June 10, 2021

Company culture shock in the next normal: What to expect and how to respond

When your company transitions to its unique version of remote-hybrid work, don’t expect a seamless return to normal. It may be dramatic to call the experience a “culture shock,” but it’s something to be prepared for. Here’s some of what you can expect, and how to navigate the post-pandemic social environment at your company.

Invitation overload

We’ve been isolated from each other for months, leaving some without their favorite aspect of their work lives: social relationships with their colleagues. It’s only natural that, given back the opportunity, many will be eager to gather and get reacquainted. Happy hours, long lunches, coffee walk-and-talks — it’s all back on the table. All this activity can be exciting, but everyone has a limit to the social interaction they want, need, and can handle around their work. Some food for thought as you try to keep the reunion celebration from overstaying its welcome:

  • Know your boundaries. You know what the other commitments are in your life, and that the workplace isn’t your social circle. Expand that knowledge to a clear sense of your personal limits. How much time per week can you comfortably devote to colleagues outside the office? Try picking an actual number and granting yourself permission to stick to it.
  • Stay true to your “why.” No matter how much you relish bonding with your colleagues, you probably don’t want all of your work life energy going toward the social aspects, leaving none for the work itself. When you keep your priorities and purpose in mind, it’s easier to hold yourself accountable for maintaining your boundaries.
  • Protect the relationships. Turning down opportunities to socialize doesn’t have to mean burning bridges. When you find yourself having to decline, consider being transparent about needing time to rest and restore — chances are your co-workers will know the exact feeling you’re talking about, even if their limits differ from yours.

People working remotely may be more likely to experience the inverse of invitation overload: “FOMO,” or the fear of missing out. That’s where the next potential pitfall comes in.

The green-eyed monster

In a hybrid workplace, you might find yourself on both sides of jealousy. A major risk of hybrid work is the formation of an “in group” of HQ-based employees and “out group” of remote employees, and all of the inequities that comes with. Whichever side you find yourself on, consider these points:

  • Name the “real” reason. There’s an old chestnut that jealousy is a “wasteful emotion.” While that’s not exactly a fair assessment, what’s true is that you can handle it more effectively when you dig to the root of the feeling. Is your (or the other person’s) jealousy a reaction to insecurity about your/their status in the organization? Is it a fear that conversations relevant to your work are happening without you? Approaching FOMO with the specific cause in mind can lead to truly productive conversations.
  • Define your own value. Your value to the team isn’t defined in comparison to others. It’s natural to make those comparisons (this person’s getting more face time with higher-ups than I am, that person’s getting outsized credit for things I contributed to) but it’s a dangerous game to play. All you can control is your own contribution. You bring something unique to the table, and your skills and expertise solve a specific problem for your company. Own that!
  • Don’t compete; include. Besides, life at work isn’t a constant competition or a zero-sum game. You and your teammates are working toward a single mission, and you go farther together when you go together. Challenge yourself to be an “includer,” from being generous with public positive feedback to proactively bringing additional voices into conversations.

A layer of rust

Probably the most talked-about (and memed) prediction for the so-called “return to normal” is the idea that we’ll all have forgotten how to interact face-to-face. From unintended faux pas to pained small talk, many are anticipating an awkward return. Things probably won’t reach the levels of absurdity depicted on SNL or described in countless Tweets, but it’s still wise to expect a learning curve and keep the following in mind:

  • Give grace to yourself and others. This one speaks for itself. If you’re struggling to feel at ease, other people are too. Having a sense of humor about the discomfort goes farther than taking things personally.
  • Be a “new you.” The silver lining of a shared sense of newness is the opportunity to test out a new and improved self. There’s nothing stopping you from coming back with increased confidence, gratitude, or positivity.
  • Get (re)acquainted. You and your colleagues may have a lot to catch up, and there may be new members of your team you haven’t met in person yet. It’s a rare chance to start fresh in many of your working relationships, and reset your understanding of each other’s communication styles, goals, and backgrounds.

The return to the office will be strange, but it doesn’t have to disrupt your ability to thrive.

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