At risk of stating the obvious, returning to a regular office schedule after enduring a global pandemic is new territory. We're all approaching the transition—whenever it may be as news around safe reentry changes daily—with our own baggage based on myriad factors. This is intimidating stuff, all tied up with things like fears, anxieties, and an overwhelming loss of control. For some, the shift in logistics signaled by a return to office life requires more adjusting than it does for others, with so many factors needing to fall into place in order to feel safety and comfort. For others, a return to routine is marked by excitement and joy. There's no right way to feel about the transition other than to honor what's authentic to you. Having said that, to keep the transition as forward-moving and healthy as possible, it's essential that you develop boundaries to ground you in your experience.
Ahead, we tap the expertise of a holistic career coach, psychologist, and integrative nutritionist to help you set healthy new boundaries as you return to the office.
Meet the Expert
- Amina AlTai is a holistic leadership trainer and coach working with private and corporate clients around the world.
- Debra Kawahara, Ph.D, is a licensed psychologist and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University.
Create a Plan for Reentry to Office Life
Before you head back to the office, begin with a vision of your reentry. "I urge you to create a plan for your reentry that will help you establish boundaries and communication ahead of time," says AlTai. She suggests you create a plan made up of three categories: deal-breakers, must-haves, and maybes. "A deal-breaker might be more than ten unmasked team members in one space. A must-have might be one work-from-home day. And your maybes would be any decisions that you’d make based on how you feel in the moment." Planning creates what AlTai calls, "scaffolding and guardrails for your work reentry without making it so airtight that you can’t navigate the boundaries in real time."
Whereas rules can be rigid and set by people or institutions other than you, boundaries are most effective when they're self-designated. As such, setting boundaries for office reentry relies on open communication. Kawahara explains, "Communicating what you want and need will be important in setting boundaries with colleagues and supervisors." It's vital you maintain a healthy dialog around the issues that are important to you. "You will need to be clear and transparent about what your needs are and how those needs can be met," she says. "You also have to be open and willing to listen to your colleagues and supervisors about their needs as well so you can have an open conversation about what are possible solutions and options and navigate any differences."
AlTai suggests you physicalize your plan when possible. You can use a calendar to help you honor boundaries that are important to you, like establishing set start and end times. She also provides tools for her clients, to help coach them through fears and anxieties about work. "In my navigating fear and anxiety worksheet, I invite people to take inventory of their fears and start to sort them. We start by listing out all our fears—without judgment."
Finally, when creating your office reentry plan, Kawahara suggests you tap into your support system and remember that your "thoughts are not facts."
How to Navigate Anxiety Around Health and Safety
Understandably, maintaining health and safety at the office can be a major source of anxiety for many. "Health continues to be an area of question as we hear about the Delta variety," notes Kawahara. She adds, "the possible need for booster vaccines, and rising numbers of coronavirus cases in certain areas of the U.S. and world" can also cause people to feel uneasy about returning to the office. Planning, once again, is critical to dealing with these fears.
AlTai suggests you think about defining boundaries for health and safety-related exchanges at the office. "How many people are you willing to be around and still feel safe and supported? Are you open to work travel and what do you need it to look and feel like? At what point do you feel comfortable without a mask? At what point do you feel like you want to wear your mask?"
When it comes to health and safety, be sure to honor all kinds of boundaries, especially as they relate to your physical self. "Define your boundaries around touching and physical space," says AlTai. "Are you willing to shake hands, high-five, hug?" Whatever you decide, know that these boundaries can change in accordance with your comfort level.
How to Deal With Social Anxiety
Another major cause for office reentry anxiety is jumping back into daily social exchanges with colleagues. After all, we've been in some state of lockdown for over a year, and our daily face-to-face interactions have undergone a shift, to say the least. For some, office chit chat, happy hours, and in-person meetings might be welcome. For others, these types of interactions might cause some social anxiety. The key to navigating this terrain is to, according to Kawahara, "focus on the good." She suggests trying to frame these interactions as a chance to "reconnect with missed colleagues and coworkers." In doing so, you'll reactivate feelings of hope and optimism.
To ease yourself back into being social at work, Kawahara suggests you begin with some preparation at home. "Revisit your work wardrobe, re-establish your morning work routine, and reach out to colleagues to plan activities together once you return to the office." Planning is key. You'll also want to think about setting boundaries for these types of social interactions. AlTai recommends you set boundaries for handling work-related social engagements. "Ask yourself if there's a limit to how many you’ll attend and clearly define what you need to feel good at those outings."
Striking the Right Work-Life Balance
Returning to the office is going to require a shift in logistics of managing life activities. And because it's natural to feel uneasy during any type of change, this period of adjustment will most likely be fraught with some anxiety. "We've been off this type of schedule for over a year," says Kawahara. Things like commuting, getting the kids off to school, and other family planning activities will all need some tweaking as we migrate into the office again. Think of these logistics as part of a larger shift; however, one that requires you to adjust the tempo of your work-life balance.
It can be helpful to think of the return as a reset, affording you with the chance to set new boundaries when it comes to work-life balance. "Lack of boundaries at work can show up as saying yes to everything, oversharing personal details, self-sacrifice, and even control," says AlTai. "If we want to develop ourselves as leaders and have healthy careers, we need to be in the right relationship with our boundaries." Having a systematic action plan in place is key to finding the balance that works for your lifestyle.
How to Maintain Healthy Eating Habits at the Office
When you return to the office, you'll need to redevelop boundaries around food—whether that means office donuts, working lunches, or happy hours. Maintaining a healthy diet is so critical to your sense of agency, not to mention your physical wellbeing. Poon calls this a "self-empowered, whole body, mind, and soul approach to wellness," which is at the core of her Culinary Alchemy® method and programs. To avoid stress eating during the return to office, think about how diet holistically supports your health and wellbeing, especially during this time of transition. "Maintaining your healthy habits during periods of stress is really about learning to understand what supports your body," explains Poon. She encourages people to find "balance and discover practices that help you maintain it."
Just like you created a physical calendar and used tools to sort fears and anxieties, you can create a journal to help you reestablish boundaries around eating at the office. "Take note of when you feel grounded and energized and when you feel lethargic, heavy, or supercharged," says Poon. "Consider keeping a journal to take note of what foods and activities help you feel great. Once you get your personal plan dialed in, you can consider that your balance point. When you head back into the office, you might experience more stress or outside influences that might throw your healthy plan off a bit, but if you know where that balance is, you can work to get back to a place that supports your personal health." It's important to note that boundaries around office eating are rooted in keeping you balanced and self-empowered so that you can best navigate this transition.
Bringing your own snacks from home, pausing to take a break and meditate, or taking a quick walk are all strategies Poon recommends to her clients in "maintaining balance during stressful periods back at the office." You can also bring some of the wellness practices you might have developed over the past year when working autonomously to the office, especially around meal or snack times. "To eat mindfully and with intention, make sure you put down any screens or distractions," says Poon. "As you take each bite, really savor the flavors and sensations. Offer gratitude for the nourishment that your food is providing. When you pay this kind of focused attention while you eat, you become more connected to what your body really needs."
The Final Takeaway
With concrete strategies, you can create boundaries that are flexible enough to bend with the issues that come up in day-to-day office life and keep you firmly planted in your comfort zone.