As the duration of lock down and quarantine periods keep being extended (some indefinitely) and weeks of working from home seem to stretch ahead of us like a pyjama-clad, Zoom delivered purgatory, it can be hard to visualize what it’s going to be like when restrictions are lifted and we start figuring out what the new world of work looks like.
This is indeed a big subject with many different moving parts and facets but for now, let’s imagine that at some point in a few months’ time, we all emerge, blinking, into the sunlight and have to return to what we did in the Before Times. When an employee has been on an extended leave of absence, its good, nay great, practice to have a solid Return to Work program in place. The gold standard of these include not only the standard welcome back meeting/interview to discuss the absence and check individuals are indeed physically and mentally prepared to return to work, but also on-going support to monitor reintegration both with the work and socially. These programs are in place and are successful because returning to work can be a source of great anxiety.
It’s a natural source of stress, feeling that things have moved on, both with the organisation and your colleagues, while you were away. In some studies, people returning to work even reported symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, where you don’t (or no longer) feel like you really are good at your job and worthy of your achievements and live in fear of being exposed as a fraud. All of this is kind of understandable when you think about one individual out of a team or organisation feeling like they are now on the outside of a group they used to be firmly on the inside of.
But what about when its all of us? Many corporates are doing a great job of keeping people connected, keeping the work moving on. Will we all escape the less positive aspects of returning to work because we have all been in the same boat? It seems unlikely.
In fact, when you think about it, it seems perhaps naïve to think it’s all going to go smoothly and that everything will return, overnight, to how it was. The burning question is, what are the big issues going to be? Occupational and work psychology can perhaps help us with a theoretical prediction of what some of the concerns might be, however there really is no precedent for what we are going to experience.
Common sense (and a touch of behavioural knowledge) would tell us that keeping a dialogue open and helping people to share their experiences is going to be a good start. When people realise they are not the only ones feeling a certain way or experiencing certain things, it helps achieve a level of comfort and acceptance. However, spare a thought for your HR department. While they are normally (and rightly so) the owners of such processes as ‘Back to Work’, in this instance, they cannot be expected to suddenly be the experts in whatever it is we are going to experience. Nobody is. HR are also going through the same thing as everyone else at the same time and will need the same kind of support.
So, what do we do when nobody (not even HR!) knows what to do? As HR professionals, the expectation is always on us to be the role model and steadying hand on the organisation and, thankfully, this is something we can continue to be the experts in.