How can I make a smooth return to in-person work?

As COVID-19 restrictions lift, many people are finding themselves getting called back to in-person work environments after several months in remote settings. To help those grappling with anxiety and uncertainty surrounding this return to normal, Angela Hall, associate professor in Michigan State University's renowned School of Human Resources and Labor Relations offers tips for making the transition as smooth and stress free as possible.

What are some tips for adjusting from working from home back to a nine-to five-schedule in the office?

First of all, be easy on yourself,” advises Hall. “We've been living in a weird state of reality for the past several months, and so practice some grace and show yourself some grace. We're so used to just rolling out of bed in our sweats and then jumping into a Zoom call, but when you have to get ready for a commute, you have to pack a lunch and you have to let your dog out. Start doing that so that the first day back and the first week back, you won't be so stressed that by the time you get to work, you are panting and sweating and just overly anxious. Another thing that I think is really important for people to do, whether you're working at home or in the office or in a hybrid model, is that you need to create a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule.

“It's an important way to keep yourself accountable, keep yourself on track, and give yourself a roadmap. But also you can see where your time drains are. A lot of us have those times sucks and you're like, ‘Wow, I should have done this by the end of the day on Wednesday, and I haven't even gotten started.’ It can let you look back and see where you're having those types of bottlenecks. 

“Another thing that I think that a lot of us, including myself, need to remind ourselves is to be generous when scheduling your meetings and assigning yourself tasks. If you're going to do a meeting from 9:00 to 10:00, don't necessarily schedule the next meeting at 10:00. You have to factor in some time because it might run over. You have to take breaks. You have to check your emails. Giving yourself that cushion is very important.

“Another thing I want to really emphasize is that a lot of things that we did before the pandemic we did them that way because we always did them that way. And we didn't really question our routines or our processes. Now is an opportunity to hit the reset button. We realized during this pandemic and working from home that we could be creative and streamline processes and be very innovative. As you go back to work, don't necessarily go back to the same old same old. Think of some ways you can make jobs more efficient. Now is a really good opportunity to hit the reset button.”

What are some tangible ways that employees can practice self-care during the workday if they feel anxious or overwhelmed?

“It is normal that people are feeling stressed out right now. I'm feeling stressed out right now. We are dealing with the Delta variant, and we haven't been in the office for a long period of time. Things are very new, and things are constantly changing. Realize that it's normal to feel stressed out and out of sorts. I think practicing grace is an important first step.

“Another thing on self-care is to take five minutes for yourself. Practice meditation. Listen to music. Go for a walk. Hang out with your pets. Do things like that and block out time to reset. We're still living in a pandemic, and it's going to be even more difficult as people transition back and as people who have children transition back to the school year. A lot of kids are going back to school; how do you negotiate that? Know that you need to take that time out for yourself. 

“The other thing that I think is very important is to solicit social support, whether that means leaning on your coworkers or commiserating with them. Be transparent with your boss about what kind of needs or apprehensions you may have.  Join some type of employee resource group or support group where you have other people who you can talk to. Lean on people who are in your professional network. I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't have a great network of people I can lean on, bounce questions off, and ask for help. If it's to the point that you're depressed, because a lot of people are depressed, reach out to your employee assistance plan and try to find some type of counseling and do things that support your mental health.”

What about for employees who may be asked to come to the office more than they may be comfortable? What are some good tactics for addressing those concerns with their supervisors?

“This really resonates with me because I have a child who is immunocompromised and is on immunosuppressants. I had a very frank conversation with my boss, and I said, ‘I don't feel comfortable coming in right now because she's very, very sick.’ And he was so cool about it. He was like, ‘No, no, we want to help you.’ This past year and a half, people have become more empathetic. They realize that times are tough. Be transparent about what you're going through rather than try to come back and be resentful because you should've said something that you didn't.

“But there are situations where you just can't work remotely. You are a nurse or you’re with an organization which is just not allowing people to work remotely. There are still some things that you could try to do. You could try to have a schedule where you are coming in only a couple of days a week, or you could try to ask for a certain type of space where you could be more socially distant from people. You could ask those around you, ‘I've got some problems. I have some concerns. Do you mind masking?’ Be transparent and proactive. Also, if you feel that you cannot come back for whatever reason, arm yourself with data.

“You can tell your boss, ‘Hey, for the past year and a half, I've been working at home and things are working out okay. I've been able to do my work. I have been able to be proficient. I haven't had complaints from customers, clients, or coworkers. And I’m productive. Let me show you how I'll hold myself accountable in the future.’ Try to negotiate and say, ‘Hey, why don't you let me continue to work remotely from home until you see a problem, and then we can try to revisit that. But if things aren't broken, why try to fix them?’ And that all goes part and parcel with explaining why you want to work from home; be able to address the concerns that your boss may have.

“A big concern for a lot of bosses is that they're afraid about the office culture. They feel things may not be as cohesive when people aren't in the office seeing each other face to face. But you can talk about having Zoom meetings on a regular basis - one-on-one or in groups - or meeting people socially distanced for short periods of time so that you can see their faces. Hopefully, you can reach some type of compromise or happy medium where you allay your boss's concerns, and you've also allayed some of your own.”

From the employer's perspective, what are some things they can do to help their employees transition smoothly back into the office?

