After two years of coronavirus pandemic isolation, the return to offices has been a master class in awkwardness.
Recently, Katherine, a consultant at an investment bank in New York, met a colleague for the first time. He went for a fist-bump four times in the same interaction.
“He was like, ‘Hell yeah! That’s great, Katherine!’ Fist bump. ‘Yeah, I’ll see you later!” Fist bump. ‘Okay, I’m going to head out!’ Fist bump,” she said. “The fourth time, I looked up at him and was like, ‘Are you sure?’ and he just held it there.”
She gave him the fourth bump.
As of April 11, an average of 43% of workers had returned to offices across 10 of the country’s top business centers, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., according to data monitored by Kastle Systems. In late December, during the surge of the omicron variant of the virus, occupancy averaged just 17.5%.
The upward creep of office occupancy is charting a major milestone in the country’s emergence from the pandemic, a sign we’re attempting to pick up where we left off. But reunions with colleagues, forgotten Girl Scout cookies and old phone chargers have been accompanied by feelings of uncertainty. Some workers are coming back to the same desks but no longer know their colleagues. Others are braving offices for the first time, having joined the workforce in the remote-everything era.
Katherine, who is identified only by her first name to speak freely about her employer, went back to the office in February. She still calls her co-workers her “Internet friends.” They know one another from Zoom but, in person, they feel like strangers.
After weeks of “coexisting” and internally playing the “Do I know you?” game, Katherine, 26, started going out of her way to introduce herself to colleagues.
“People are so excited sometimes when you do say hi and you do meet them, they don’t really know how to act,” she said. “Everyone approaches it awkwardly but kindly.”
As singular and transformative as the past two years have been, workers have broadly been having parallel experiences until now. Companies shuttered operations and adopted remote work by necessity and in unison in the early phases of the pandemic. But as the virus recedes and firms are forced to chart their own courses, we’re in “this weird liminal state” that presents an even greater degree of uncertainty, said Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis.
“In my opinion, we’re actually seeing far greater struggles on the human side as people are trying to figure out exactly what the new routines are going to be and as organizations are struggling to adjust to people’s new beliefs about work,” Knight told The Washington Post.
Being around other people feels draining. Swapping flexibility for anything mandatory seems like a downgrade. Old routines have become foreign and taxing: suiting up and commuting, making calls in front of co-workers, navigating run-ins with bosses in the restroom, picking a seat in the company kitchen. And the new stuff is weirder, like schlepping into work just to sit on Zoom calls in an empty office.
Social media has been studded with posts about the less rosy realities of encountering colleagues in their physical forms, from unwanted physical contact to farts.
“Moments ago, on my first day back to the office in person since 3/1(1/2)020, the woman next to me in the courthouse passed gas loudly — very loudly — three times,” one person tweeted last week. “I miss remote work already.”
When you’re in the same space as your colleagues, “now all of a sudden we actually have to coordinate our preferences,” Knight said, from the office thermostat to masking etiquette, which creates “minor points of friction” that can compound.
Barbara Holland, HR adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, said one of the most basic steps to creating a comfortable environment in the current landscape is “making sure that people who are very comfortable are aware that others may not have the same feelings.” Some of this can be encoded in policy — such as mask, vaccination and social distancing requirements — but invariably, there will be a learning curve, Holland said.
She’s felt it herself as she adjusts to ways of greeting her colleagues. She’s tried the air hug and the waving and the elbow-bumping, but sometimes, she still can’t help but go for the handshake.
“Usually if the person hesitates I pull my hand back really quick and say “Oh, I’m so sorry — habit,'” Holland said. But she knows she’s not alone in falling back on old routines.
“There are lot of people who still do shake hands,” Holland said. “It’s going to be hard to completely break that habit for some.”
Nitya Chawla, an assistant professor of management at Texas A&M University, studied worker anxiety early in the pandemic. At that time, workers were grappling with fears that were mostly related to catching COVID-19. But two years later, as more companies bring workers back to offices, the anxieties have shifted to things that used to be second nature, Chawla said, like how to make small talk about anything other than COVID or how to dress for the office.
“We’ve been in such a different head space,” Chawla said. “Now, it’s more like, ‘Oh my gosh, have we forgotten how to interact?'”
The carnival of interpersonal interaction that is the typical office now feels overwhelming for many. Research shows that the unconscious parade of calculations and adjustments we make when we’re around other people — monitoring our thoughts, emotions and communication and reacting accordingly — is “extremely exhausting,” Chawla said.
Katherine has noticed a gap between her colleagues that graduated and started working remotely versus those “who knew what the real world was like.” She’s been trying to help out, offering advice about things she thought were common knowledge: Here’s what you should do with your hands during a meeting. Direct your attention to the person who’s presenting. Take notes, make eye contact. Don’t bring a snack. Don’t touch your phone.
“They literally do not know this, which is so mind-boggling to me,” Katherine said. “I feel so bad for them. But they’re learning.”
She’s seen some “insane” fashion choices from younger cohorts, too. Recently, a younger colleague came into the bank sporting a plaid suit like the one Cher wears in “Clueless” with white cowboy boots. Someone else wore their Balenciaga joggers on casual Friday.
“What is this?” Katherine said. “There is no world in which this needs to be worn to the office.”
Her own style has shifted to prioritize ease and efficiency; “everything needs to look good and be super comfortable.” She’s whittled her makeup routine down so it’s “snatched in five minutes.” She’s noticed the trend toward energy conservation more generally, not just in herself but in her colleagues. She suspects it’s because people are feeling more taxed by in-person interactions.
“At the end of the workday, where before we’d be like, ‘Let’s go grab ramen or a drink or whatever,'” she said, “now it’s like, ‘Ugh, let me go home and mind my own business. I need some alone time.'”
James Davitt can relate. By nature, he’s “more of the headphones, head-down type of guy.” But before the pandemic, he’d been trying to make a change. He took a job in financial services at a small community bank in Connecticut and tried to be outgoing. He started saying hi to more people, dropping by his colleagues’ desks for some spontaneous chitchat.
Davitt, 27, was among the first ones back in his office in mid-March, but he doesn’t feel the same impulses to socialize now. Even so, usually only a few other people are in the office when he’s there.
When he does have to interact with his co-workers, it feels a little awkward. He keeps running into people who were hired during the pandemic, whose names he doesn’t know. Then there are “the distance and the handshakes, those little nuances of interacting with people, the face-to-face contact,” Davitt said.
“I don’t know how they feel about the situation,” he said. “I don’t know what they’ve been through. I don’t know if they’ve ever gotten (COVID-19). There’s a lot of unknowns.”