Tips for heading back to the office

16th Jun 2021

Commuting, Zoom rooms and reconnecting with colleagues - we have compiled some top tips to help your return to the office environment.

Return to the office

After more than a year of COVID-induced remote working, the lifting of some restrictions heralds a return to the office environment for many.

Getting back to the office might have you breathing a sigh of relief at finally being able to work without domestic distractions, or perhaps you are worrying about how on earth you are going to get back into a morning routine that involves more than switching on your laptop.

Whether you are keen to get back to your desk, or dreading the return to commuting, there is no question that heading back to the office is yet another change to be negotiated after a long period of disruption. As with all change, adjusting can be an unsettling process.

We’ve compiled some information on how you could approach the anxieties and excitements of the great return, together with some of the key issues that will feature in post-COVID life.

Office policy and work practice changes

Most workplaces will not revert exactly to pre-COVID life. The pandemic has precipitated greater understanding of infection transmissibility and employers bringing workers back to the office must implement covid-safe work practices in accordance with government guidelines.

This is a considerable undertaking for HR departments and senior leaders, who must create an environment where employees feel safe and communicate the many new policies and practices employees need to adopt.   

Co-working areas and hot desks may be less flexible: you may be asked to use a specific desk and related facilities, such as kitchens and bathrooms; one-way systems may be in operation.

Policies and requirements will differ depending on the size and type of office you work in; the key is communication.

  • Ask for clear instructions about the provisions made for your safety and the practices you will be asked to adopt.
  • If you have concerns about how you will be working, raise them promptly and constructively.

Reconnecting with colleagues – the return of small talk

Useful though Zoom has been for conducting meetings, it is less effective at replicating the casual social encounters that help underpin the culture of the workplace. When it comes to small talk, we’re a bit out of practice.

Missing office small talk has been quite a common complaint among formerly office-based professionals, and it is not as trivial as you might suppose. Chance conversations and throwaway comments can prove extremely useful, sparking new ideas or helping junior colleagues learn informally.

Less tangibly, office small talk has been found to increase positive emotions, help employees feel more recognised and acknowledged, and be more willing to help colleagues and the company.

A lot of return-to-office conversations will be centred around people’s experience of the pandemic. There will be similarities and differences for everyone and talking it through is an important part of processing a difficult situation. We will need to listen and respond to each other sympathetically and be alert for signs that our colleagues may be struggling with their mental health

Zoom rooms?

Video-calling tools such as Zoom and Teams have proved invaluable during the pandemic and have likely cemented their place in the corporate toolkit. However, a return to the office raises challenges, particularly if the company is taking a hybrid approach that means colleagues are not in the office simultaneously.

Video-calling will remain useful, but an open plan or shared office is different from logging in at home. Rather than pets strolling past the camera or family members interrupting calls, there will be concerns about office background noise and the risk of disrupting colleagues. Below are three aspects to consider:

  • Use a headset with microphone: this means only your half of the conversation is broadcast and less background noise comes through into the call.
  • Consider confidentiality requirements: just as you wouldn’t make a confidential client phone call in an open office, video-calls covering sensitive topics should take place in a controlled environment such as a meeting room to ensure privacy is maintained.
  • Review whether video calls are the best medium for different communications. There has been a “default to Zoom” approach during the pandemic, and it is useful to reassess whether every video meeting is necessary or productive. Alternatives such as one-to-one calls might be more suitable.

As the shift to hybrid working progresses, companies are likely to adapt office space further to support new workstyles. Innovations such as self-contained “Zoom rooms” are likely to feature in office redesigns.

Requesting flexible working

The pandemic has prompted many legal professionals to evaluate how and where they work best, and how to achieve better balance between work and home life. If you feel that you and your employer would benefit from an arrangement where you work flexibly or fully remotely, you can request flexible working arrangements.

Employees have the statutory right to request flexible working if they have been employed by the company for more than 26 weeks. The request process is governed by the law on flexible working and your company must follow a set procedure when considering your request.

If you do not qualify to make a statutory request, you can make a non-statutory request. This is not governed by the law of flexible working, but it is advisable to make the request formally in writing, clearly setting out what you are asking for.

Whether your request is accepted will depend on your employer’s strategy for post-covid workforce management. However, many organisations have recognised the benefits of hybrid working to both employees and the business and now is certainly the time to have the conversation about extending flexible working practices beyond emergency measures.

Citizen’s Advice has more information about how to request flexible working.    

Commuting – getting back on board

How people feel about returning to commuting will vary. For some it creates welcome distinction between home and workplace, for others it is a stressful time-sink. It is also natural to feel anxious in crowded areas after a year when the constant message has been to stay away from others.

Tips for returning to commuting:

  • Travel outside peak times if possible. Workplaces are being asked to consider staggered start and finish times so start a conversation about what could work for you.
  • Consider varying your commute e.g. getting off the tube a stop early and walking, or cycling. This also helps incorporate fresh air and exercise into your commute.
  • You may wish to opt for a route with fewer changes, minimising the number of people and surfaces you are in contact with, even if it takes a little longer.
  • Allow plenty of time for the journey to reduce stress
  • Try not to book meetings for immediately after you arrive at work. Allow time to wash/sanitise hands after your journey.

Above all, be gentle on yourself and your colleagues. Different people will have different comfort levels when it comes to returning to the office and it is important to respect each other’s concerns. Personnel Today magazine has several useful articles about addressing workplace tensions around COVID anxiety.

As we all adjust to yet more change we should stay alert to signs that we, or a colleague, are becoming overwhelmed. If you are suffering uncomfortable anxiety about returning to the office, talk to someone about it. This could be a colleague, your HR department, a mental health first aider or a third party. Lawcare offers confidential support for members of the legal profession.

If you are in a leadership role, Jonathan’s Voice has a range of resources to help leaders create a better culture of mental health and support in the workplace.