Last March, most of us had to quickly adjust to remote work after Governor JB Pritzker issued an emergency stay-at-home order in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic. As the weeks and months ticked by, we developed new routines and responses to challenges. Some of us liked working from home while others were overwhelmed, juggling work, health, and family responsibilities.
Then, on June 11, 2021, the governor issued a Phase 5 Reopening Order. Consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the order said fully vaccinated individuals were free to abandon their face coverings and disregard social distancing requirements.
Whaa? Although I longed for the day of reopening, it has been surprisingly filled with anxiety. And from my review of media accounts, I’m not alone. We’ve all been changed by the 15 months of remote work.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we’re re-examining the structure of our workplaces. Media reports reflect employers are struggling to establish a return-to-the-office approach that is sensitive to employees’ preferences and the dictates of productivity. And employees seem to be flexing their preference to stay at home, at least part of the time.
So how can we return to the office professionally, while also acknowledging the shift in the psychological and behavioral health profile of the workforce?
Based on my literature review, legal employees and employers should consider the following strategies.
Employees: reflect on what you really want
For employees, it’s important to tap into the lessons you learned during the pandemic and carry them forward into your next chapter.
If you’re anxious about returning to the office or considering asking your boss for a less-structured work schedule, first consider what you truly want in a workplace, says Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of Women Online.
Questions to ask yourself may include:
- What do you want your days to look like? What’s going well in your work-from-home environment and why? Start with the pace of your day. Do you like working at a steady pace, from 9 to 5 for example, then turning off the computer and being done for the evening? Or do you prefer working in short bursts, taking time off to walk the dog or exercise? What types of interactions sap your energy and which energize you? And are you managing your day accordingly? Finally, have you developed bad habits you’d like to change —or good habits you’d like to keep in place?
- Key into what stresses you out. Once you’ve reflected on the ideal structure for your day, you can identify how major stressors might affect you at home or in the office. For example, my friend shared that she didn’t realize how much the commute had stressed her out until she worked from home for several months. Others report that juggling work commitments while also serving as a parent, partner, and housekeeper is problematic. And still, other people express anxiety about getting in enough face time, or feeling the need to be present either in person or digitally, to prove commitment. What’s helpful here is figuring out where that anxiety is coming from and whether it would change if you worked remotely or returned to the office.
- Put yourself in your boss’ shoes. Consider the definition of success from the perspective of your manager and the organization. Cali Williams Yost, who founded the Flex+Strategy Group to help companies build flexible structures, says that a manager wants to know two things: where you are and whether you’ll get the work done. Managers also will want to make sure that a flexible schedule doesn’t create more work for them or the team. If you’re pushing for a more flexible structure, it’s important to lay out clear goals with your manager and agree on a timeframe for the deliverables.
- Check into your emotions. Once you’ve answered focused questions around your workday, stressors, and manager, explore your emotions. Patrick Krill, the founder of a behavioral health consulting firm for the legal profession, says that employees should ask themselves if they’re catastrophizing the difficulties they may face when returning to the office. Are you minimizing the benefits and maximizing the downsides of a return to the office? If so, it’s understandable. Be kind to yourself and assess your feelings honestly.
- Practice baby steps. Gwen Moran, creator of the website Bloom Anywhere, writes that to reduce anxiety about returning to the office, make a plan for how you’ll deal with the associated stressors, like the commute. Practicing exposure therapy, or doing one small thing at a time, can also help you face your fears, she says. For example, many firms have a set return-to-office date with voluntary appearances before then. Use the voluntary time to go in, dressing as you would for an in-office workday, and retracing routes that you may not have traveled for 15 months. Once you’re in the office, set up your workspace. These small exposures will change the unknown to the known and help reduce your anxiety.
Employers: embrace your new workforce
- Recognize the changes of the past 15 months. The workforce that’s returning to the office isn’t the same workforce that went home in March 2020. The pandemic has profoundly affected us all. As reflected in a wide-ranging national survey of American Bar Association members, lawyers from every practice area are anxious and burned out. This is especially true for women. During the pandemic, women have reported feeling more stressed out than men in dealing with the competing demands of home, schooling, elder care, and work. In a recent study on mental health and attrition for lawyers, women with a high work-family conflict score were roughly 4.5 times more likely to leave or consider leaving the profession due to mental health, burnout, and stress. All employees, but women in particular, may need additional accommodation and support as they transition back into the office.
- Move from hours to results. Rather than logging whether employees are in the office a certain number of hours or days, employers should explicitly establish what success looks like. Create new success metrics with employees and then set goals and outcomes to support these metrics with a clear timeframe. You trusted your employees to do their jobs out of the office during the pandemic, so be open to continued flexibility for employees to work at a time and place of their choosing.
- Recognize employees need time to adjust to new routines. The gravity of the pandemic and the associated risks tied employers and employees together on a more human level, says Christie Smith, senior managing director, global talent & organization/human potential leader at Accenture. This approach should continue. What does this mean on a practical level? Employers should soften their attendance policies in the beginning, as employees don work clothes that have been pushed to the back of the closet, figure out how to walk the dogs acquired during the pandemic, and sort out child care and health problems, says Stephanie Rawitt of Clark Hill.
- Don’t be someone else’s risk factor. As Patrick Krill explained in a Reimagining Law interview, managers should be aware that they may be causing stress and anxiety in subordinates. You don’t want your behavior to contribute to someone else’s mental health or substance abuse problem. Listen to your employees, don’t lecture.
- Expect uncertainty in social interactions. Most of us have been working in physical proximity only to a few people, namely family members. We may be uncomfortable interacting with others and with the social conventions we once took for granted. Is the handshake gone? Is a fist bump appropriate? How do you approach a colleague who continues a habit of taking calls on speakerphone, but now in an open-office setting? How do we handle in-person meetings around a crowded conference table? The best course through these landmines may be to ask, listen to what your employees express, and run interference as appropriate.
Although the factors I’ve outlined were assigned to either employees or employers, they’re largely intertwined. Just as the lines between work and home blurred during the pandemic, the hierarchical lines of our legal organizations flattened too.
Partner and associate, general counsel and assistant, judge and clerk, we all shared a global health crisis fraught with fear. Together, we stared down death and pestilence, employing problem-solving skills and emotional resilience.
In the process, we were invited into each other’s homes, met our colleagues’ children on Zoom calls, and shared a laugh about a cat filter that wouldn’t leave a judicial hearing. Surely together we can figure out this return-to-the-office thing.
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