Having Mixed Emotions About Returning to the Office?

They are an edge, not an impediment.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

At last! The moment we have all been waiting for! Or is it? After months of lockdown, WFH, and physical distancing, many non-essential businesses are starting to reopen or considering a gradual reentry. The return to stricter daily schedules, bedside alarms, commutes, and the need to wear something other than active-wear marks a significant change (for better or worse) for many of us. This is especially true for people who have been isolating, working from home, or living for an extended period with (or without) family or close friends.

Ask yourself a quick “How do you feel?” Are you able to capture your emotion with one simple word?  Or do you have to pause, to capture the complexity of the moment? Communicating how we feel is particularly difficult when multiple—often contradictory—emotions are competing for our attention.

Melanie Katzman
Source: Melanie Katzman

You may be experiencing:

Excitement, relief…

  • Finally! I can escape house arrest.
  • I can get back to business as (kind of) usual.
  • With all that’s happened in the world, I want to be with and think with my colleagues.
  • No more seeing colleagues in Zoom boxes; coworkers can share a coffee and co-create in person.
  • My life and career are moving on (at last).

You may also be feeling:

Fear and anxiety…

  • What procedures will be in place to ensure we are safe at the office?
  • How will I get to work? I’m really afraid to use public transportation.
  • I don’t have childcare; summer camp was canceled; how can I return to the office?
  • We don’t have a return to work date yet; do I renew my lease? Can I WFH in a summer house I rent with friends? Will I be called back on short notice?
  • I don’t want to return to a life in overdrive!

Reentry is activating many affective states and the good news is that we don’t have to choose just one. Mixed emotions are often a more accurate and adaptive reaction to complex experiences. Some people believe they should have a singular feeling toward someone: like or dislike. Or one reaction towards an event: happy or sad. This can be very limiting. Accepting conflicting feelings is important because it indicates that you are open to various inputs; willing to consider a wider array of information. Avoiding the negative (or attempting to) can result in irresponsible denial. A dose of positivity can power people through adversity, while overly rosy lenses can put you out of touch. Recognizing, valuing, and giving voice to competing reactions increases resiliency—especially in the face of adverse events.

The pandemic has forced many of us into a highly alert emotional state where unpredictability has become the norm. This lack of certainty leads to a loss of control and may spark mood swings as we try to make sense of the events around us.  Feeling two emotions at once, wavering between strong feelings … it’s easy to feel out of balance. When this happens, it’s even more difficult to align ourselves with others. Although you and your colleagues are well-intended trapeze artists, you may be missing the chance to emotionally connect.

It’s important not to be self-critical if you can’t decide on a singular descriptor of your current state.  Equally, you need to have patience with others. “How am I feeling?” “Mixed” is an acceptable answer—and likely a very honest one. You may feel strongly one way in the morning, but by mid-day, your perspective might have shifted. And the same is true for your co-workers. You may be aligned one day and at odds another. 

Especially during these unsettling times, resist labeling each other. Recognize that your emotional responses may vacillate. If we acknowledge that the pandemic has been a global crisis—with some silver linings—it will help us find meaning and maintain momentum. Mixed emotions are part of the wonders of being human.

What can you do to cope amidst the complexity of conflicting feelings? Here are some immediate steps:

Actions:

  • Recognize that you can be excited for a return to work and quite fearful. Instead of silencing one part of your reaction, try to formulate questions that need answering to increase your comfort. Rather than guessing (or fretting), ask your employers directly about COVID safety protocols at the office.
  • If you are full of enthusiasm (or are pretending to be), be sensitive to others who may be feeling trepidation.
  • If any of your co-workers died or lost loved ones, consider ways to honor their passing now that your team is back together again. This will allow people to mourn and to more easily move through their grief. It may have been months since the loss, but the emotions are likely still lingering.
  • If you are managing a team where some members lost their jobs, make room to appreciate the contributions of all those who are returning, while also allowing colleagues to express their feelings about missing coworkers.
  • With leaner teams in place, there’s the possibility of increased responsibility and maybe even a promotion. There’s also a chance that more work has to be done by fewer people. Create forums to refine role descriptions and make sure everyone is clear on responsibilities.
  • Try to schedule 1:1 or small group meetings with your team to learn more about their concerns. This includes practical issues around on-site work and safety, as well as questions around career advancement and productivity. Remember, in many instances, daily outputs may have soared while working from home, even though discussions around promotion stalled. 
  • Before you all jump back on the treadmill, why not review ways your team may have been efficient—with less intensity—during lockdown? What new guidelines can you establish?
  • At the start of quarantine, you may have missed many of your usual routines. Now, as you return to work, you may find yourself longing for some of your lockdown rituals. What can be incorporated into the new normal (e.g., a lunchtime visit from your family or a mid-day exercise break)? Share these ideas with your coworkers, as they too may be wanting a reason to wear those yoga pants again.
  • While it’s tempting to tell extreme stories of either how hard you had it, or conversely, what a great time you had becoming an expert baker or virtuoso of home improvements, be sensitive to your audience. Share your real self, which likely was someone who, over the past few months, had moments of grace and periods of frustration and fear.
  •  You don’t have a magic wand, but you do have two ears. You can't eliminate fear or promise a whole new office life, but you can—and should—encourage people to be candid about what they're experiencing. And in return? Listen. Provide clear, transparent communication about what you know and what you don't know. Be honest! Share what you're doing as a business to lower the risks for staff and customers. Be clear about the improvements you can offer.
  • Human beings are social animals and experience improved mental health when responding to a crisis together. If you can gather, safely distanced, make this a time to share feelings and make an event of it (offer drinks or a treat). Let those newly minted chefs show off!
  • Be a mixed emotions role model. Set the stage for others to steer clear of a single, uni-dimensional answer to “How are you feeling?”

Most importantly, be patient with yourself and others. Changing your mind or emotional expression isn’t a sign of weakness, it is authentic, and serves as an invitation for colleagues to reflect on their own humanity in turn.