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Back to the Office? Bring Your Emotional Intelligence…

As more businesses give the green light to their people to return to the workplace after lockdown, our interactions in the new world of work could be particularly emotionally challenging. 

After all, many of us have become accustomed to working in isolation and communicating virtually, and some of us have found blissful freedom and silence working from home (WFH). But using emotional intelligence can help us establish a sense of control when faced with emotional turbulence.  

So, let us explore the four pillars of emotional intelligence and how they can help us cope when we’re back in the office. The four pillars are Self-awareness, Self-Management (or Self-Regulation), Awareness of Others (or Empathy), and Relationship Management. 

Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. The knowledge you gain when you boost your self-awareness empowers you to grow and make better choices. 

Audit Your Habits

Think of some of the habits you acquired WFH and ask yourself what you may need to change.  

For example, you may have become used to multi-tasking when you video chat or attend Zoom meetings. Once you are in the office and physically with other humans, this habit may hinder your ability to re-establish rapport with them. Break that distracting habit and remind yourself to be fully present during events where there are others.  

Moving away from self-absorption to notice and support others in your work entourage will help you control negative messages you may unwittingly send to others.

Pay Attention to Your Anxiety Barometer 

It is natural to be anxious about returning to work during the virus’s ongoing health threat, but we all respond to anxiety differently.  

While we might not be able to quickly calm our anxiety, it helps to understand the physiological manifestations of your anxiety so that you can restore equilibrium. Some people may become restless or experience muscle tension. Others may tire easily or experience insomnia.  

Raising your awareness can prompt you to pay more attention to self-care, such as trying relaxation techniques and making sleep a priority. 

Carve Out Some Alone Time 

One of the things you may have discovered (or reconfirmed) when WFH is how much you love being by yourself. Suddenly being surrounded by others for an entire workday may increase your stress level. Knowing this, you should consider giving yourself little breaks during the day.  

For example, you can use your breaks to stroll outside. You can also change your starting time: if it’s permitted, start earlier when the office is likely to be less populated. Or shift your hours to work later when most people have left the office. If you have the luxury of closing your door for parts of your day, do so. Or try a good noise cancellation headset that helps you tune out the din of the crowd. 

Do an Irritation Inventory 

Based on your past experiences at work, list the things that people do that irritate you. Then, consider how you might cope when you encounter these behaviors once again.  

For example, think about who bothers you. How could you respond to that person more effectively when you go back? For one thing, decide that you will practice self-control by minimizing your reactions or diffusing a difficult conversation with that person. You want to prime yourself not to allow that person to get under your skin. Also, prepare for a graceful exit. 

Don’t lose the tranquility and serenity you gained WFH all these months by allowing circumstances at work to drain your energy all over again.

Awareness of others is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence and demonstrates a capacity to care for others. Interpersonal awareness is crucial in these emotionally disruptive times when people need to feel seen, heard and cared for. 
 

Give Your Empathy a Boost 

If you are leading others, stop for a moment to consider the effect that summoning employees back to their cubicles might have on them. A sudden change in routine might be incredibly stressful for some employees.  

Case in point: I am helping a client right now who is struggling with her company’s mandate to bring people back to work immediately. “I spent a few months,” she said, “getting into a routine for WFH. It’s become my way of life. Now I need to get used to a different routine.” That new routine includes finding childcare, getting up much earlier, handling a long commute to work, and generally dealing with a lot more stimuli, which can easily lead to a kind of sensory overload. 

The same client also bemoaned losing some of the benefits of WFH: time to squeeze in some workouts, enjoying a little more time with her children, and saving commuting money.  

As a leader, consider that coming back to work after such a long period of isolation is a mental process as much as a physical one for your people. Being aware of this, you may be more understanding and patient, and give people more time to find their new equilibrium. 

Pay Attention to Others’ Emotions 

Familiarize yourself with the warning signs of emotional stress. While we are all facing the same pandemic threat, not everyone struggles with the same circumstances. People will return to work with different concerns.  

For example, some may not be comfortable being around others in closed quarters or having to share their daily temperature. Some may worry about the children’s reactions to separating from their parents. Others may have a spouse or offspring who lost their job. Yet others may have limited resources or support at home. 

If you pay attention to people, you can learn to pick up on signs of distress. For example, some individuals may be uncharacteristically short-tempered; others may express their feelings with sarcasm. Some may be overly self-critical. Another sign of distress is when people go very quiet and hide their tension by becoming remote. Yet others may resort to rapid talking when they are apprehensive. 

Relationship management is at the heart of emotional intelligence. It’s easy to neglect the relational aspect of working during a time of crisis. Much as Zoom and other virtual platforms help us stay in touch, you don’t build rapport communicating with an audience of computers.  

Establish a Sense of Community

WFH may have eroded the team camaraderie that comes from “rubbing shoulders” with people daily, so make relationship-building a priority when your workplace reopens.  

Think of the people you need to reconnect with on a human level, whether it’s your manager, direct reports, colleagues, clients, or vendors. Schedule some relationship-building activities in your calendar.  

If you have leadership or management responsibilities, try to establish a sense of community right up-front and show that you genuinely care for peoples’ well-being. You can do this by checking in with everyone more often than you might typically do. Ask them how they are doing. Ask them about their families. Are there any challenges at home that are overburdening them right now? 

A former colleague of mine mentioned how touched she was that her manager remembered her pet’s name. Knowing how much she loves her Labrador, he asked how it was doing. I would hazard to say that her busy manager is a person with enhanced emotional intelligence! No doubt, he had taken the time to note the pet’s name at some point. 

Create Psychological Safety 

We all need to feel emotionally safe to voice our anxieties and to ask for support, and managers can take the lead. Consider, what obstacles can you remove to make your team’s transition easier? Remind people of any well-being resources your company offers or other support you are aware of. 

People may worry about the simplest things. For example, a coaching client of mine, who wants to continue to avoid hair salons during the pandemic, confided that she is self-conscious about getting back to the office as her hair has turned gray and is not trimmed. 

Make it known that it is OK not to be perfect. In these rapidly changing times, perfection is a moving target. People may work with incomplete information and unanticipated delays. Be patient and aim for expediency and practicality rather than perfection.  

You can be sure that everyone will remember how their manager treated them in the difficult first few weeks after returning to work. 

The mental health impacts of COVID will continue to be significant long after we’re back with our co-workers.  

Be sure to leverage any peace and calm you enjoyed WFH to strengthen your own resilience. And tap into your emotional intelligence to be understanding and empathetic with other people. No matter how pressure-filled your first days back might be, soften your approach to others – anxiety will be running high. 

Putting it simply, be nice to yourself and to your fellow humans. 

Bruna Martinuzzi is a coach, trainer, author, and frequent contributor to Mind Tools, based in Vancouver, Canada.  

Have you been working from home during COVID? Are you concerned about returning to work? Are you wondering how your team will react? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section, below.


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