As the UK’s lockdown begins to ease with the opening of outdoor hospitality and non-essential retail, questions about a return to the office and how it will differ from before the pandemic will become more pressing. Kelly Feehan, services director at CABA, the UK charity that supports chartered accountants’ well-being, writes
As the UK edges ever closer to the end of lockdown measures, many businesses are beginning to implement – or at least communicate – their return-to-work policies.
For some of us, this will be an exciting moment. The office gives many workers a sense of identity and camaraderie. It keeps us in a routine, and the social interaction that comes with being around a team benefits our mental health.
Returning to the office might even feel as though we’re returning to some kind of ‘normal’. But for others it can be a daunting prospect. A certain amount of anxiety might even be expected as you find out more about your employer’s approach. If this is the camp in which you find yourself, rest assured; you are not alone, and there are steps that you can take to make this transition a little easier.
The office itself
The first thing to prepare yourself for is that the environment itself is likely to have undergone a significant number of changes.
For one thing, with many of us having adapted well to working from home – and some even keen to do it more often – it is possible that we might not ever return to a situation whereby the whole team operates every day from the office. Instead, many offices will become ‘hubs’, used largely for projects requiring collaboration and innovation. The chief executive of IWG, the world’s largest serviced office company, has even spoken recently about opening these kinds of hubs in locations such as Cornwall and the Hebrides, citing his belief that not needing to be in an office every day is driving staff to move away from the cities.
Then, of course, there are the changes dictated by the lingering health implications of Covid-19. Immediate changes may include limiting the number of people using lifts, office canteens remaining closed, banning some face-to-face meetings, distancing markers on the floor, partitions in between workstations, one-way systems, temperature screening and extra cleaning. There may even be a dedicated member of staff to enforce social distancing.
Finally, plenty of companies are planning to shift to a hybrid model, whereby there are staff working both on-site and from home. In the accountancy profession specifically, a survey of PwC’s 22,000 UK staff suggests that many would want just there or four days per week in the office, when restrictions allow.
It is unlikely that we will see many firms close their offices entirely, however. PwC chair Kevin Ellis has spoken about staff still seeing it as an important environment for learning, mental health and collaboration.
In short, it is important to be prepared for the fact that, while we might soon be going back, the office itself is likely to look very different for a little while longer.
If you have grown used to working alone, the idea of commuting to an office, in which you are suddenly surrounded by a large group of people, could easily be a little daunting.
Perhaps your colleagues will want to work with the radio on, while you have enjoyed the peace and quiet of your spare room or study. Maybe you are struggling with losing the two hours of your day that you had gained by not having to commute. Returning to ‘real life’ will be just as significant an adjustment as getting used to lockdown, so it is OK to feel a little overwhelmed.
Regaining a sense of control can help. Admittedly, in the middle of a pandemic that has turned our lives upside down, there is plenty that we cannot control. But there are, fortunately, things that we can. You can control what you focus on – whether that is the parts of home-working that you miss or the bits of office life that you are glad to return to.
If you are really struggling with your return to the office and are returning under a hybrid model, consider how you could make the most of your time at home in order to make the office feel a little more manageable. Treat these days as time to plan and to think, or even just to get your head down. Be strategic with how you divide your time, so that you can manage any growing sense of overwhelm that the office might be causing.
Sometimes though, when everything feels a little too much, we just need a way to let off some steam. You might need to shout or cry. Try taking some slow, deep breaths or finding someone talk things over with. Get to know what helps you to feel better quickly in that moment of overwhelm and use it when it is needed.
Looking after the pennies
For many of us, one of the few silver linings of lockdown has been the opportunity to save a little extra money. Household savings actually reached record levels last year, with Brits managing to accumulate, on average, £2,674 each in cash savings alone since the beginning of the pandemic. That is despite as many as two-thirds of working households being thought to have taken pay cuts.
All of that could be about to change though, when we return to the office. Soon enough, we will be back to commuting, picking up a cappuccino on the way to work and nipping out during lunch for a bite to eat from the local sandwich shop. Working life might very quickly become expensive again, and it is understandable that some might be worried about the end of lockdown also spelling the end of their new saving habits.
But that does not need to be case. Perhaps that morning coffee or take-out lunch could be a treat to be enjoyed just a couple of times a week, as opposed to a daily expenditure. To keep the cost of commuting low, you could look for opportunities to walk or even cycle.
Whatever your outlook, it is important to keep thinking about our personal finances. Some 74% of people who have financial difficulties have experienced mental health issues. At the same time, financial well-being can have a profound effect on personal relationships.
If you are feeling a little apprehensive about getting back to the office, it is important to remember that, just as we acclimatised to lockdown this time last year, this period of change will, in time, pass.
For more advice, visit CABA’s dedicated mental well-being support page, which has information on how we can help you take care of your mental well-being and support the people around you. With self-help resources, interactive online tools, and professional, one-to-one services, there is something for everyone.