office, especially full time.
A recent study by the Harvard Business School found that 80% of remote workers don’t want to return to the office full time. One in three of the workers surveyed felt that their work performance had improved while working from home, and an additional third stated that they were able to be more focused on their work while working remotely.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that workers don’t ever want to see the inside of their former offices again. Only 27% of workers said that they would prefer to stay remote full time, and 61% stated that they would prefer a mix of remote and in-person work, or a hybrid model.
There are some who feel an even stronger aversion to returning to the office. A recent online survey found that 29% of workers would quit their job if they were forced to return to in-person work.
With so much still in flux, and the landscape of Covid-19 seeming to change every day, it’s hard to get a pulse on the feelings of workers. I’ve honestly seen data that paints many different pictures of how workers feel about reopening.
A recent study by Eden Workplace even found that within another sample of workers, 85% expressed that they do want to return to the office, but only if proper safety precautions were in place.
It can be hard to understand or account for all this seemingly contradictory data, however I think that the real story it tells is that there is a wide spectrum of opinions about how, when or even if it makes sense to return to in-person work.
All this to say, if you have mixed feelings, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, it seems the majority of workers also feel conflicted. While it may feel that you are stuck toeing the corporate line when it comes to in-person work and reopening, remember that businesses will have to follow the lead of their workers.
Safety is most important, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself
One thing that the Eden Workplace study makes clear is that when it comes to returning to work, Covid-19 safety is at the top of everyone’s mind.
Even if you feel strongly about your boundaries when it comes to Covid safety, that doesn’t mean there won’t come a time where you feel pressure to return to the office, or to engage in work in a way that is less than comfortable for you.
This is why I feel that now is one of the most important times for you to feel empowered to speak your mind and advocate for yourself and for your needs.
I know that this is sometimes easier said than done. Over the past year, we’ve all flexed our “saying no” muscles with our friends. But it’s probably easier to tell your freshman roommate that you won’t be able to make her gender-reveal party than it is to tell your boss you’re not comfortable attending the company’s post-Covid retreat.
I know these conversations can be tough, but I believe in you. To help you navigate these difficult convos, here are strategies that can be helpful in feeling empowered to articulate your needs:
In addition to these strategies here are some helpful resources on reopening offices.
Don’t be afraid to speak up if you are uncomfortable, or feel that your place of work or co-workers are not moving forward with best practices as they relate to Covid-19.
Much is still yet unknown, learn to live with the unknown
We may be beginning to see the end of Covid-19, but it’s really important to remember that it’s just the beginning of the end. There is much that is yet unknown about how things will look for certain industries and in certain office spaces.
I truly believe that it will take a long time to see the real lasting impacts of Covid-19 on the world of work, and a long time until we may feel completely safe outside of our own homes, and our own pods.
This is why I think that the next phase of things will require some very careful and mindful practices.
Whenever I’m confronted with trying to hold many unknowns and possibly contrary ideas in mind, I return to a mantra borrowed from a therapist friend. It’s very simple:
And in truth, “it” can be anything. As it applies to this situation, the questions that come up in your mind might be:
As we’ve learned to navigate living and working through the pandemic, so much of our behavior and thinking has been about calculating and reducing risk. In truth, if we are returning to work—and realistically, as has been the case every time we left our houses over the past year—it is not possible to completely eliminate all risk.
We can reduce risk by safe practices, but, as with many challenges in life, we may have to become comfortable with stepping into certain degrees of unknown.
When I start to think and worry about these types of things, I often return to “it’s uncertain.”
I want to mention that before you give yourself over to this type of thinking, it’s important that you have established your boundaries and made sure that you have advocated for your needs.
If you have all the facts, and you have done everything possible to ensure that you are keeping yourself as safe and comfortable as possible, but you still feel that nagging “what if?” then it might be worthwhile to spend a bit of time with this mantra.
“It’s uncertain” isn’t about dismissing your real feelings or concerns. Rather, it’s about accepting when you have done everything you can, and that there comes a time when we have to be comfortable with the unknown.
This has understandably been a very anxious year, and the anxiety continues as we all try to understand and process the changes of the past year and what’s to come. But try to remember that it is also an exciting time. I truly believe we are going to move forward toward a time better and brighter than ever before.