The Office Reunion: Are You Ready?
Whilst recent government updates have pressed the pause button on a full return to the office, we have in recent weeks finally been able to meet more people in person! For the time being this is mostly on a social basis, but from the perspective of rebuilding relationships, how do you feel about physically returning to work alongside your team again?
If you’re like me and you started a new role during the past year, you may feel like you know your colleagues through video calls but have not actually interacted with any of them in person yet. There will be many new people to meet and new locations to visit.
Relationship building for some is an easy task – even enjoyable! Striking up new conversations and engaging with those who we are not familiar with comes naturally, without thought and provides a boost to energy levels and morale.
For others however, the idea of interacting with people face to face and getting to know one another raises anxiety levels and it seems that the prolonged period of isolation, caused by Covid, has brought social anxiety to the fore for many.
With the internet often adding technical difficulties to communication channels, online video calls have generally had a structured feel and focussed agenda, which participants aim to cover in a minimal amount of time. As a result, more leisurely meetings including elements of social chat and personal interactions have reduced.
The downside is the impact some feel this has had on their sense of engagement with their team and connection to colleagues. There are many recognised benefits to social interactions at work which have been difficult to fully compensate for whilst homeworking.
However, there are some colleagues that will have welcomed a sense of relief from the daily pressure of maintaining a level of in-person social interaction that they do not naturally feel comfortable with.
With June being Pride Month, it’s a great opportunity to also reflect on people in workplaces who feel unable to reveal their full and true identities at work. This may be due to a perceived reaction they think they might get, or there may be a fear rooted in response to discussions they’ve overheard in their offices or based on opinions that colleagues have revealed.
There are unfortunately lots of people working in organisations, living in families and cultures that do not feel confident to be themselves or accepted. Pride month provides the opportunity to recognise that and consider ways in which these barriers to acceptance and belonging can be overcome.
Hiding aspects of yourself or feeling under pressure to engage socially, can be stressful and impairs your ability to build open and honest relationships with those around you. Engaging with others is often managed and restricted, to ensure that nothing is said that reveals too much or prompts further questions. Over time, this can prove a significant burden, impacting self-esteem and increasing anxiety levels. These changes in mental health can reduce effectiveness and without the right levels of support, may eventually impact the degree to which someone can deliver in their role.
So, from multiple perspectives, having a renewed emphasis on supporting team members to rebuild in-person relationships will serve individuals and organisations well in the long-term. In recognising the return to the workplace will increase the amount of social interaction that our teams will be having, how can we provide an environment that supports relationship rebuilding?
Recognise Differing Appetites for Social Interaction
Through understanding team members better you can begin to develop a sense of what their natural response to in-person social interaction is and whether this has been changed by the lengthy working from home period.
Using tools, such as Lumina Spark can help teams gain a richer understanding of themselves as individuals, as well as looking at the combined effects of working together. This can build confidence and support a greater sense of empathy within the team.
Maximise Diversity and Inclusion
Being able to bring your whole self to work and engage with others in an unrestricted, relaxed and honest way is crucial in enabling people to perform at their best and build strong, effective relationships.
So encourage diverse workplaces and maintain policies and practices which create an open-minded environment, where difference is acknowledged and celebrated. “By putting diversity and inclusion at the centre of mental health and wellbeing, employers can create a culture where people can be themselves at work. This helps people to feel more engaged, to think bolder, find common ground, and work more effectively together (MHFA England).”
Build trust by aligning your actions to your words and actively listen to others to show thoughtful compassion. Find opportunities to learn more about the people around you, especially those who may have unique experiences to your own.
Keep It Simple
Start to rebuild relationships with colleagues without pressure on everyone to engage straight away. Keep in-person meetings focussed and simple to begin with, whilst creating space in the agenda for social interactions to increase naturally.
Remember that the right level and type of support may look different to each person. Where detailed information and guidance might help one person and enable them to feel safer, too much structure can be overwhelming for others, so it’s important to be adaptive and have multiple communication channels and strategies to lean on.
Consider the Whole Team
While many employers are looking forward to the return to the office, it seems that the majority will be keeping elements of home working in place, with only 15 per cent of respondents in a recent People Management survey saying that they planned to make office attendance mandatory.
Therefore keeping the whole team engaged in a fair and consistent way will be a new challenge for managers, who had previously been more accustomed to their whole team being in one place.
The experience of pandemic homeworking will have enhanced the skills of managers to support home workers and it is important that this is kept up as an active practice when a more hybrid approach emerges. There could be a tendency to prioritise social interactions and relationship building amongst those who are present in the office but, to ensure inclusion, managers will need to employ multiple approaches simultaneously to ensure the whole team feel valued.
Finding our way back to the office and rebuilding relationships will be a varied experience for each individual. By applying care, understanding and compassion, bringing everyone together can hopefully bring positive results and provide a much-needed boost to motivation, following the demanding and isolated experiences of the past year.