The big return to the office – how will I know when I’m ready?

May 18, 2021
Empty London office post pandemic


“It’s time for a Martini, CSM. When are you coming to London?”

This was the text message from a friend a few weeks ago. A kind invitation that had me anxious and making up excuses why I couldn’t possibly meet up.

When I took a breath and reflected, I realised that despite the burgeoning optimism, the successful vaccination program, and relaxing restrictions in the UK, I am not ready to travel to London.

A London visit means a lot of time in small spaces with strangers. A 90-minute train ride (due to reduced services in lockdown), plus at least one trip on the London underground. For the last 12 months, I’ve stayed within a 15-mile radius of my house. I’ve navigated the mandated 2-meter distance from anyone that wasn’t in my support bubble.

I’m not ready to be back to normal, whatever that actually means.

My need for safety and security has outweighed any desire for freedom.

And there is a message in this for all of us. In our own unique way, we will need to find our personal path back to our own new version of life post-pandemic. We will all be operating at different speeds, with different approaches to touch, physical distance and our own risk assessment of the safety of rush hour traffic.

The world will want to go back to how it was. How, where, and when we return is an important matter for all of us.

Work-life changed dramatically in the last twelve months. 

I’ve coached people in bedrooms, lounges, and garden sheds. I’ve been shown artwork by proud small children. I’ve met new puppies and terrorist cats (A shout out to Louis, the cat... dude, you are seriously vicious to your mom!). There has been an intimacy created by being able to see into people’s homes.

In coaching conversations, we’ve traveled into unchartered territory for leaders used to keeping their emotions in check.  We’ve explored fears of job loss and losing loved ones. We’ve touched on the terror of passing on the virus to vulnerable relatives and the grief of not being able to properly grieve the death of loved ones. 

The uncertainty has raised levels of anxiety in clients who’ve never seemingly sweated a day.

I know some folk resists the idea that we bring all of ourselves to work. I’m told categorically by smart people that it’s possible to leave their emotions and home lives at the office door. 

I call BS on that.

Whether we are aware of it or not,  we are our relationship history and this defines how we collaborate, how we compete, and how we ask for help.

We just don’t acknowledge this. 

At work, needs and emotions are seen as a distraction. And as long as we hold onto the importance of productivity and the metaphor that organisations and their employees are machines, then we will continue to sidestep our own humanity.

Here’s the headline.

For our re-emergence from our home bunkers and adaptation to the office to be successful, we need to see ourselves as humans. 

Human beings with needs.

Messy, unpredictable humans still reeling from the shitstorm of a global pandemic.

One of our very basic human needs is for safety - in our health, finances, and our world. Certainty of our safety was massively undermined in the last year. It will take time to rebuild our trust that we can feel safe in environments like offices, public transport and mass urban areas.

As we find our way back to some rhythm that feels more like 2019 than 2020, there are a few things to pay attention to.

The world will want to go back to what it knows and pull you back into the old ways. What will you stand for and how will the world know?

It’s our own responsibility to take care of ourselves first. To put our own oxygen mask on before helping others. Leadership starts with personal responsibility.

In answering the big question about are you ready to return, look at what you need.

For me, the answers are simple and for the moment, focused on core basic needs. If I am to go into London or on the plan, I need…

  1. I need to have some comfort that the chances of exposure to the virus will be small. I need to know that my client’s office is a safe, clean place with good Covid practices in place. I need to know the train won’t be overcrowded with commuters. I need the very basic need of feeling safe as I move through different spaces.
  2. I need agency over how I travel (can I walk versus take a crowded underground?). Can I take a later train that will be less busy? I’ll be happier to drive than take a train at least for the coming weeks.
  3. I need to have some certainty that as I cross this threshold into new areas, that it’s for something more than just meeting other people’s needs. I want to have fun – and that can be over coffee, the joy of hugs of people I haven’t seen for over a year, or the pleasure of seeing St Paul’s Cathedral from the South Bank in London.

What are your red lines? What do you need to feel safe? What do you need to thrive?

You have sovereignty over your own life and you get to choose how you recraft ‘normal’.


Photo: from Unsplash