“Don't expect things to be perfect when you come back. For example, I haven't worked the photocopier in my office for a year and a half. Trust me, Russ, I won't know what to do if paper gets stuck in there. I'm going to be calling someone for help. So imagine there are going to be hiccups. Things are going to take a little bit longer. For example, my husband just went back to work. He's an attorney with the state of Michigan, and he works on the eighth floor. He has to budget more time to get up to his office because either he has to walk up the stairs, or only one or two people can go in the elevator. Can you imagine eight o'clock when everyone's going in? So, you have to expect that things are not going to be like they were before.

“You've got to also practice regular check-ins with your employees to make sure that you discuss their concerns and help them feel validated and heard. Even if you can't change things for them, just the notion of employees being able to engage in what we call voice and being able to air their concerns goes very far in terms of employee wellbeing, mental health, and productivity. Another practical idea is to schedule meetings for midday rather than early morning. At the end of the day, we all get Zoom fatigue, and so you don't want to have these meetings necessarily at the end of the day. And people have to get used to their commute, finding a parking space, and walking in. And be open to feedback from your employees.”

How do you see the rise and acceptance of more remote work playing out in the years ahead where people seem to want more work-life balance and some of the power dynamic seems to be shifting more in the employee direction?

“I see this as the next wave of the labor movement because there has been a shifting of power. And it's not because employees just want a free ride, but they'd rather get a job where they're treated like a human being rather than go someplace and make 12 bucks an hour and go through hell every time they go to work. Employers have to think about treating their employees better. They have to see employees as a resource instead of as an expense. They're not an expense you're trying to minimize, they're a resource or an asset that you're investing in. You need to empower employees, hear their voices, solicit feedback from them, and make sure you have good two-way communication, like having transparency about what you're doing. Even if the communication from the employer is, ‘We don't know. We're living in uncertain times, we'll keep you posted, but as of this moment, we really don't know.’

“And you don't want to create a big chasm between the frontline workers going to work and the higher paid or mid-management executives who work from home safely away from all the drama. As a manager, even if you are working remotely some of the time, you need to come in on a regular basis to check in with your employees to see how they're doing and to hear their voice.”

What are some issues, challenges, and opportunities in the fields of human resources and labor relations?

“The biggest challenge is the notion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am a person of color. I am an Afro-Latina first-generation from Panama; my parents came from Panama in the 1960s. The DEI movement in the academic field of human resource management got very little love for many generations. In fact, my advisor when I was at Florida State told me to stay away from those issues because he didn't want me to be looked at as an angry Black woman. And that was good advice at the time because it would've been career suicide. But now, people are really interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion. We need to make sure that this is not just a moment. This is a movement for anybody who wants to feel included and valued in the workplace, whether it's because of your gender identity or orientation, whether it's because you have a disability, you're a veteran, or you're a low-income worker. It’s an issue that needs to be ingrained within the field of human resources. Another thing that is very important is the notion of artificial intelligence and technology, their place in the workplace, and the fact that once again, we don't want there to be a chasm created. We don't want those employees left behind because they're not trained or because they're being replaced by technology. Find a way for them to have a place in the workplace.

“Another trend that you're going to see in human resources that we began to see even before the pandemic but that you're going to see even more is something called job crafting. More and more employers are allowing people to craft their job into a job that fits their skills. For example, you may be better at creating reports, and your co-worker may be better at analyzing the data. You may have the same role, but you do more of the report generation and that person does more of the data analysis. Job crafting and finding ways that employees can thrive in their roles is something you're going to see more and more of in the future.”

What first attracted you to MSU? And what are some of your own research interests?

“What attracted me to MSU is that I'm in the multidisciplinary School of Human Resources and Labor Relations; it is one of the few schools of HR and LR in the country. The fact that I could do multi-disciplinary research at a top ranked program really attracted me, and the fact that I could learn from people from other disciplines. It's really cool being able to work with a psychologist, for example, and the great thing about MSU is that we're able to work with people so easily from other disciplines. I'm currently working with some faculty and students in the College of Engineering, particularly Andrew Mason, who is also a real dear friend of mine.

“The main thing that I am known for if you were to Google me is that I study employee accountability. Accountability means the belief or expectation that you'll be called to account for your actions. Because we feel like we're going to have to account for things, we adapt certain types of behaviors. It might be covering your behind in a situation, or it could be a situation where you think ‘I better think about this long and hard because my boss is going to ask me why I did that, so I better have some good explanations.’ I'm looking at how employers can promote accountability and how people react to accountability. The other accountability research that I'm really excited about is how people from historically marginalized groups manage their accountability.”

Tell me about your podcast, what you focus on, and why you think this medium is a good way to get your message out.

“I have a podcast series called People Talk with Angela Hall. It is available on Apple and Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. I talk about how you engage and motivate your employees and also discuss issues about career leadership, career management, diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s fun, and I get to talk about timely topical things related to HR.”

Summarize some of your tips for making a smooth transition back to working in the office. 

“As an employee or as an employer, you need to practice grace with yourself and others. You need to be open and transparent about what you're feeling, and you need to solicit feedback from others. You need to lean on others and seek social support. Don’t seek social support once you start flailing. Seek that kind of support from the beginning. Employers need to think about having things like town halls and open communications, and employees should feel empowered to talk to their employers about what's happening. We all realize, too, that we're in a time where things are pretty ambiguous right now and that we have to realize that what is okay today may be very different tomorrow. And remember that we're going to have to practice some flexibility.”

MSU Today airs every Sunday morning at 9:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870 and streams at WKAR.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.