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Returning to Office After COVID Could Be Stressful

By Dora Mekouar

Being transparent about the return-to-office plan and normalizing feelings of anxiety are two ways employers can ease worker concerns, says organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody.

College professor Ravi Gajendran taught his classes remotely for months, until Florida International University asked him to return to the office in preparation for the eventual resumption of normal operations.

“Just changing your routine involves some amount of cognitive effort,” says Gajendran. “I was so comfortable just getting up from bed and going over to my computer, setting it on and having a bath whenever I wanted, not having to dress up, not having to iron my clothes, and not having to worry about commuting.”

College professor Ravi Gajendran taught his classes remotely for months until Florida International University called him back into the office. (Florida International University)

As chair of the Department of Global Leadership and Management in the College of Business, Gajendran did a significant amount of administrative work remotely as well.

“Many of these things that were taken for granted for a year now have to change, and so people need to adjust the routines. And every time people are changing routines, it’s not so simple as turning on a switch,” he says. “It's an adjustment. Yes, I do feel more tired at the end of it all.”

Now that half of all U.S. adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, millions of Americans who’ve worked from home during the pandemic are starting to wonder if they’ll be called back to the office anytime soon.

It’s a switch up that comes at a time when many are already experiencing higher-than-normal feelings of stress and anxiety.

“We have folks who are struggling. People don't like change. Many people currently are very isolated. Many are scared of the virus, of the possibility of contracting and passing it along to others,” says Kristen Carpenter, chief psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody expects that transitioning back to the office will be more challenging than switching to full time telework at the start of the pandemic in spring of 2020.

“People are going to have anxiety around picking the commute back up, getting into their routine, getting accustomed to the new protocol in their offices, working with people who have a different view of the virus, and maybe take different precautions or fewer precautions,” says Swody, director of assessment at Thrive Leadership.

She also anticipates some concern related to interactions with coworkers and supervisors.

“I also think we're going to see more social anxiety because as we've been working from home some social skills have eroded since we're not used to making small talk in person anymore,” she says. “I think there's going to be a lot of awkwardness and some strain related to that as people get back into the office and see people after this time of isolation.”

FILE -- Large-scale workforce surveys suggest that most people want to come back to work, at least for some of the time, says psychologist Kristen Carpenter of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

In the short term, people might also be dealing with sensory overload.

“People will need to sort of readjust to a very high-stimulus environment again, where there are all the sounds, smells and sights and all that, of the office place, and of the commute, and the traffic,” says Timothy Golden, a professor of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It may be a little bit of a sensory adjustment period in the very short term until people get reacclimated to being in a work environment with many different people, in many different sounds and activities around them.”

But studies show that some people will welcome a return to the office.

“That's particularly true for our younger workers, our Gen Z's and millennials,” says Carpenter. “They want to come back in the office, at least part of the time, in part because it does offer such great social opportunity and social connection. So, for those who are feeling isolated, the prospect of coming back to the workplace might be a very good thing.”

FILE -- Anybody who's been directly affected by COVID-19 will likely have more reluctance and more reticence in returning to the office, says organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody.

A person’s thought processes and how they organize their life could also impact how individuals handle returning to their workplace.

“Some people prefer what's known as segmentation, where they prefer to have their work separated from their family, mentally as well as physically,” Golden says. “But some people are what's known as integrators, where they prefer to have their work intermixed with their family life.”

While a great deal of uncertainty still surrounds the topic, the experts agree that a return to the office won’t be as simple as flipping a switch, which means that employers will have a role to play in easing workers through the transition.

“Hopefully, their employers will give them a reasonably long lead time and some kind of the flexible return to the office,” Carpenter says. “And that certainly is advice I would give to employers implementing a return to work — be flexible to accommodate, as best you can, people's differential needs.”