Anyone who has ever taken more than 10 days off for vacation, healthcare needs, or any other reason will be able to relate to the feeling of nervousness about going back into the office after a period of time away. Long-term absence is usually associated with prolonged sickness, parental leave or a career break – a global pandemic, however, is a relatively new reason. As many of us now prepare to re-enter the physical workspace after a 20-month hiatus that’s had us all swap the trappings of a shared working environment for the relative comforts of our own home, a great many people are naturally wary, apprehensive, and downright anxious about returning to our old way of doing business – and all that entails.
Putting the concerns over the presence of COVID-19 to one side, it is very normal to be feeling a little uneasy about resuming our previous working practices and how we used to do things. It is also natural to question some of our capabilities, having been constantly stymied with what we could do over the lockdown periods. Things like making the morning commute, presenting in meetings with an in-person audience, creating small talk with colleagues and clients, and spending time in the company of those we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with, are no longer common practice. We need to relearn and refamiliarize ourselves with many of our old strategies and patterns of behaviours that used to be routine and almost automatic for us. Furthermore, weight gain, ill-fitting work clothes, the signs of aging, and the visible impacts of stress and worry from the past 20 months are also now causing concern, making the daunting thought of a return to the office even more unappealing.
The good news, however, is that we are all in this together – with a large swath of the working population reporting apprehensions about going back to a physical working location. Research conducted by Bupa Health Clinic has found that 65% of British workers are feeling anxious about going back to the office at present. One rational reason for such apprehension with returning to the workplace has been identified in a previous study produced by Survation for Vodafone UK prior to the outbreak, which found that more than 1 in 3 people experience a loss in self-esteem after spending a significant time away from work. This research uncovered that 37% workers who return to work after a year away typically experience a significant loss in confidence in their abilities and their worth to the company. The same study found that reacclimatising to working life also proved to be extremely challenging, with 31% of female respondents and 25% of male respondents stating more support was needed.
Alongside the comfort of knowing that what we are experiencing is perfectly normal, further good news is that there are things we can do to help counteract any negative feeling or loss in self-esteem that we might be suffering from right now. Confidence is a soft skill that can be developed; a state of mind that can be influenced and shaped the more we choose to exercise it. For the majority of us, having worked from home for the past 20 months, we have developed a new normal and our comfort zone has naturally shrunk. Comments of “feeling smaller” or “life becoming narrower” have become increasingly common in 2021. Now is the time, therefore, to make efforts to shake off the shackles of inhibition that have limited us for so long, throw ourselves into things that make us uneasy, and start embracing the many benefits of working in a physical office environment once again. And the first step to doing this, is to rejuvenate our self-confidence.
8 Ways to Succeed
This article explores 8 ways we can mentally prepare ourselves for a smooth and stress-free return to the office, with bolstered self-belief and unabashed poise.
- Be self-aware. Acknowledge and validate your feelings about returning to a physical workplace and seek to understand what specifically you are concerned about. Working out why you feel anxious is a great place to start – but you need to be honest with yourself. Think logically and look for ‘evidence’ that your concerns are rooted in reality; this alone will usually help to undermine and dispel many unfounded worries. Once you have a clearer picture of your true apprehensions, you can start to address them proactively and with a little creativity. One effective method here is mind-mapping your fears, and then matching each concern to a potential solution. Also, air your concerns with your nearest and dearest and see if things can be put in place to support you during this period of transition, especially in regards to household chores, life admin, and other obligations on our time.
- Find a purpose. Shift your focus on to what you want to achieve once back in the office and start directing energies and motivation into these projects immediately. By concentrating on tasks at hand and the outcomes you seek, you won’t have the time or the inclination to breathe life into your worries or fears. You will be too busy (and therefore distracted) in executing and working towards your goals. Be sure to track your progress too, and try to set a new challenge every day that moves you closer to your overall goal.
- Benjamin Franklin once said that “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. Planning ahead and making adequate preparations is key to a successful lift-off in any endeavour, and it allows you to make allowances for unforeseen occurrences. Contact your boss and colleagues to find out as much as you can about the situation, and any changes you should be aware of ahead of time. This allows you to reflect on what such changes might mean for you and your role, and empowers you to choose how to respond to them (rather than reacting out of shock or surprise). Consider what adjustments you might need to make yourself and what resources you have to help as you adapt. You might also want to consider what new skills might be needed in this new business landscape. Also, the evening before you return to the office, take some time to plan the day ahead, and don’t leave any detail to chance. Plan your route, check traffic and transport reports, make your lunch, choose your outfit, set an alarm, and know exactly what time you will be leaving the house. All of which will help to reduce stress the next morning.
