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5 Ways to Cope with Return to Office

Expert tips to combat anxiety and reenergize your work routine

spinner image an illustration contrasting a woman working at the office and at home

With the end of the end of national coronavirus public health emergency on May 11, many workplaces and offices are reopening fully — meaning more employees who have been working remotely are being called back to their buildings.

It's a transition that experts say can bring up feelings of stress and trepidation for those who have been working from home, many of whom say they'd be interested in continuing to work remotely even after the pandemic subsides, according to a recent survey by YouGov.

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If you're anxious about the return to the office, consider these 5 strategies to ease the transition to in-person work.

Hold a dress rehearsal

Rehearsing your daily routine is one way to combat first-day jitters, says Connecticut-based clinical psychologist Holly Schiff.

Schiff advises worried clients to plan a “dry run” of their workday: Choose a day to wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed and commute like you normally would. 

This not only gives you the chance to sort out any hitches — for example, has the bus schedule changed since last year? Did you remember to bring your office key card? — but also prepares you physically and mentally for what your new routine will feel like.

Streamline routines and practice self-care

Returning to the office doesn't just mean a change to your workday, but to household routines like childcare arrangements or your sleep schedule that may have shifted during the pandemic.

"Do your best in your home environment to simplify,” says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the author of How to Be Happy at Work. “If your kids were involved in 10 activities prior to the pandemic, maybe seven will do now. If you're the one who does the grocery shopping, keep using [a delivery service]."

Baita, the life and career coach, recommends setting up a weekly time to sit down with the members of your household to openly discuss the transition, particularly during the first month, when family routines might be most in flux.

And don't neglect the basics of self-care, says psychologist Schiff. That means making sure you're getting enough sleep (particularly if you'll need to wake up earlier to commute), exercising and eating well — plus making time for activities that allow you to unwind, like journaling or meditation.

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Build a better workday

Going back to the office also means a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recalibrate” your choices at work, McKee says.

She recommends embracing the adjustment period by prioritizing tasks and activities that were challenging or impossible to do remotely, like face-to-face meetings or catching up with colleagues over lunch — interactions that will also help you return to the social rhythm of office life.

For workers dreading their commute, McKee recommends either finding ways to use your time productively (for instance, can you safely make phone calls en route?) or to unwind, whether that means cueing up some good music, listening to books on tape or simply reflecting on your day.

And once you're home in the evening? “Know when to close the laptop,” Schiff says. The return to the office is a valuable chance to reclaim some of the work-life boundaries that may have eroded during your time working remotely, she says.

Seek (and give) support as needed

While some feelings of anxiety about the return to work are to be expected, Schiff notes that anyone experiencing a level of distress that interferes with daily functioning should consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help.

And don't forget your personal network, Baita says. Knowing which friends you can turn to for support is a crucial part of what she calls “adding people to your toolbox.”

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McKee also notes that the office itself can be a source of meaningful personal connection during this time — and that personal bonds between colleagues have been shown to make us more productive and effective at work.

Bottom line? “We've all changed as a result of the pandemic,” she says. “Get to know people again and give yourself the permission to … care about each other.”

Mind your mindset

Ultimately, experts stress that the transition back to work is just that: an adjustment period best approached with an open mind.

To that end, Schiff recommends that her clients practice something called radical acceptance: the recognition that while you can't control whether you're being called back into the office (or other people's behavior once you're there), that you can take charge of your own feelings and behavior in response to changing circumstances.

Similarly, Baita notes that strict expectations or preconceived notions about the back-to-work transition can cause unneeded stress and frustration. Instead, she recommends cultivating an open mindset (think: I don't know how this will be instead of I should know how this works). Then, nonjudgmentally observe and take note of how you feel your first few weeks back and adjust accordingly, she says.

Another helpful way to reframe the transition? Think about the return to work in terms of future momentum, not regression. As she puts it: “You're not going back. You're going forward.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally was published on May 27, 2021. It has been updated with information about the end of the COVID-19 national public health emergency and the photo has been changed.

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