In-person gatherings are blooming again, tentatively but often joyfully, as the omicron threat recedes and mask mandates expire. As we pass the pandemic’s two-year anniversary, employers are officially welcoming more people back to the office. Some of us feel excitement (Lunch with colleagues! Meeting my boss in person for the first time! Quiet commuting time!). Some of us feel dread (I won’t see my kids that much now. Will I be safe? I won’t be as productive.).
Regardless of our emotional state, we are alike in how different we are from two years ago. From small changes (perhaps work clothes are tighter) to more fundamental ones (we want our jobs to have more purpose), we are arriving back to the office as changed beings.
One of the most crucial, and difficult, changes has been to our ways of communicating and collaborating with each other. Constrained to a computer screen and the functionality of videoconferencing, we’ve adopted unnatural ways of working with each other. We forced our brains to do extra cognitive work and make a million subconscious adjustments over hours of conference calls. And, as brains will do when actions are repeated enough times, we have formed habits. For better or for worse, remote connecting and collaborating has become a default state for many. So, will we all just naturally bounce back to some pre-pandemic way of working when we return to the office? Not exactly.
Where we’ve been
The length of the pandemic has given researchers plenty of time to pinpoint exactly what is going on in our brains when we connect over screens. In short, it’s been a two-year exercise of teaching ourselves to do unnatural things.
Connecting with others over a videoconferencing platform requires more heavy-duty cognitive processing. For example, our brains work harder to accommodate the millisecond delay in sound that oh-so subtly warps our perceptions. And the most basic path through which humans take in information and assess danger—through the eyes—is distorted. We can no longer gaze into another person’s actual eyes to size up a possible threat or establish mutual trust.
At the same time, we have multiple eyes looking at us, sometimes at unnatural sizes or in uncomfortably close proximity, which our body can perceive as a threat, releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Despite our most creative efforts to mimic in-person interactions (e.g., virtual coffee meetups), we have missed the small, non-verbal cues our body and brain use to navigate situations—the subtle eye roll, the quiet sigh, the tapping pen on the table—and relied instead on a Zoom thumbs-up or heart emoji.
Perhaps most of all, we’ve lacked the unscripted and unexpected moments of being together in person like the surprise of bumping into a friend in the elevator or the spontaneous white boarding of a new idea. After the red “leave meeting” button is pressed, there is no lingering to ask a follow-up question or bemoan the poor standing of a favorite sports team. In normal times, these moments create a shared reality between us and our colleagues. In Potential Project’s research, we have found that shared reality with a coworker predicts greater work meaningfulness, organizational commitment, and job satisfaction.
Where we’re going
There is much to look forward to as offices reopen, and it’s also important to remember that this is all new terrain. This is what will help make this upcoming chapter of increased in-person collaboration and communication most effective.
For individuals: Manage your inner space
After two years of operating in a predominately remote way, our brain has put some of our behaviors on auto-pilot mode to conserve cognitive resources for other activities. Unlearning these behaviors and turning on others will be mentally demanding, whether you are aware of it or not. Here are some strategies for facing and thriving through the inevitable:
- Don’t overschedule yourself. In the early days and weeks of being back in an office setting, allow yourself some open, non-task time and space to readjust and casually reconnect with colleagues.
- Set an intention for connection. On a good day, our minds wander 37% of the workday, and it’s bound to get worse once we leave our private, quiet home offices and land in open space floorplans at work. A distracted mind is not ideal for collaboration and connection. Try setting an intention at the beginning of the day or a meeting to reorient your attention if you feel like it’s hard to focus. Ask yourself daily: Who will I create greater connection with today?
- Get more sleep. Extra commuting, catch-up socializing, and mental overload will be additionally tiring. A good night’s sleep will be key to improving your interactions and reducing your risk of burnout. (You can find more tips here.)
For leaders: Create spaces that nurture connection and collaboration
In our research, social isolation was the top challenge for those working from home. As such, those of us who’ve already returned to the office have experienced disappointment as we observe the sea of empty desks around us or spend a day on Zoom with the people sitting right next to us. Crafting hybrid/return-to-work arrangements has been a massive undertaking for most companies, and there is still opportunity to do better. Here are some additional considerations:
- Talk! One of the most basic things that leaders can do is have a return-to-office plan and keep talking about it. In our research, when there is clarity about the strategy and plan, employees have 36% more pleasant feelings about being back in the office. Of those employees who felt most clear, 75% have managers who discuss the return-to-office plans once a month or more (versus only 48% for those who aren’t clear).
- Don’t organize schedules by days of the week. Organize by key moments. When crafting your team’s schedules, plan in-the-office days for when your team will most benefit from a shared reality. For example, during the beginning phases of a project when creative thinking is most critical or when major changes are being announced and in-person cues and body language will aid the communication process.
- Design spaces for connection.Cisco is recognizing that environment matters and is structuring their office settings for different ways of interacting. As such, they are identifying Cisco locations around the globe which will become Collaboration Centers. The Centers will welcome teams, whether in the office, or working remotely, to connect better through their proprietary collaboration technology. This also comes with programs to foster innovation, and support employees’ physical,
financial, social, and emotional wellbeing.
- Make time for just being. After two years of video calls, we’ve all been deprived of the normal releases of dopamine and oxytocin—the feel-good hormones that we seek and need as social beings. Do your team a favor and let it be okay to have agenda-free social interactions. Perhaps this can be the time when “home” is brought into the office a bit with an update on the dog who joined virtual meetings or the home renovation that everyone heard or witnessed.
It feels like a hopeful time ahead. But let’s not rush towards that without pausing to recognize what our brains, bodies, and teams will need during this time of change. We have shown ourselves to be miraculously resilient and adaptable. We can do this too.