This week in the UK more coronavirus restrictions have been lifted. We can now meet indoors with others, as well as eat indoors (just as well as the weather has been freezing and vile) and art galleries, cinemas etc are opening up again. It feels like the return to “normal”, a much overused phrase! but the feeling of relief about being able to reconnect with people in person is palatable.
With this, and despite the new variant reaching the UK, there is much speculation that all restrictions will be lifted in a month’s time. Will this include social distancing? Will this mean we can hang up our masks? Does this mean that teaching in September will be back to pre-pandemic arrangements? As much speculation as there is there is as much caution. Even if restrictions do lift in June, my suspicion is that there may be a reintroduction for universities in the autumn to prevent a fourth (? I’ve lost count now) wave.
Although there is a real sense of relief there is a lot of nervousness too and anxiety. I experienced this last week when I attended an all day away day for work in person. It was absolutely lovely to see colleagues face-to-face and with legs all day, to have spontaneous conversations and walk and talk. It was great to present and see the faces of the people I was talking to, and take questions in a relaxed fashion. However, it was exhausting! Beforehand I was wondering what it would be like to be masked for our discussions, would we even need to be masked or would we all be 2m apart? What would the building be like? What would the commute be like? Would my laptop last all day? Where on earth were my smart work shoes?!
Afterwards, I was amazed at how everyone slipped back into an easy normality. And it felt so normal. Despite 14 months+ of not being in this sort of environment, it was easy to click back into it again. This did make me wonder how much of the changes that we have talked about “sticking” post pandemic will actually happen? Ok, I just ventured out into the big wide world for one day, but will we all just be expected to pick up where we left off in March 2020? If our offices have not been sold or redesigned for flexible working, will we just put the last 14 months down as a blip and revert back to where we were? Will we all just experience a slingshot effect?!
I don’t have the answers obviously and only time will tell, but I do think we need to be curious and open about our return to work environments and avoid the slingshot. Despite the real hardships and impact on our mental health of the many lockdowns, there are some real benefits for flexibility and rethinking the ways we work. I think we need to think carefully about what are the benefits of being together and what do we want to achieve in those interactions, and what are the benefits of working remotely, what can we achieve better in those environments? This is a great opportunity to reflect on how we want to work now, what will benefit ourselves and those we work with? Where and how can we be most productive? And give ourselves the opportunity to not just slip back into unproductive meetings and pointless commutes for work that could have been done as effectively online. Instead, we can focus on those things that were much harder to do online and really benefit from face-to-face interaction, so we can create rich, meaningful and productive working environments. I think this takes time and although we are all keen to move on, we can use this transition carefully to plan our “re-entry” and thoughtfully so that we move our working practices on to adapt and be better. In the long run, I think this will be more positive for both our productivity and our wellbeing.