Articles & Publications

By Ute Franzen-Waschke
Conversational Intelligence® Leader

How ready are you to re-enter full office and social life?

This spring COVID-19 restrictions were lifted more and more in European countries, the United States, and around the world. In many places, masks are no longer mandatory in most public places including stores and restaurants, and only required in hospitals, nursing homes, and other locations where vulnerable members of our society need extra protection. A few weekends ago, I saw on TV a soccer stadium filled with thousands of spectators for the first time in more than two years—no limits on ticket sales for the match and the stadium was full. We could see the crowds of people close to one another, no masks, cheering for their favorite team. One person, who joined us late, looked at the screen and said: “This must be a replay from before COVID-19”. We replied: “No, it’s a live premier league match.” This news was met with amazement and expressions of disbelief and discomfort.

In the workplace, transitions to working in offices are eliciting similar reactions. In some countries or areas, masks are not required in offices. While masks still had to be worn until the end of May, nowadays in German offices masks are only recommended when the 1.5 meter social distance cannot be kept. I have heard clients expressing similar discomfort around participating in larger on-site meetings or town halls after more than two years of working mostly from home. Even office workers who have occasionally gone to the office over the last year and half, have reported that it is hard to imagine that all their colleagues would soon return to their open-floor offices, at the same time. Most of them have worked and may continue to work for the next few months in shifts or rotating models, where staff take turns working from home or from the office. “Taking turns” is something that many office workers have gotten used to over the last years, with only 30 to 50 percent of the workforce actually in the office at the same time.

Working together and spending more time in the office with all colleagues at the same time is not a bad thing as such – in fact it used to be what we all expected and considered ‘normal’ – but now it is making some people feel uneasy just thinking about it. Why is that? 

Consider this: For those of us who worked in offices that were deserted during this time, our nervous systems have been on 'socializing pause’ and in ‘social-distancing mode’ for more than two years – and this is something we cannot simply change or switch off overnight. In the same way as it was a process for our nervous systems to adapt to living a more isolated life, working at a distance, or meeting through virtual communication, it may be a process to re-adjust our nervous systems and switch back to ‘normal’, after all we have experienced during the pandemic. Or do we maybe need to redefine ‘normal’ for business and social life? What do we do if a certain part of the population feels they must remain ‘cautious’, ‘hesitant’, and ‘more distant’ even with people they like, respect, enjoy working with, or may even be good friends with? The pandemic has impacted our relationships in a major way, and the longer lasting impacts are just beginning to appear.

In our Neuroscience of WE® program at The CreatingWE® Institute, we discuss the three branches of our nervous system that are key circuits for how we engage with one another. We consider daily experiences of what neuroscientists call Neuroception. Dr. Stephen Porges describes Neuroception as the automatic ability of our body to scan the environment around us for cues that tell us whether this is a safe or a dangerous place for us to be. Although this information can involve our location and physical cues about safety and threat, our nervous system is also constantly attuned to interpersonal signals. This social engagement system is continuously reacting to Neuroception with physiological responses – like sweaty hands when we are nervous, or the accelerated heartbeats common to the very different experiences of feeling at risk or connecting with playfulness. These body signals move swiftly, which is why sometimes we can find ourselves in a state of agitation or withdrawal before we have any idea about why, or what precipitated it.

Being social is so essential for humans that we have developed a specialized and wide-reaching branch in our complex brain/body wiring that literally tunes us in for connection and conversation – our eyes for gazing at other faces, our ears for conversation frequencies, a braking mechanism to keep our heartbeat rhythmic. When this social engagement system is at work, it coordinates with either the parasympathetic (rest and digest) or sympathetic (fight/flight) branches of our nervous system, giving us a range of states for being social, whether restful (for example, working quietly) or energized (for example, vigorous discussion).

However, when these coordinating branches have been on ‘pause’ or altered circumstances for an extended period, their thresholds have very likely adjusted. Imagine how sensitivity to picking up on signals that ‘this is not safe’ may have changed. Gatherings of people that once signaled belonging or celebration may send many of us into ‘protect mode’ as they now signal “too many people far too close to one another” – and thus we may naturally avoid or withdraw from such situations.

In these new circumstances, withdrawing very likely has nothing to do with specific individuals triggering our reactions, but more with the data we now have stored about what we consider safe and not safe. What we now perceive as safe (Neuroception), has been hugely impacted by our pandemic experiences. We can only wonder what research data will surface in a few years on how safety needs may or may not have shifted as a result of this experience.

There is no doubt the pandemic has impacted how we have nurtured and kept our relationships alive, as well as how – or if – we enter new relationships. What we have learned over the last two years, not by choice but circumstances, has required new rules, and cannot simply be unlearned by just flipping a switch. This kind of switch does not exist for our nervous systems.

No government or employer in the world can simply click a general ‘undo’ button, by eliminating restrictions, and by telling people that it is now ‘safe’ again to mingle and to go back to work. On a system’s level – our nervous systems and our working relationships – it will take intentional effort, practice, and patience to renew our ways of engaging. We need to work with our own nervous systems, as changing and adapting - both at work and personally – requires a sense of safety that allows us to ‘dare to change’ (we feel good about the change), as well as have the motivation to change (the change makes sense).

As an individual, how can you help this to happen for yourself?

  • Be a good observer of your own reactions and Neuroception of safety or threat. What are you noticing that’s different for you now? For example, if you find yourself overly stimulated, what helps you to calm your system? Or if you find yourself reluctant to engage, what helps you to increase your willingness?

  • Pause, notice, and practice re-adjusting these as needed, so you can begin to overwrite the ‘nervous system scripts’ created during the pandemic.

  • Be patient with yourself and those around you; retraining ourselves in ‘new’ habits takes time.

As an employer, how can you help this to happen for others?

  • Understand that everyone’s nervous system responds differently to the changes.

  • Offer space to have conversations with your staff about what they need to feel safe at work, and what’s important to work on together in the office versus what can be done from home.

  • When possible, give them choices in how to organize their return to the office.

  • Offer training options to your staff on how tasks can be done and projects can be organized that take advantage of asynchronous work processes.

Now is the time to prepare and prime yourself to have intentional strategies ready before you need them. The choices we make can provide the needed support not only for our nervous system but for others’ as well. How ready are you?

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