Employee advice for office re-entry during COVID-19

During shutdowns aimed at controlling the spread of coronavirus, many people working from home saw their roles in the homefront amplified, and the demands of the moment required them to multitask like never before, says Professor of the Practice in Systems Thinking and Design Gerald Suarez at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

The line between personal responsibilities and professional ones blurred, he adds. Transitioning from virtual staff meetings to homeschooling, caregiving and then back to other work engagements became the new normal.

“Juggling and blending our responsibilities has been exhausting. But along the way, we’ve developed new routines, stayed connected with friends, enjoyed time with the family, and exercised,” he says.

“We picked up new hobbies and perhaps found that our time previously spent commuting is now dedicated to more fulfilling activities. We missed going to the office, but now we are vested in this new reality and people might struggle with going back.”

Transitioning back to the office can be not only draining, but also treacherous because of potential emotional landmines.  To ease into this period of workplace reentry, Suarez offers the following advice.

Avoid comparing then to now. Understand that your work environment will not be the way it used to be, Suarez says. Don’t spend your energy trying to force past routines into the present environment. Instead, focus on the opportunities and benefits of this new setting, embrace the differences and leverage the moment to innovate and introduce positive change, he says.

Be empathic. Be mindful that those around you are experiencing the same crisis but in different ways, Suarez says. They are adapting and may unconsciously display new behaviors or attitudes.

Calibrate your goals. In a dynamic environment, it is important to revisit and adjust your priorities and goals. Doing so will keep you focused and productive in the current context, Suarez says. Keep in perspective that your expectations of teamwork and collaboration, as well as team spirit will not be the same, and it may impact your efficiency and productivity, he says.

Voice your concerns. If you are confronted with job requirements that put you in a risky or vulnerable position, speak up, Suarez says. All levels of the organization are grappling with the crisis, and sometimes decisions and actions may inadvertently put team members in compromising situations. The environment is prone to unintended consequences and your perspective can bring them a welcome early warning signal, he says.

Stay proactive. Uncertainty and ambiguity grow if you stand still. Unproductive worry can be paralyzing. Being proactive will give you a sense of agency and control about the way forward, Suarez says. It will keep you agile and responsive to address emerging changes and most importantly, it will allow you to influence the character of the future rather than waiting for it.

About Suarez: An organizational psychology PhD-holder, Suarez has authored “Leader of One” and served as Director of Presidential Quality for the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Contact Suarez: jgsuarez@umd.edu

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