Anxiety, logistics and fitting back into our suits. It’s time to return to the City – but how?

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For all the hybrid models, face masks and hand sanitisers, how do business handle the anxiety and feelings around returning to the office in The City of London?

No sooner had the pandemic begun and people were sent home to work, than talk began about if/how we could return to the office. Now the time is here; this is where the rubber hits the road, and yet for all the chat about hybrid models, face masks and hand sanitisers, the thing that’s been impossible to legislate for is how we all actually feel about returning to the office.

It’s the details that affect our mental health

For some, returning to the City it’s exciting.For some it’s a point of anxiety. For many it’s a bit of both. I, for one, have been looking forward to returning – seeing people in the flesh (albeit from the nose up). However, I really wasn’t prepared for how exhausting I would find those first few days back into a routine I had happily undertaken as a matter of course for 30 years. I know I am not the only one who has found the logistics of returning to a different routine tiring – not to mention how strange it feels to put on a suit for the first time in 18 months!
These may seem like trivial details in the great scheme of things, but they’re a critical part of the fabric of our daily lives. The way we handle our working lives and relationships, and our willingness to do these things impacts our mental health. 
Whether it’s a return to pre-pandemic norms (unlikely), or the beginning of the new future, we are all pivoting in our routines once again, and that takes a little getting used to. There will be more mental adjustments to come as well; soon enough the furlough scheme will end, no doubt bringing with it a metaphysical shock for many. 

The benefits of finding a way forward

Yet, despite the things that we worry about, there are also real benefits for us as individuals, as well as for business, in ‘returning to The City’. Over the past few weeks, many of my business associates have returned to work as ‘normal’. There have been meetings in person, in some cases tentatively so – in other cases it’s been full steam ahead (with Covid-secure measures in place of course). 
It has been an enormous relief – to be able to communicate, discuss ideas and have conversations that could not have had the space to organically develop on a scheduled Zoom call. Mostly, it has been astonishing how quickly anxieties fade when you have the space to laugh and communicate in person. 

The challenge for businesses

Alongside all of this sense of relief, there are individuals who appear genuinely frightened of having the vaccine or who have chosen not to have it for their own reasons. The dichotomy that management has now is about whose freedoms and responsibilities come first as part of providing a safe working environment for all employees. Personal anxiety plays a big part in this issue.
We are all far more mindful now about mental health issues than we have been at any other time, certainly in my career. When I spoke to an Olympic coach recently, I thought he described the challenge of returning to the office very well. He said that it’s just like when Olympians train for a big event and it’s then delayed - even though they’re still inherently fit, they still need to work back up to competition level again both physically and mentally.  In short, you can’t stop and then suddenly just start again and go from zero to 100mph straight away. 
With that in mind, business leaders need to think about how their people are going to return to work, and not just in the obvious big structural ways, but with regard to the small daily things that people are adjusting to after spending a year at home. The ‘new normal’ is here, and it is genuinely new. We can’t leave it up to fate or simply hope for the best, and we can’t avoid it. 
So how do we do it?