How to be around people again: A guide for back-to-office anxiety and awkwardness

Thinking about going back to the office full-time makes Karem Garcia-Loera nervous to her core.

Before the pandemic, she was happy to spend hours socializing with friends, family and coworkers at Lopez-Negrete Communications. But months of isolation, quiet and primarily digital communication has changed her.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to go back, Garcia-Loera said.

“Social awkwardness has definitely affected me,” she said. “The few times I have seen people at a picnic, I felt myself being awkward.”

After more than a year of working remotely, millions of office workers across the world have either returned or will return in some capacity to their workplace this summer.

The timing makes sense. In the U.S., more than half of all adults have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than one-third of Texans are fully vaccinated.

A mass return to office environments will not be an easy switch to flip, and the adjustment won’t happen overnight, said Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.

There has been a loss of work-life balance for those who have been forced to do everything from their homes, Shah said. For many, that loss of structure has bled into other areas of their life.

“You don’t want to do things in a timely way,” he said. “When you work from home, you get up five minutes before work starts. You don’t have to change clothes, shower, shave. Lack of structure causes a lot of laziness and issues in some people.”

Single people, especially those who live away from family members and did not have close in-person friendships during the pandemic, may have the hardest time readjusting to the workplace, Shah said.

Socialization affects people more than they realize, he said. Talking to people naturally decreases anxiety and depression. Friendly, consented touch releases oxytocin and helps the immune system function properly.

“A lot of companies are continuing to do online meetings; Zoom is perhaps the No. 1 innovation these days,” Shah said. “But Zoom is good when you have a few people meeting, but you aren’t able to see peoples’ emotions. It’s very important to see emotions in their responses.”

Video calls and meetings have helped Garcia-Loera stay focused on her job as an art director. But even with the camera turned on and shoes on her feet, Garcia-Loera said video calls are no real substitute for face-to-face conversations.

Going back means she has to relearn how to do everything she used to do without thinking. While she and her colleagues have their own offices, she wonders what the break room with its 10-person table will be like during lunch.

Not impossible, but also not easy, said Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, the country’s go-to source of etiquette advice since 1922. Post and her cousin, co-president Daniel Post Senning, host a weekly podcast called “Awesome Etiquette.”

Many remote workers’ schedules aren’t a linear eight-hour line, Post said. Some wake up, check their work email, cook breakfast, help their kids get ready for school or walk the dog all before sitting down in their designated work area for the day.

“That idea of going back to a 40-hour work week in the office is going to be a hard one,” Post said. “I do think adjustments will take a long time.”

Like essential workers last year, some white-collar employees will have no choice when it’s time to return to the office. If the boss says come back, they will have to return.

One of the best ways to handle this adjustment will be recreating the work-from-home environment, Post said. If you work in an open-concept office, try booking a quiet room or corner for a few hours every day for uninterrupted work.

People can’t handle in-person distraction the way they could before the pandemic, which will make some interactions awkward, she said. It’s important to be firm in the boundaries you set as you transition back to the workplace.

If someone invites you to lunch, but you need that time to recharge on your own, Post says to be honest with them about why you can’t go. If you accept the invitation and feel like you’re talking too much, just say “If I’m too much, let me know.”

“We haven’t been around people, so it’s OK to invite some correction to help balance out your social normals,” Post said. “Setting boundaries doesn’t have to be fraught with nervousness.”

Post admits her patience for other people is shorter than it used to be, but says it’s her responsibility to change her attitude. She recommends tuning in to your feelings when you’re around others — heightened stress, annoyance, even confusion — and discussing what you feel during a one-on-one conversation.

There is no one-size-fits-all barometer for how people will feel as they return to the office. Some have been waiting for months to get back with coworkers; others may be resistant.

Lopez-Negrete Communications has not set a return date for all employees. But Garcia-Loera is grateful for the company’s transparency on the process. She feels her bosses are listening to people’s input about comfort levels. When it’s right for everyone, the company will return, she said.

“It has to be taken slow — the sounds of the office, being in an environment that’s not isolated,” Garcia-Loera said. “It’ll be baby steps getting you used to what it was like before.”

The pre-pandemic work environment doesn’t exist anymore, Post said. But she has hope for a new type of office life where colleagues communicate more clearly about their needs.

What hasn’t changed is etiquette and manners, she said. Arming yourself with “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “I’m sorry” makes a huge difference when transitioning back to the workplace.

“‘Please’ changes a demand to a request. ‘Thank you’ shows gratitude and appreciation. ‘I’m sorry’ invites the person to share their experience, perspective, space and thought,” Post said.

julie.garcia@chron.com

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