Eight things to expect when you return to the office after lockdown

·4 min read
what work like back to office after lockdown
what work like back to office after lockdown

Love it or loathe it, the great return to the office is upon us. As employers gear up to welcome staff back from June 21, many of us are tentatively starting to dip our toes back into office life. But, as we keep hearing, the world of work has changed forever. And thus, so has the office.

Preparation is key to surviving your first week back. Think of it like starting school again: all you need to do is make a good impression, remember where the toilets are (yes, that one-way system can be deceiving) and show off your new haircut. Here is everything you can expect when you return…

1. The death of the tea round

It was once the pinnacle of British office etiquette, but is the tea round about to go down the drain? After a year of being told to wash our hands and wipe down surfaces, the thought of having other people fumble with our mugs and teabags just feels a bit wrong.

In truth, we were always a little suspicious of the murky shades of beige that returned from the office kitchen. Still, we’ll miss the convenience – and the gossip.

2. Lunchbreak politics

In the old normal, there was only one decision to make: salad or sandwich? Now, there are so many questions: who makes it into the six-person group that can sit for lunch together? Is there a Slack channel for organising such matters? And if it’s your turn to miss out on the lunchtime excursion, is it still hygienic to dine al-desko?

3. Perspex screens

The clunky dividers are both a blessing and a curse. For those who enjoy a good chinwag, the new set-up means no whispering to your colleague about Steve from marketing’s lockdown mullet. They also make it tricky to navigate the etiquette of personal space: entering someone’s compartment for a chat seems a little invasive, but awkwardly hovering outside it makes you seem aloof. On the plus side, they stop other people snooping on your desk space. If you’re missing your WFH setup, add a curtain for a homely touch.

4. The etiquette of taking a sick day

It’s a double-edged sword. If you call in sick, everyone will assume you have the virus and avoid being within a five-metre radius of you for several weeks. In preparation, sneak a little disclaimer on the end of your Out of Office email: ‘I am very sick with the flu and I certainly don’t have Covid.’ Yet if you come in sick, expect the same fate. Once frowned upon, sick days in the time of Covid are very much allowed and perhaps, even encouraged. In the middle of a pandemic, no one wants to sit next to someone who is sniffing and coughing – no matter how many layers of Perspex there are in between.

5. The new small talk

Plastic screens and social distancing measures have put an end to small talk as we know it – but we’re not out of the woods just yet. While we used to have some element of control over office chatter – walking over to your colleague’s desk to debrief about the weekend, or discussing your love life by the kettle – the new small talk is 10 times more awkward. Partly, this is because it is always hindered by something: whether that’s a face mask (“sorry, you’re a little muffled”), social distancing measures (“I’d love to see a picture of your lockdown puppy Niall, but I can’t get too close”) or temperamental office Wi-Fi on a Zoom call (“you’re breaking up again, Sam”). And partly, it's because we can't remember how we did it in the first place.

6. Vaccine chat

If you end up chatting to your colleagues, there’s one question that you can expect to hear on repeat: “Which vaccine did you get?” Expect a tribal new divide in the office: those who received the Pfizer jab and now have a superiority complex vs the AstraZeneca lot who have a strong sense of loyalty towards their vaccine. And for those who haven’t got it yet, be warned: you’re practically contagious.

7. Navigating a one-way system

“Honestly Mary, you use the kettle first. I’m actually on my way to the toilet but I took a wrong turn and ended up in the canteen. Now, I’m standing here trying to look purposeful, while also abiding by social distancing measures. I then have a meeting with my boss, which involves taking a 180-degree loop around the office to the stairs, but I still need to find out where the new loos are. Excuse me while I overtake you from a one-metre distance; I need to spend a penny.”

8. Ventilation

The office air-con has long been the centre of fierce debate; one man’s perfect temperature is another woman’s freezing to death. Yet, as all we know by now, good ventilation is crucial for dispersing those pesky coronavirus droplets, so be prepared for a constant icy blast to be circulating through the office. Constant shivering is a small price to pay for the joy of being back, right?