When Beth Thierer began working at Johns Hopkins University in September 2021, it meant going from a job that was totally remote to one that brought her into the office two days a week. "It was a little strange," she says of the nearly two-hour round-trip commute, and the awkwardness of connecting with colleagues in person for the first time since before the pandemic.
The hardest part was relearning the pleasantries of small talk, a pastime largely lost in nearly three years of Zoom, she says. How is the family? How was your weekend? When you go to a meeting in person, you have time to chitchat before it starts. When you are remote, the meeting starts on time and ends on time," says Thierer, assistant director of Worklife programs at JHU. "We are social creatures, but it felt new when I first started. Also, people were still wearing masks. When we unmasked, it was like meeting people for the first time. I hadn't seen anyone's smiles before, only their eyes. That was another change that took some getting used to."
In the weeks to come, many JHU staff likely will be facing similar challenges upon leaving their home offices and returning to their on-site workplaces, whether for five days a week or in a hybrid scenario. It will mean coping with an end to the social isolation produced by the remote environment—many are out of practice—as well as the everyday tasks of finding child care and dog walkers, losing those extra pounds produced by that nearby refrigerator, and dealing with rush hour traffic and parking.
At the same time, it also means the start of new friendships, stronger collaborations, and the creativity that arises from personal interactions.
Thierer has adopted some accommodations to make her routine easier and suggests others fine-tune their work lives with similar modifications, if they can. She works a full day but arrives at her office at 7:30 a.m. and leaves for home at 4 p.m. This means kissing her two children, 6 and 7, goodnight—and goodbye—at night because she's gone by the time they wake up the next morning. (She also packs their lunches and sets their clothes out the night before.) She considers herself lucky that her husband works remotely, and that both sets of grandparents live close by if backup is needed.
"My boss is flexible," Thierer says. "I go in super early and leave early. It's nice to have the flexibility to come in when it's quiet and to be able to be home for dinner and activities with the kids."
Flexibility from managers is very important in making transitions work for staff, says Amy Murphy, JHU's assistant director of Organizational Development and Effectiveness, who advises supervisors on ways to support their team members. "Any transition is rough," Murphy says. "It is a journey. It is a struggle for sure, but there are things managers can do to ease the way. The transitions may be bumpy at first, but there is every reason to believe that the result will be smooth."
To that end, Murphy and Thierer offer the following advice for managers and staff:
It's important to identify your feelings and remind yourself that you've been through changes before and have emerged stronger. "The pandemic taught us we can change and we are resilient," Thierer says. "This is another change, and we can do it. It's also important to acknowledge your feelings, whether you are resistant—I don't want to come back, or I'm scared to come back because of COVID, or I don't want to commute—and then think about what helped you get through changes or adjustments in the past. What tools can I use to get through this now? You've been resilient before—what helped you then? It won't be the same for everyone."
Use the experience as a time to embrace new possibilities, such as reordering your work boundaries. "This may be a good opportunity to reset your work-life balance," Thierer says. "Maybe you worked longer hours at home and now it's time to create a consistent schedule of start and end times. Use this time to reflect on your work calendar. Review your existing meetings. Can you adjust some to in-person? Do a communications pivot, like scheduling more one-on-one meetings. Take some time to think about incorporating some positive new options."
Managers need to listen and respond to the worries of their team members. "Have frank conversations with them," Murphy says. "Listen to their concerns, and do your best to mitigate them. For example, if someone needs to be home for a certain reason on a Friday, talk about hybrid. We try to instill in managers the need to see the bigger picture, which is about outcomes. As long as they get the outcomes, it's OK. What people are looking for is flexibility. We urge the managers to be flexible if they can, understanding that it's not always feasible."
Managers should consider using the return of their staff as an opportunity to restore team dynamics. "Set certain days to have team meetings and one-on-ones," Murphy says. "This is the time to reestablish relationships in person. Some staff have never met some of their teammates in person. This may be a good time to hold a team retreat and talk about your mission and vision, and how you want to work together in person."
Remind yourself what life in the office was like before the pandemic forced you to work at home. "Most folks were in-person before and knew what it was like," Murphy says. "They knew the relationships they built. They knew how much it mattered caring for their teammates, the baby showers, and birthdays, and happy hour. It was like a family. Remember those happy parts. Think about the connections. These are easier built in person than they are online. It's easy to forget you are part of a team when it's just you and your computer."
Managers need to remember that many of those hired during the pandemic have never met their colleagues in person. "The manager's job is to create those in-person moments where people can get to know each other," Murphy says. "Take time out from the day for those activities. Block out the time. Or put people together on projects who have never met before. That's how you build trust in those relationships. The individual has to see that the new way is better today—and it's up to the manager to understand and create that new way, and create an environment that people want to return to."
Managers should try to understand why people liked working at home and try to establish a similar ambiance in the office. "For example, access to food choices and coffee," Murphy says. "Flexibility to change sites—do they have to sit at desks all day? Celebrate babies and birthdays. Have casual dress days. Create a break area. Consider flexible hours. If there is an emergency—unexpected events or illness—have some flexibility in the system so they can handle it. That's what employees want: flexibility and control if something happens, and to not feel guilty about needing the support. Managers need to respect that and, above all, need to recognize that their staff have families and lives outside of work, and that sometimes pressures from one collide with the other."
Don't stress about things you can't control. "You don't have control over traffic or the length of your commute," Thierer says. "But you can control what you do during that time. Listen to your favorite music, or NPR. If you have [a] hands-free [phone], call someone. I listen to true crime podcasts and drink coffee in peace. It's also time when I can think about what I have to get done."
Redefine your workspace. Bring in plants. Rearrange your furniture to allow for collaboration. Get a standing desk if you had one at home. Put photos of your family on it. Bring in your own snacks, or lunch. "Think about what you liked about your home office and make your office at work more like that," Thierer says. "Incorporate self-care into your day—some physical activity or something to stimulate your intellect. Attend some on-campus events, or wellness or exercise classes, guest lectures, or musical events. And give yourself some grace in adjusting to the transition. Continue to evaluate what works and what doesn't, and be prepared to adjust."
In the weeks before you return—practice. "Get into the in-person routine before you have to be there," Thierer says. "Set your alarm as if you were going to commute. Shower and dress for work, even if you're not going anywhere, and make sure your clothes fit. Do your hair and makeup, eat breakfast, and get your kids ready and out the door so you're not overwhelmed the first day. You don't have to do this all at once. You can try it in bite-size pieces, starting several weeks ahead. The first week, set your alarm and wake up early. The next week, set your alarm, wake up early, shower and get dressed in your work attire, do your hair and makeup, and on and on. Put your notebook and laptop in your bag the night before and set it by the front door. The next morning, do all of the above, grab the bag—and go."