There’s no denying it, we are all waiting to see if 2021 will fix what 2020 has broken and secretly fearing it won’t. By now, however, we should have learned that years, however much evidence we might collect to the contrary, do not have personalities and the “fixing” is up to us. How does this translate into our working lives? Many of us find it unsettling to “go back to work” while not going back to the office. The holidays melted into the rest of the year, because most of us couldn’t change our routine, go on holiday, or see much of our families. We spent Christmas in the same room or set of rooms in which we spent most of the past year. And now we are “going back to work” while sitting at the exact same desk and not being able to shake hands or make eye contact with our colleagues. How do we make this work? How do we reconnect with our coworkers after a whole year of not seeing one another, followed by a winter break away from one another, as we prepare for a few extra months of not being anywhere near one another?
Going back to work as a team
The past year has changed us in more ways than we care to imagine. The key to maintaining positive and successful professional relationships in this scenario is valuing flexibility and autonomy while keeping the company’s values and shared goals in mind. Individual responsibility takes on a whole new meaning in this context because each employee needs to take an active role in organising their working routine in order to hit their assigned targets and complete projects. In order for this to work, employers should promote the principles of responsibility, collaboration, and trust among their employees and, ideally, organise at least one virtual event to mark the end of the holidays and touch base, to allow the whole team to go back to work with a clear view of their role and tasks.
Technology has allowed us to keep working through the pandemic, but working proficiently without ever meeting one’s colleagues requires much more than a good internet connection. Each company should rethink its team-management strategies and rewire the very backbone of collaboration between team members. Particularly during the first weeks after going back to work, the company should encourage video calls between colleagues, the discussion of common goals and strategies, and the use of any means of keeping personal communication going (such as having a shared message board for non-work-related messages, a Discord server, or a Whatsapp group).
Focus on the goal, but don’t forget the process
Objective-driven teams thrive on remote work, particularly if the project-management stage was thoroughly carried out and each employee has a clear path ahead. It is essential, however, not to lose track of the collective process and maintain internal communication flowing as naturally as possible, to avoid isolation. This is the ideal time for companies to apply the one principle every firm boasts about, while very few of them actually implement: “taking suggestions from all levels of the organisation”. All team members need to feel valued, seen, and appreciated. Going back to work should feel like a thrilling challenge, not a chore.
What employees and freelancers can do
So, if you are not a CEO or an HR manager, is this post not for you? We do have a few suggestions for employees too, as well as freelancers. Because we know that managing a team might be hard, but being a good team member is also a challenge and having no team to speak of is definitely harder. How do you go back to work if there is no “event” to mark it happening? How do you kick yourself into gear after a whole year of zoom calls and sitting at your kitchen table with unhealthy amounts of coffee? This is when you need to start working on your routine if you haven’t done it already. It is essential to find ways of separating your “office hours” from the time you devote to your friends, your family, your health, and your relaxation. The hardest part is admitting that you do need to make time for all of those things and that you should not feel guilty for shutting down your laptop at 6.00 pm, for scheduling your day around your workout routine, or for being as particular about a Zoom with distant friends as you would be for a call with your clients or colleagues. All of these things contribute to keeping you motivated and healthy, which ultimately impacts your performance, your productivity, and your quality of life. And, as we all head into what we hope will be the final months of this emergency, we should go back to work with the full knowledge that, if we made it through 2020, we can overcome anything that is thrown at us.