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Back at the office? ‘Don’t expect to be productive right away’

For some it will sound like music to their ears, but for others is may sound less appealing: now the advice on working from home has changed, we can once again go to the office. After a period of working from home, which for some lasted almost two years (with maybe a short break), it can be a big transition. Aukje Nauta, Professor by Special Appointment of Enhancing Individuals in a Dynamic Work Context, explains how to make the return to the office as painless as possible.

When we return to the office after a long period of working from home, what should we be aware of?

‘It’ll feel a bit strange for everyone. How do you greet people, for instance? Not three kisses, nor a handshake or hug. But perhaps a nod of the head or a wave.  It’s okay for this to feel a bit strange because we don’t yet have a new code for greeting others. If someone comes too close for comfort, we should be able to say so. So it’s good to be open about this, for instance by asking everyone in your first team meeting questions such as: What do you find tricky. What do you prefer? What new social norms can we agree on? And how can we address any concerns with others? It would be good if team leaders would make sure these kinds of things are out in the open. This will make it easier for staff to deal with them.’

How can you make the return a positive experience not only for yourself, but also for your immediate colleagues?

‘The same first team meeting should also be about finding out what others need. Take the time to talk to your colleagues. Don’t expect to be productive straight away. You may all begin by concluding that you don’t have to achieve anything in the first week, and that you will use that time to get used to one another and the new situation. At the same time, we will be doing more hybrid working, with some people in the office and others at home.  People will need to get used to this too. Some people will think: it’s always the same suspects working from home. You need to be able to voice thoughts like this, for the sake of an open and therefore a pleasant work environment.’

You may have new colleagues. Is there anything special you can do for them?

‘Give them a warm welcome. But you can also decide to assign new colleagues a buddy. You have to make them feel at home. New staff aren’t familiar with the organisational culture: what you can – and can’t – do and say. Can you take stationery out of the cupboard without asking? Where is the stationery cupboard? How does the computer work? It’s about very practical things that may seem trivial, but they are intrinsic to working in an organisation.  It helps if there is someone that new people can ask these sorts of simple questions.’

What if you are really reluctant to leave the peace and safety of working from home?

‘My suspicion is that we have all become a bit more introvert during the pandemic. That also means that we find it less easy to deal with stimuli. That’s something you also need to be able to talk about. It’ll be a weight off your shoulders. The same is also true for the anxiety that some colleagues may have about the virus. One way to make it easier to talk about this is as follows: during a meeting draw an imaginary line from one corner of the room to the other. Say that the line runs from “not in the slightest bit scared of Covid” to “terrified of Covid.” Ask people to stand on the point on the line that reflects how they feel. Then let them discuss it. It could be that someone who is scared of Covid explains that they have an autoimmune disease, which means the vaccine doesn’t work for them. Such conversations teach you as colleagues to take one another into account.’

Father with two small children trying to work at his laptop
Good for the concentration but working from home was a considerable challenge at times

If you find it really difficult to concentrate in the office, what can you do?

‘We all found it nothing out of the ordinary for lots of people to share an office. But we can now see that that isn’t always such a good thing and that people can’t concentrate properly. We can get used to it, but why don’t we agree that from now on fewer people will be in the room at the same time?  For concentration and peace I expect that people will continue to work from home, one or two days a week. It’s a legitimate need that you as an employer should support.’

What about you? Are you looking forward to returning to the office?

‘I’ve been working from home more than in the office for more than ten years already. But the one day that I usually was in Leiden is something I’m definitely looking forward to. In particular just having lunch with colleagues or watching a lecture live. The main reason for me to come to Leiden was to get to know my colleagues. The informal encounters are important. A lunchtime chat sparks ideas, and it’s fun too of course.’

Three tips from Aukje Nauta to make your first week back at the office as enjoyable as possible:

  • State your needs for your work, at home and in the office. What do you need? Also when working with others.
  • Allow yourself not to be productive in your first week back in the office.
  • Reflect on what this homeworking ‘experiment’ has taught you and what you want to carry on doing differently.

We published this article earlier in September, but then again a longer period of working from home followed. The current advice from the government is: work at the office for a maximum of half of the working time.

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