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Navigating Back to the Office: Four Stressful Unknowns

I walked through an empty cube farm to Barry’s office. There was space for over 50 in the room, but I only counted five. Barry is the CEO. He and his senior leadership team had been coming in for months. None of his mid-level team members want to come back to the office (and their productivity is solid). His junior team members are quitting because they want in person culture. Welcome to the ambiguity of reopening. Welcome to the questions that will power job stress even as the pandemic recedes.

It’s tempting to think with news regarding case counts and the lifting of social distancing requirements that the end of the pandemic is insight. The truth is, while personal travel, socializing, and indulgence spending will pick up, we face many unknowns around the return to the office. And unknowns cause stress. Let’s consider four unknowns that may be causing you anxiety:

Unknown 1: Will I have an option?

Will my company give me an option to choose in person, remote or hybrid work? Many have not decided. Many are pushing this off. “If I don’t have a remote option, will I stay? If I do have a remote option, and I take it, will I be penalized?”

Unknown 2: What will hybrid work be like?

Many of my colleagues have enjoyed extra time for exercise, family, and reflection since they stopped commuting. Yet the most common approach that large firms are suggesting is hybrid work. Three days in the office, two remote. Will they follow through? How will they determine the three days? What will this rhythm be like?

Unknown 3: Who will be there?

People are changing jobs. People are preparing to change jobs. Some studies suggest that 40% of millennials plan to change jobs as the pandemic winds down. Who will be at the office when you go back? Some faces will be missing. Some faces will be new. How will this affect your responsibilities? How will this affect your influence?

Unknown 4: Can I work that way again?

How long does it take for you to get from the shower to your zoom screen--professionally present on your zoom screen? I have it down to five minutes. I wear a dress shirt and gym shorts most days, no shoes. I make my wife lunch every day and pet the dog between work tasks. We spent over a month in Florida, walking the beach every morning before work and watching the sun set every evening before we were done. Do I really want to run from early to late night, suited up all day? Can I work that way again? Another unknown.

Unknowns create a field of ambiguity. Ambiguity fuels stress because it drowns us in partial, unactionable information. Consuming, out of control stress is both a practical challenge and a spiritual one. In future posts, we will dive more into the causes of strain during this season and point to strategies for conquering it.

Despite reopening euphoria, there’s still plenty of unknowns that make this a stressful season at work. For now, take a deep breath.

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