If my maths is right, it’s 490 days since I last spent a whole day in the office. That is, working at a desk (or workstation as we now call them), having meetings with colleagues and nipping to the canteen or into town for lunch.
Like everyone else, little did I know, as I made my journey home that day, that that was that. But now, more than a year later, I will head back to the office.
I write this sat in my home office on a Friday afternoon. With one, hopefully sunny, weekend ahead of me before I set my compass for the office. Back in March last year, I had no office. In fact, I didn’t have a desk, a chair, nor anything else designed for working at home.
It’s a slow and phased return. So, I’ll only be in the office a day a week to begin with. I don’t doubt that these early days will be more about reconnecting with colleagues than about productive work. But that doesn’t make them any less important.
I’ve been working on our plans for agile working and the return to the workplace for some time. Abortive work started in late 2020, before the focus shifted back to staying safe in lockdown. But much of 2021 has been focused on how we get back to the office, and how we bring employees along for the journey.
It’s not been an easy task, but it’s been a crucial one.
The first challenge was setting and communicating a vision for agile working that people could understand. In a highly regulated industry like ours, this perhaps means a little less individual flexibility than for people in other sectors. But regardless of that, it’s new, it’s different and it will see most office workers going from working in one fixed location at one fixed desk, to several locations, depending on what they’re doing.
Agile working will succeed or fail depending on how much people buy in to it. Everyone will need to work differently and adapting to this might not be easy at first.
But by working together; by sharing information quickly; by being honest about the expectations of the business; and by encouraging people to be kind, respectful and supportive, I hope we have made it a little easier.
Kindness is crucial. People are going to be doing something new – something unfamiliar. They’re likely to feel anxious about this. Even those who are desperate to get back to the office will need time to adapt.
For me, I often like the comfort of familiarity. I like to know where I am going, how to get there and what to expect when I arrive. That means this week I’ll get the anxious Sunday evening feeling and some Monday morning trepidation, but I think it’ll disappear pretty quickly after I find a workstation and settle in.
Helping your friends and colleagues, and even those you don’t know through the process will be important.
In practice, this means following the rules. It means offering people support. It means not publicly challenging people who get things wrong. It means offering advice and tips to people you see having problems. It also means checking in with people who you think could be struggling with the return. Above all else, it means trying to be positive.
At an organisation like mine, it also means bearing in mind that half our workforce has been at work throughout the pandemic, and it’s their hard work and adaptation that has made it safe for us to return, having learned from their experiences.
Of course, there are also lots of practical things we can do to smooth the bumps. I have marked my Outlook diary with the days I am in the office, so people know how to contact me. I’ll be rearranging my diary to ensure I avoid Teams and Zoom meetings when in the office. I have made sure I know how to contact my colleagues, and I have made sure I have clear priorities for the next few weeks.
To anyone returning to the workplace next week or to anyone embracing hybrid/blended/agile working, I wish you the very best of luck.
To those of you who have been in the workplace throughout the pandemic or who have been working this way for years and are wondering what all the fuss is about, I thank you for your efforts.
Now, where’s my rucksack?