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Back-to-Office Anxiety: Shades of the First Day of School

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Road sign pointing to stress, management, positivity
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On June 21, my staff resumes work in our office after the 15-month involuntary hiatus created by COVID-19. Team discussions have resulted in my mind drifting back to a sweeter time in my distant past — returning to school each autumn. The end of summer started with tearful goodbyes to camp friends and concluded with a nervous night before the first day of school when I would pick out the perfect outfit and worry about making new friends. As I prepare the office for my team’s return, some of those anxious feelings are flooding back.
 
Whether you plan to return to your workspace full or part-time, I’ve compiled five tips to help you prepare physically and mentally for what will be a psychologically jarring first week.
 
1. At least three weeks before your return, gradually adjust your sleep schedule. Go to bed earlier, so you can wake up earlier. During the shutdown, many of us availed ourselves of the myriad of streaming services, staying up late to binge-watch the latest release, then rolling out of bed three minutes before start time — with barely enough wiggle room to don at least an appropriate shirt… no pants or shoes needed. Most workers have at least a 20-minute commute, plus a more appropriate grooming schedule, so leave yourself at least 40 minutes plus your commute time. Why three weeks? Experts say that a new habit takes a minimum of three weeks to form, so start by shaving a few minutes off the evening, then the morning, and increase every few days.
 
2. Did you gain the infamous 19 pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic? Many people say that they will start their exercise routines their first week back to the office. Talk about setting yourself up for failure — week one is going to be traumatic enough. Like my recommendations above, begin your exercise routine at the same time as your sleep schedule modulation — at least three weeks before. Healthcare professionals emphasize starting off slowly with moderate walking, swimming, or biking.
 
3. Assess your wardrobe. Pajamas aren’t appropriate for the office, and you know it. Most offices, including mine, specify a business casual dress code. My staff once asked me why it mattered what they wore because we don’t visit our clients in person, but instead perform all consulting and project management work remotely. It matters for two reasons: First, one team member’s sense of what’s appropriate can be far from others’ perception of the same. Second, studies over the years have demonstrated that wearing business-appropriate clothing reminds you to work in a business-like manner — with your speech, writing, and general demeanor. In the coming weeks, buy yourself a few new outfits to mix and match, including shoes that are both comfortable and professional. Then, similar to that night before school starting, pick out your favorite one, get a haircut, and feel like you’re starting a new job.
 
4. Take your health into your own hands, and don’t expect your employer to be the model. Although I’m providing my team with all kinds of health-promoting items when they return, many employers are leaving it up to the employee to bring their own sanitization supplies. Here’s a shortlist of to-dos:
 
  • Even if you don’t need to wear a mask to or at work, get a clean, new, well-fitting three-ply cloth mask exclusively for work that doesn’t have any logos or words.
  • Bring a personal bottle of hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes for your work area.
  • Bring your own water bottle and coffee mug, and wash it yourself to be sure it is clean.
  • Consider investing in an air purifier for your office or cubical. My personal favorite is a SilverOnyx five-speed model that includes ionization and UV-light cleansing. The three-speed and other similar sized models are noisier — so I’d rather give up a little extra real estate on my desk for a quieter machine.
5. Get vaccinated! Seriously, just get the vaccination, and help protect everyone, including those who already got it and those who can’t get it due to medical reasons. And, iIf you are already fully dosed, then your fifth suggestion is bringing two people you care about to get their vaccines. Sometimes it only takes a friend to say, “Let’s go; I’ll take you.” Some employers are offering incentives, so don’t be afraid to ask or even suggest it.
 
Next Monday, my staff returns to the office that I’ve been working alone in all this time. On Sunday night, you can bet I’ll be selecting that new outfit and going to bed early. But right now, I have to dash, because I’m working out tonight — my third week in a new gym.
 
Learn more about workplace strategies at Enterprise Connect, Sept. 27-29, in Orlando, Fla. Use the promo code NJAL200 to receive $200 off your registration.

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