- Remember the ‘Good ol’ days’. Reminisce on what you used to enjoy about working in an office. This might be the camaraderie with colleagues, the view from your desk, freshly brewed coffee in the pantry, an air-conditioned environment, the frenetic buzz in the atmosphere, or Friday evening après-work drinks. Whatever it may be, identify the positives, ruminate on what they gave you personally, and prioritise re-engaging with these treats as part of your ‘return-to-the-office’ plan.
- Communicate with others. Share any concerns you have with your line manager about returning to the office and discuss any specific needs you might have. Open an honest conversation with your colleagues on how you’re all feeling, and be supportive of others who feel similar to yourself. Also, be aware that others will be responding to the transition in different ways.
In addition, some people might have changed (in both large and small ways) and some might not be used to being in the company of others or in public areas again. Accept people for who they are today, not who they were when you were last together. Be encouraging and sympathetic, and allow colleagues the time and space they need to adjust to the new situation. Consider how you interact with others and be prepared to reset boundaries. Also, communicate significant changes that others need to be aware of surrounding you, and help to manage the expectations of others in terms of your availability, responsibilities and working hours. Likewise, be understanding of changes to other’s working patterns too.
- Find a friend. Research by Gallup has found that having a workplace friend is one of the most significant determining factors for employee engagement, productivity and longevity for an individual worker. It can reduce stress, increase innovation and inspiration, drive greater performance, improve mood and heighten one’s confidence. Deliberately seek out new friends where you can, and make efforts to connect on a deeper level over your shared experience of pandemic life. Speak to your workplace buddy about how you are both feeling and talk through any anxieties, and how these could be counteracted. Check in each day and be there for one another through the ups and downs as you acclimate to a new way of working.
- Celebrate past successes – including acknowledging your resilience. As a species, humans are excellent at dwelling on past failures and labouring on what hasn’t worked. We are not so good at celebrating where we have been successful – no matter how big or small. Now is the chance to relive all of your achievements and moments of pride from the past 20 months. This could include the adaptability shown to adjust to working from home; the sheer mental fortitude to keep getting out of bed every day; the organisation and time management skills needed to balance both work and home / life demands; or the fact that you are so valuable to your organisation you still have a job to go to everyday. Create a spreadsheet or a Word doc and list every success down, taking time to reflect on each line item individually (including why you are proud of it and how this might help you in the future). Recognise how far you have come and everything you have achieved under such unprecedented circumstances. Another tip is to keep an email folder and save all emails that include positive feedback and recognition for a job well done. When you are feeling low, simply revisit this file and take a moment to see yourself through other people’s eyes – and the impact your contributions make to the business at large. Its also critical to take stock of the many things you have learnt during this period (new skills, fresh knowledge, and insights about both the world at large and about yourself) and to acknowledge traits and attitudes that you have developed. The pandemic has been enormously stressful for many of us, clouded in uncertainty and plagued by fear, and it has taken a great deal of resilience to get through it all. Take stock of the new soft skills that you have developed and think about how you apply them to challenges when back in the office.
- Be patient and be kind to yourself. Remind yourself there are going to be things that you haven’t done in a long while; so, don’t expect your initial attempts to be perfect first time round. Adopt a growth mindset and allow for mistakes or not getting things right immediately. It’s all a natural part of the process. Also, if you begin to feel overwhelmed or exhausted from the workload and being back in an actual office again, surrounded by people, give yourself a short break. Take 10 – 15 minutes to refresh the mind and stretch your legs. Short periods of rest have been scientifically proven to increase productivity, boost clarity of thought and improve mood. In addition, when at your desk, don’t forget to breathe. This may sound obvious but taking time to practice some deep breathing exercises increases oxygen in our blood circulation, calms the mind and relaxes the body.
Returning to the office presents a series of challenges and complexities that we haven’t had to think about for the past 20 months. It’s perfectly normal to be feeling less than our usual buoyant selves about the prospect of heading back into the workplace. To increase one’s confidence as we prepare for the ‘big return’, our advice is simply to be positive in your outlook; be proactive in your approach; be patient with yourself and others; and give yourself time, space and permission to adjust at your own pace.
If you wish to learn more about building a robust and unshakable confidence that comes from a genuine place, why not check out our dedicated ‘Increasing confidence’ page right here.
If you would like to learn more about the Dale Carnegie Course, our signature programme for helping people expand their confidence to achieve personal and professional success, click here.
Pete Burbidge is the General Manager for Dale Carnegie London.