The New Office Normal: Adapting to Change in the Workplace

When I began drafting this post, I thought I’d write about how we’re getting back to normalcy but after a bit of contemplation, I’ve come to the realization that there really isn’t going to be a time when we get back to the normal we’ve all been used to for the majority of our lives. New normals will grow from the world we are currently in and we will adapt and eventually embrace them.

Work has probably been one of the most changed elements in a lot of people’s lives. Along with many others, I found myself working from home during the rise of the pandemic in the United States. I’ve worked from home on the occasional random day before and wasn’t worried about my focus or ability to complete a full day’s work. In addition to working from home, my hours were reduced to 32 per week and instead of shifting my schedule to just four days, we kept it at five. My days started later and ended sooner and the confidence that I had that I’d be okay working from home began to dwindle each week I spent at home.

It was harder to concentrate every day because my home became everything. It was where I ate all three meals, where I worked, slept and relaxed. I didn’t leave my house and that became detrimental to my mental health. And I know that so many others have, or still are, feeling that way. It’s not easy and it’s not normal. I thank my lucky stars that I still live with my family and that I wasn’t alone at home for those two and a half months. I had people to talk to and interact with face-to-face which many people didn’t have. A lot of those in the professional work industry rely on the social aspect of office life. Even though my office is small, I still enjoy visiting with my coworkers and I missed that.

As restrictions changed and the content of my work began to look like it used to, it was time for my workspace to move from my dining room table back to my actual office. My boss approved our return but preparations had to be made and guidelines put into place. The workplace had to adapt to continue to keep us comfortable and safe.

To start the returning process, I had to move my desk. I was out in the main lobby area behind a divider in a shared open space with our front desk agent and if I stayed in that space, we would have to both wear masks for the entirety of the work day. The two other full-time people in our office have personal offices with doors that can be closed so while alone in their closed offices they don’t have to wear masks. So, to make it comfortable we moved my desk to the back room that we use as storage and where maintenance had a small desk the manager used only on occasion. Moving into the back room, though far from glamorous with an unfinished concrete floor, housekeeping supplies and old filing cabinets, allowed me to be in an area where I could close the door and work without breathing through a mask all day.

Though we all are in our own personal spaces we still wear masks when in the common areas and keep our six feet social distance. For my boss and I, we are only in the office three days a week so we have some time together, but also have time at home where we aren’t restricted. When we are in the office we’re also required to take our temperature upon arrival to make sure that we aren’t running a fever.

We also respect each other’s personal space and only allow one person in the kitchen at a time. Sanitation of commonly touched surfaces also occurs daily. To give us an additional layer of protection, our office continues to be closed to the public, with the exception of deliveries, so we don’t have unnecessary outside interactions. These standards will hopefully keep us safe and healthy.

To be completely candid though, I think some of the regulations that my boss has put into place are a little extreme considering there are only four of us in the office and we live in a mountain community with an entire county population of about 15,000. Nevertheless, I understand the precautions and the continuous risk that COVID-19 presents, especially to a small tourist community. I’m also (now) extremely happy that I have the ability to be back in the office and to have some interaction with my coworkers. Returning to the office was not as exciting as I hoped it would be simply because it wasn’t like returning back to the normal I’m used to.

After the first few days back in the office I found myself wanting to return home to work full-time. It wasn’t what I was used to and I thought “maybe I’ll be happier at home.” But after thinking about my two and a half solid months at home and how isolating it was, I realized these few regulations weren’t going to kill me. I’ve also learned to do a few things to bring me back to feeling more upbeat at work.

  1. Talking a walk break. My coworker usually walks during his lunch break and I’d occasionally join him for the 30 minutes around the neighborhood. Now that restrictions are in place for restaurants he can’t spend the second half of his break in the coffee shop right below us so he walks for a full hour instead. This little break from being cooped up in the office is great. I get some steps in, some social conversation and I get a break from work. The fresh air is also a huge plus.
  2. Listening to music loudly. When my desk was in the common area I didn’t get to listen to my music very loudly, or I used headphones. Now that I’m in my own space I figured it was okay to listen to my music out loud (and uncensored). Music has always helped me concentrate, and stay awake, during the work day so having even more freedom with it has been good for my sanity.
  3. Keeping communication open. Before there was the risk of contracting a virus just by standing close to someone, we generally just went to each other’s desks to talk. Now it’s expected to send a quick email to discuss anything work related and socializing became a faux pa of sorts. To remain communicative and to have the ability to simply chat about the latest TV shows we were binging or discuss the latest county gossip, we started using our office phones kind of like walkie-talkies. It’s easy to pick up the phone and dial a three-digit extension and we all feel a little better just knowing that there are other people in the office and that we can still interact even though there are walls between us.
  4. Remembering that this will not be forever. Like I’ve already said, we will never get back to the normal that we are used to but these rigid standards will not be in place forever either. It’s temporary and we have to think about how this time will only be a short period in our lives. There will probably always be a risk, but at least we won’t live our lives staying six feet from every other human on the planet.
  5. Knowing that we are all in this together. Sometimes when you’re isolated working from home or even isolated working in your closed up office, it’s easy to feel alone. For me, knowing that there are so many other people feeling the same why I am feeling helps in a weird way. I know that for some people, like my coworker who lives alone, it’s a lot harder. I know that I’m not the only one living through this experience and even though it’s a terrible dystopian-feeling time, we are all in this together.

Returning to the office was, and will remain, a different type of working environment. We all have had to adapt and change the way we normally conduct business but the main thing to remember is that we will get through this. We must take what we have now and learn from this experience. We might even get the opportunity to find ways that work better than how they did before.

As I personally get used to being in the office again I know there will continue to be growing pains and days where I just want to go home and forget that this is all happening. And I know I’m not alone in this feeling. I can only hope that we all find what works best for ourselves and use this time for a bit of personal growth. I also hope that everyone out there is staying safe and is keeping their sanity intact.

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