The idea of returning to the office can conjure up a lot of emotions. Fear. Excitement. Nervousness. Anticipation. Ambivalence.
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And whether employees will be returning to the office full-time, a few days a week or periodically throughout the year, it’s going to be an adjustment to get back into the flow of office life and socialize face-to-face again, particularly if social distancing and safety measures are still in place.
“It is going to be a little weird at first,” said Susan McPherson, author of “The Lost Art of Connecting.”
But socializing and having friends in the office are often good for your career – especially when it comes to engagement and productivity. Office friendships can also be a benefit for the employer.
“At work, relationships are everything. Just having that space to make mistakes, knowing you can come to your team members and managers about anything, being able to make decisions faster – all of that is going to affect the company’s bottom line, retention rates and employee fulfillment,” said Stephanie Heath, a career coach.
But how do you break the ice again after more than a year of virtual meetings? Here are some steps you can take.
Get the conversation going
As we dust off our in-person socializing skills, it helps to have a few go-to questions on hand that go beyond typical small talk.
“Have some meaningful questions that will help you engage with others,” said McPherson.
She suggested asking questions like: Is there anything I can do to help you? Is there somewhere in the world you are planning to visit? If there was a problem you could solve in the next three months what is it and why?
“Questions like that get us to a deeper place, but aren’t so personal that they cross the lines of putting people in an awkward position,” McPherson said.
Showing a little vulnerability can also help get conversations flowing, said Heath. For instance, telling someone about how you felt awkward at your first social gathering since the pandemic began can help break the ice.
“When you share something that is semi-embarrassing and start with that…it invites the other person to start sharing,” Heath said.
When it comes to socializing outside of the office, McPherson said to start slow.
“Always defer to the comfort level of others and the state and local guidelines for gatherings. This is not the time to require people to show up who may not feel ready,” she said.
She added that because of the nicer weather coming up, a small picnic or meeting in a park might help with the transition, instead of a happy hour in a bar.
When trying to forge social relationships in the office again, Heath suggested starting with your teammates and then with your managers and other leaders.
“You can feel like you are in good standing with everyone that is around you that is on your level, you’re laughing and joking again and you have professional ‘persona’ back on,” she said.
Once you’re feeling comfortable, schedule some face time with your direct manager and higher-ups to catch up, hash out any future projects and sort through any pending issues.
Reignite your career
If 2020 thwarted your career plans and you are still feeling stuck, take this time of transition to reassess your goals.
“Sit down and reaffirm what your goals are,” said Heath. “Write them out and create a game plan on how you want to attack it. Include a timeline…once you have that meeting with yourself, then you bring in other people.”
But don’t become too focused on yourself, said Laura Gallaher, an organizational psychologist and founder of management consulting firm Gallaher Edge.
“Focus on how you can be really helpful to other members of the team. Ask how your contributions will impact the organization as a whole, and essentially prioritize the team over self. Doing this will make you look like a confident go-getter that your leadership team will want to hold onto, reward and promote,” she said.