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9 in 10 uni graduates are employed full time.1

Uni grads earn 15-20% more than those without a degree.2

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Returning to the office? Here’s how to cope with the transition

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full year since most of us left the office, and had to quickly adjust to working from home.

While some people have grown to enjoy the perks, such as having furry friends close by, zero commute and the freedom to wear trackies, others have been itching to get back to their colleagues.

But now that many employers want workers back for at least part of the week, how will we handle yet another change?

Office workers return to work

Vicki Kavadas, a lecturer in Deakin’s School of Psychology, says it’s natural that many people – even those excited to get back – will feel a sense of trepidation.

‘You’ve had to learn to manage working from home – you might have just got that sussed and you’ve built new routines,’ she says. ‘And now you have to return, which requires another shift in routine.

‘People are feeling overwhelmed by the amount, speed and variety of change.’

She says some people will enjoy returning, some will ‘rage against the machine’ and others will be indifferent.

The psychological benefits of returning to the office

There are many benefits to being with others – if it’s a supportive environment, Kavadas says.

‘Being with people that you enjoy being with can actually act as a bit of a buffer from some of the other stresses that are happening in the workplace.’

There’s also those incidental conversations we’ve missed out on, and the feeling of being part of something.

However it may not be all roses, Kavadas says. ‘For other people, seeing people at work could be quite challenging, because maybe they were in environments that were high pressured or uncivil, and working from home gave them some respite.’

Back to offices: ‘reverse culture shock’

Kavadas says the changes may bring on a type of ‘reverse culture shock’ – or re-entry anxiety – for some people.

‘A lot of that can be the fear of the health risk of returning to work, because let’s face it, COVID is still unpredictable,’ she says.

‘Some people also feel an awkwardness of face-to-face social interaction – even extroverts, because you’re so used to having that distance from people. Now all of a sudden, how close do you sit to them, do you hug them, how do you interact face to face now?’

Change fatigue

The other phenomenon people may be experiencing is change fatigue, Kavadas says.

A return to the office will likely mean a sudden onslaught of people. But it also means a shake-up in routine, including everything from commuting, to making your lunch and dressing for work, she says. Then there’s getting used to face-to-face meetings rather than video meetings on tools like Zoom, and a new hybrid model of working.

'People are feeling overwhelmed by the amount, speed and variety of change.'

Vicki Kavadas,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

How to ease back in

Kavadas says the same kind of recommendations apply around self-care as they did when we first went into lockdown.

‘So making sure that you focus on your basic health and wellbeing, such as getting enough quality sleep, eating healthily, keeping – or in some cases developing – an exercise routine,’ she says. (And of course following your workplace’s COVID-safe guidelines).

‘Whatever those activities that are that give you joy, it’s good to continue on some of those.’

Kavadas says not everyone will adapt to office life at the same pace, and suggests seeking support from your manager if you’re struggling to adjust.

Don’t be surprised if you feel drained or fatigued while you get used to being ‘on’ all day.

Give yourself time

A lunch with your entire team might not be so appealing on your first week back. But a coffee with one workmate may be a good start, says Kavadas.

‘Don’t force yourself to be the fun-loving, exuberant kind of socially interactive person that you may have been prior to COVID,’ she says. ‘It’s really around slowing that down and doing what’s comfortable for you at this point in time.’

And if working in an open-plan office is a shock to the system, take a walk or find a quieter space for a while.

Taking back control

Kavadas says going at your own speed while you adjust will help give you back a sense of control.

‘Job crafting’ – an evidence-based intervention that involves employees redefining their work to make it more meaningful – can also help improve wellbeing and adaption to workplace change.

If you want to work from home, say two days a week, how could you make the most of it? Could you perhaps work shorter days, and leave the meetings and longer hours for the days you’re in the office?

Whether you love or loathe this latest change, there’s no doubt it’s an opportunity to redesign your work life in a way that may have seemed impossible pre-pandemic.

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Vicki Kavadas
Vicki Kavadas

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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