Preparing for Your First Day Back at the Office

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There are a multitude of effective routines that were lost in the sudden shift to remote work during the pandemic. As many workers prepare for the return to offices, they need to reclaim the routines they lost and manage their time well.

Here are some recommended steps to reduce trepidation. A lot has changed in the past year. Picture your workday and logistical details, from when you wake to what you eat, pack, and wear. Put it on paper, and then check your assumptions. Look at the routines you’ve taken part of during the pandemic — exercise and chores — and identify where they should fall in your new schedule. Consolidate all this information into a single spot. Finally, think about any larger logistics you need to settle before your return to work, like renewing parking passes, planning your transit route, and preparing meals.

After the mass exodus from the land of cubicles in 2020, millions are returning to offices in 2021. For those who have relished their commute-free lifestyle, there’s a feeling of dread and a hope for negotiating a permanent remote (or at least hybrid) arrangement. For others who have found working from home challenging, there’s anticipation but still a twinge of uncertainty about how life will work when they’re back at work.

As a time management coach, I’ve been helping my clients process their “first day back on the job” jitters by talking through how to prepare for a smooth and successful transition. I find it helpful to start with a question: What effective routines did you lose in the sudden shift to remote work? In order to manage the additional complexity of working from the office, you’ll need to reclaim the routines that helped you feel prepared and manage your time well. Here are some of the steps that you can take to reduce your trepidation around the change.

Begin by visualizing your days in the office from start to finish. Focus on the specifics. For instance:

  • When will you get up?
  • What do you need to include in your morning routine (think of your family, pets, and other responsibilities)?
  • When will you head out the door?
  • What will you do for lunch?
  • When will you go home?
  • What will your evenings look like (cooking dinner, exercising, doing laundry, etc.)?
  • When will you go to bed?

Think through every little detail that needs to happen to make the whole system work and put it on paper. You likely had many of these routines down to a science at the beginning of 2020, but after a year’s hiatus, you’ll need to consciously retrain your brain on how to complete all these little activities that are part of making your work schedule work.

After you’ve written down what you think will happen in your schedule, check your assumptions. For example, look at the train schedule to see what times it’s running right now. The schedule has likely changed. Or check your GPS for the time you think you will need to leave for the office to see how long it takes to commute in with the current levels of traffic. If you intend to use your office cafeteria or local restaurants for meals, verify that they will be open. Don’t assume that anything is as you left it. Double check everything.

Once you’ve verified the current reality and updated your list accordingly, go back through your schedule to ensure you didn’t forget any details. Did you put in time for picking out an outfit – as well as showering, brushing your teeth, and making yourself presentable? Do you remember how long it takes to walk to the train station? If you’re packing a lunch, did you include time to prepare it? If you’ll need to use the dry cleaners, have you found one that is still open, and how long it will take to get clothes back? Do you need more meal prep on the weekend in advance of weekday dinners? Do you need to write out instructions for your nanny or older children for while you’re gone? Managing all these moving parts after so many months where your biggest concern was finding a clean enough shirt can be overwhelming. Just remember, getting back into your routine early will mean you will be more than prepared once your first day finally arrives.

There are a lot of routines that you’ll need to reintegrate into your life — some of which you may have forgotten during the pandemic. Some personal activities like exercise, dishes, laundry, or errands that might have slid into your work hours will need to move back into place at lunch or after work.

Take all this information and consolidate it into a single place. Put it in a Word document, make a checklist on your phone, or add recurring reminders to your calendar. Exactly how you document your routines isn’t as important as having all of these items in one place. In time, your routines will become natural, and you can likely ditch the list. But to start you’ll need to look at these operating instructions on how to make your day go smoothly on a daily basis.

After you’ve decided on your initial schedule of how you will manage your days once you’re back in the office, begin thinking about special projects you’ll need to complete prior to your return. Here are a few key boxes to check the month before you begin your commute again:

  • Review your work wardrobe to make sure that you have what you need, it fits, and it’s clean.
  • Get an up-to-date parking pass.
  • Meal plan for the first week or two back in the office — and even consider making some freezer meals if you’re worried about the evening rush.
  • Talk through any changes in expectations with your spouse and other members of the household on when you will be home and what they’re expected to do while you are gone such as taking out the dog or doing the dishes.
  • Think about any memberships to places near your office that it might make sense to renew, such as a gym, museum, or club.
  • Start to go to bed earlier. A lot of people shifted into a later sleep schedule so you’ll need to retrain your body to sleep and wake earlier.

Going back to the office will be a big shift for many workers. By following these steps you can avoid unnecessary stress; like waking up on the first day, realizing you can’t find your dress shoes, and missing the train because it now leaves 10 minutes earlier. Completing this preparation can make the day-to-day basics of the transition less anxiety inducing giving you the capacity to focus on all the other elements of your return to face-to-face work.

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