In the early days of the Apollo space program when a spacecraft returned to Earth’s atmosphere from its mission, the vehicle returned without propulsion jets and basically “fell” back to our planet. Gravitational pull would bring it home. But the tricky and dangerous part was that gravity, speed, and atmospheric friction could, if the space capsule entered the atmosphere at too steep of an angle, burn it up. If it came in at too little of an angle the spacecraft would skip off back into space, like a rock skipping off the surface of a pond. Those reentries were both precarious and scary.
Are we not having an Apollo moment in our workplaces as we prepare to have our teams return to the office? Without a doubt, we can feel the strengthening gravitational pull for reentry. However, are we sure that we have the right angle computed for each of our employees so that their reentry is successful?
The best minds are working on making the new normal workplaces safe, hygienic, and risk-free, but are we paying the same amount of attention to our employees’ human dynamics of the return, much of which is far from obvious.
We are going to have to do so, otherwise, we run the risk of them “burning out” or just “skipping” away from us.
Here are four key areas we should be extra-sensitive and attentive to when preparing for workforce reentry:
It’s been over a year that we have spent the majority of our waking hours in the presence of, or with others, who we don’t work with. We’ve become used to having spouses, partners, roommates, family, kids, and/or pets with us around the clock. And soon that won’t be so. We should expect that everyone will go through some sort of separation anxiety when they reenter the workforce and some more than others.
We’ve gotten used to having meals together, taking midday walks, and engaging in conversations. We’ve taken breaks to help with schoolwork or fix a technical problem with Zoom for someone else. It’s been comforting to have the dog or cat at our feet or in our lap as we made our way through emails.
Expect those first weeks reentering the workforce, if not the first months, of saying goodbye will be hard on all involved.
I Like My Routine
We are humans. We habituate into routines. We basically boot up the same way each day and once we get used to our routine, we get upset when it gets interrupted.
We’ve become really good at managing our way from asleep to the home office desk with little to throw us off. No traffic snarls, cars that won’t start, or late trains. And throughout the day, we have found ourselves a routine of when we eat, drink, and take care of our other human bodily needs.
Soon, when we reenter the workforce that all gets turned upside down and we fall back to the vulnerability of others having an influence on our time and routine. Don’t expect this change to be easy.
I Can’t Think
Possibly one of the best outcomes of a closed office has been the ability to focus and work with little distraction – or rather with distractions that we can influence.
Sure, the kids can be a distraction but in the big picture, we love them so their noise of playing or family talk blends into the background. The coworker in the next cubicle who talks too loudly on the phone, or the person who likes to wander in and sit down just to talk, or even the constant cacophony that is just part of working in an office, might well be thought of as too much and too loud to keep us attentive and without becoming too irritable to do the work at hand.
I Value My Time More Than This
We have always wasted a lot of “life” time when it comes to work. Whether it’s the commute, the unproductive meetings, the late boss, the last-minute requests that could have been avoided, the unrealistic deadlines that cause us to work nights and weekends, the rework because someone didn’t do it right the first time, etc. we’ve put up with our time being wasted. But now we know what it feels like to be in control of our time and take back the commute and a lot of the wasted time. We’ve seen what we can do with that time and we are likely not to be happy when we see our time being taken from us and we might just borrow a line from the movie Network and say “…we aren’t going to put up with it anymore.”
The list could go on, but for now, we can stop here and maybe reconsider our workforce reentry plans to make sure that we are taking into consideration the unseen human and personal factors of what is about to happen. There as many of them as there are people. One size does not fit all, one size fits one.
We can expect the full spectrum of employee attitudes, expectations, fears, and also excitement. Some will be so gung-ho that their workforce reentry could look great on the outside, but they might be burning up on the inside. I’m thinking of the person who immediately rushes back into the 10-hour office days only to find that the “When are you coming home?” text has far greater consequences than it did before. But there will also be those who struggle with many, if not all the above, as the impact of change and decide that they will opt-out if one if not all becomes too difficult to overcome.
At either end of the spectrum, let’s remember, that it may well feel like for everyone that they are “falling” back into the pull, without much power of how things will turn out. They are looking to us as the leaders to help them know what their optimal reentry angle should be. I can’t think of a time in our work lifespans that paying attention to the individual has ever been more important.
So, yes, it is our Apollo moment.
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