Just as the UK emerged from Winter and the first tentative signs of Spring showed themselves, offices gradually started to empty, meeting friends started to feel a bit clandestine, restaurants and children’s parties began to have an edge of danger and we waited and watched as daily life as we knew it took a dramatic turn. The rest of the world was either ahead or behind in a major re-imagining of normal.

Words and phrases we’d never heard of, much less uttered, became part of our vocabulary; furlough, social-distancing, R-rate.

Back then, most of us came to acceptance – some quicker than others – that team meetings, the daily commute, after-work gatherings and client dinners were, for now, a thing of the past. Some of those were a welcome loss, less palatable was the end of our gym memberships, uncertainty over future holidays, cancellation of celebrations and the end of eating out and our daily flat white. Not to mention the arrival of an oppressive anxiety about health, the economy, society and government. Many of us lamented the loss of things we’d taken for granted that made up our work life, our domestic and social lives and we hopefully predicted how soon they would return. 

And now here we are, on the precipice of the “new normal” and perhaps we’re not as ready for it as we thought we would be.

Returning to the office

A return to office life of some form or other will bring with it logistical issues; maybe for you it’s childcare or how to stay away from others on the train or in the office. There will be thoughts about face masks, hand gel and the best commuting times. But apart from these practical concerns, is the significant emotional burden of stepping out of our bubbles. Depending on the extent to which you and your household have “locked down” over this period, your feelings about re-engaging with public life may range from waves of agoraphobia, to mild panic or anxiety or perhaps you’re desperate to burst forth into the bustle of office life.

Now is the time to get clear about what is important to you and to be firm about your boundaries. What do you want to take out of this time and into your reformed reality? You have an opportunity to let go of any ingrained but misplaced politeness or sense of duty; be that declining social gatherings, deciding that home workouts can replace your gym membership or permanently adjusting the balance between home and office.

That balance will be the question that looms largest for many of us. It may be that your place of work imposes what that looks like for now; for many firms, it comes down to how many staff they can safely have in the building at any one time. For others, they may be rationalising office space and have a need for staff to do more home working. Some may be handing over the choice to their staff as to when they feel safe and comfortable to return. There will be practical considerations around childcare, health issues and transport for many of us to take into account as we make this decision.

Start by getting clear on what matters to you and plan what that would look like in terms of time spent in the office versus home, patterns of working throughout the week, time dedicated to childcare or personal commitments. Once you have clarity over your ideal, bring in considerations like visiting client sites, being available for face to face meetings, team collaborative sessions and the social aspects of a workforce that was once physically connected.

Consider your team, manager, peers and stakeholders and how their own ideals might impact yours. The idea here is to formulate a coherent, well considered plan that you can confidently put forward when the time comes to make that transition. Compromise is likely to be required but be pro-active when designing your own standards and be ready to present them as needed.

Managing your workload

The same goes for managing the workload itself. For most of us, the nature of our work has changed during this period, perhaps for you it has slowed down as deadlines have been pushed out or clients have gone quiet. Or maybe it has intensified with a need to pivot your output to the business implications of this crisis as well as continue the day job. Either way, you may feel anxious about the change of pace and focus as we re-emerge to something closer to the status quo.

Clarity of boundaries and expectations is as important here as for the physical return to the office. But even more important is to go easy on yourself, to practice self-awareness and compassion. Any form of change takes time to settle in to; the chances are that you took some time to adapt to to the new way of working at the start of lockdown and you cannot expect to be as efficient and effective as we begin to come out the other side. Don’t put additional pressure on yourself; this becomes counterproductive, not to mention potentially damaging for your wellbeing.

Acknowledge the need for space and time to re-group and to re-focus. It’s common to find that concentration lapses and decision-making becomes more onerous when your environment is rapidly changing. For some of us, escaping from home and children back to the office environment will be a welcome relief. Others will feel that being in their own space gave them a break from the distractions of the workplace. Be pro-active in raising these thoughts and concerns among your team and peers – you will not be the only one struggling with this. 

2020 has been an extraordinary year so far and will be an unforgettable chapter of your working life. Use it as an opportunity to re-consider your priorities and re-design your preferred working patterns, whilst recognising the need to compromise as others do the same. Be bold in elevating the conversation and proactive in putting forward your ideals. Most of all, take time to adjust and bring compassion to every step in the next part of this story.

Written by: Isabelle Campbell

Isabelle is a consultant, trainer and coach. Having obtained her ACA with a Big 4 firm, Isabelle has worked in demanding finance roles for more than 10 years and understands the impact of both work and personal challenges on health, happiness and balance. Isabelle is passionate about helping others achieve work/life balance, build resilience and increase inner peace. 

CABA provides lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, ICAEW staff, and their close family members.

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