Beat The Back to Office Blues

As someone with a little bit of social anxiety, even in the best of scenarios, the thought of resuming a social life or working in an office post-COVID is daunting. Now, here we are a full year since COVID has changed the way that we work, and going back to the office, at least in some capacity, is on the horizon. After over a full year of getting adjusted to the remote working environment, going back to work might just provide a bigger challenge for teams everywhere. Remote working environments are likely going to be here to stay in some capacity, but some of us might be concerned about working closely with colleagues or connecting with team members that we haven’t seen in-person in a while, and it will take effort on the part of managers and HR to help create that psychological safety as efficiently as possible.

When teams come back together, whether it be for staff meetings, retreats, or to work in the office, social anxiety will likely be running rampant. Your team may not have their pets at their feet, the safety of their home office, or many of the creature comforts they have gotten used to at home. They will likely be expected to resume productivity instantly, re-create “team”, and assimilate back to the culture that once was. This year has shown us that most of us can at least do some of our work from home and be productive at home, but the one thing that is wholeheartedly missing is the social connection that leads to high functioning team cultures. The pandemic is going to fundamentally change the way people work, connect, and collaborate. That means, in the moments when we are all together in the office, whether it be for team meetings or retreats, we need to prioritize culture building to help teams feel safe, connected, and productive in this “new reality”. If we don’t address social anxiety early and effectively, it will fester and grow.

Studies show that play can help reduce social anxiety by quickly building connection and collaboration. But, teams will need to ease into full on escape room play, and the best way to lay a strong foundation is allowing for short bursts of play. Making time for activities specifically designed to build culture can help build psychological safety by building team connective tissue and creating less risky opportunities for teams to problem solve and build connection and relationships. Often, play can result in authentic dialogue, too, which can build strong connections that high performing teams can lean on when they are in moments of stress.  We’ve put together a few ideas that can help your teams get off on the right foot when coming back to the office.

Use a connection prompt at the start of each in-person interaction

Using a prompt at the start of your meeting can be a great way to help start authentic conversation and connection opportunities, even when your team is feeling anxious and awkward. You want to make sure you invite everyone to share, and always give your team an opportunity to pass if they aren’t feeling ready to share. That optional participation actually helps drive even more psychological safety, knowing choice is involved. Prompts can be more “get to know you prompts”:

  • What was your favorite work from home snack food?
  • If you were stuck on a deserted island and only had 2 things you can bring with you, what would they be?
  • Would you rather be able to visit a day in the past or in the future and why?

You can also leverage a good starting question to provide more opportunities to connect around work related tasks:

  • What was your favorite work project last year and why?
  • What is something you learned about yourself during the challenges of the pandemic that you want to continue doing?
  • What is one thing you saw another team member do that you want to incorporate into your own work?

There may also be many opportunities to help team members connect on a theme, depending on what is going on in the world. For example, if it is Black History Month, you can have team members share a meaningful quote, or something they have been learning about or questioning lately. Or, if it is beginning to feel like spring, you can use the metaphor of spring to fuel conversation, like asking a question like What is something you want to cultivate or grow more of this year?

Use activities that fuel connection and inspire innovation

Anytime you can allow your team to play together in an activity that isn’t seemingly directly related to work, it allows your team to try new skills or warm-up collaboration muscles so that when work projects come along, they can be laser focused and confident. One of the best aspects to play-based activities designed to enhance brainstorming, creative collaboration, and communication is that your team is willing to take risks or think outside the box because the stakes are lower. Play can also have an element of friendly competition that actually fuels relationship building, and team members can often discover special skills from other team members when hierarchy is put aside for the sake of fun and play.

Help your teams make connections to learnings and opportunities

It is equally important after culture building activities to help your teams discover how to bring some of what they learned about themselves and each other into the forefront of their minds. Debrief questions that are often open ended like What did you learn about yourself or others in that activity? or How might you use what you learned in this activity and apply it to a challenge you have at work right now? can be a great opportunity to help drive practical application and key takeaways.

We have an opportunity to really restructure our team culture and help our teams become more successful when in-person work meetings return. Consider making culture a priority, so that your teams are happier and more productive in the long-run

Looking for activities that you can play in your team meetings or retreats to help your teams build psychological safety? Interested in helping your team drive key takeaways with strong debrief questions? TheCultureBiz has you covered, with 4 activities, all materials, and debrief questions conveniently sent to your office each quarter to build and enhance your team culture and connection.


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