Keys to a successful return to the office plan include flexible choices, robust resourcing, and resilience training with an eye on mental health.
If your firm is contemplating how to gracefully and seamlessly bring your workforce back to the office, it’s in good company. Law offices and other businesses around the country are navigating copious issues—from practical to legal—while planning the reintegration of an in-person workforce. Bringing your team members back to the office as the pandemic winds down will be as novel of a process as sending them home. As surreal as working from home might have felt a year ago, many people have become accustomed to it. Oddly enough, returning to in-office operations may now feel both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Each phase of the pandemic has presented unprecedented uncertainties and this phase is no different; once again, there are new issues to navigate and no play book to follow.
The Role of Mental Health
While no one has a map that can circumnavigate all return-to-office planning errors, we do have insight into one key area that would be remiss to overlook in your firm’s plan: mental health. In addition to exacerbating pre-existing mental health issues, the pandemic caused increased chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma, research shows. Therefore, in addition to planning the logistics of a safe return to the office, also think about the impact of the past year on your workforce’s mental health. Considering the emotional toll and possible post-traumatic stress of the pandemic on your workforce will enable your firm to make available new resources. Targeted resources will support all team members in their performance efficacy; they will also provide additional help for those who may be struggling to integrate yet another change.
It should be noted that trauma—feeling physically and/or emotionally overwhelmed without enough resources to feel safe—takes time and often professional help to process. When we have experienced trauma, including the direct or vicarious trauma associated with the pandemic, it doesn’t just “go away” when the traumatizing event is over. Some on your team may need specialized help to recover. Time will tell how the collective trauma of going through a pandemic impacts our families, workspaces, and communities, so the kinds of help needed will undoubtedly change over time.
If you are reading this and thinking, “Lawyers can think their way out of difficult situations, didn’t the pandemic impact them less than most people?” or “Lawyers jobs are full of stress, shouldn’t they be prepared to deal with the additional stress of returning to the office?” No, is the likely answer to both questions. The way lawyers think and our ability to separate ourselves from our emotions may make it more difficult for us to make a rapid recovery from the setbacks associated with the pandemic. We may find it challenging to process difficult emotions, think optimistically about change, and work toward a rapid recovery plan. As attorneys, we are taught to spot issues and plan for the worst to mitigate loss for our clients.
The skill of staying vigilant for real or imaginable dangers may impact both team members’ resilience and their optimism about a successful return-to-the-office plan. Your attorneys, including those on your management team, will easily discern the risks associated with returning to the office. While on one hand, this “glass half-empty” thinking may be useful to prevent loss and avoid unnecessary mistakes, it may also lead to “paralysis by analysis,” putting up unnecessary roadblocks to reuniting in person, and preventing a smooth transition.
Most of us went through the pandemic with a great deal of emotional disorientation, not understanding what was happening to us or to the people around us. In my experience, most attorneys act as if we have it all together, thinking that something is wrong with us if we feel overwhelmed or confused. We believe we are alone in our experience. An important part of recovering our resilience and coming back to the office stronger is understanding what happened to us, knowing that how we feel is normal, and realizing that others are experiencing the same.
The first key to success is to recognize that returning to the office will be different for different people. In the same way that some people have adapted and fared well through the pandemic while others have struggled, some members of your workforce will transition with ease back to the office, while others will require effort. When talking with team members about returning, it’s helpful to talk with them about and gauge their “surge capacity.”
In this context, the concept of surge capacity relates to an individual’s capacity to adapt in order to survive a short term intensely stressful situation. For example, when the pandemic began, your surge capacity likely helped you to shift the way you socialize, work, connect with others, shop, and exercise. You may have felt capable of making changes because you felt energized for a short-term shift. However, as the year went on and the pandemic persisted, your surge capacity likely diminished. You may have felt fatigued by all the changes and lacked enthusiasm or patience for keeping them up for the long haul. At some points you may have pushed yourself emotionally and psychologically to keep up with the modifications. For most of us, our surge capacity was depleted by months of intense stress. After such a long haul with no respite to the stress, many of us may still be depleted and ill-prepared for the strain of returning to the office.
I discussed the concept of diminished surge capacity in remote resilience and burnout prevention trainings last fall. Many attorneys and firm management resonate and identify with the concept. As lawyers, we “get” surge capacity: we use it to mobilize and push through when preparing for big trials or other urgent matters under pressure. After the matter is resolved, there is generally a moment to reset. Pandemic-related stress, however, has been relentless, and numerous attorneys share that they are struggling to understand why they are so exhausted now when they were going strong a few months back. Many are searching for tools to rebuild their stamina so they can return to the office clearheaded and motivated. Some training participants shared their experience of diminished surge capacity due to the isolation they felt working at home. At first, they found the isolation novel, and turned their solitude into productivity—cleaning the basement, doing online exercise classes, connecting with loved ones and the office over Zoom. Over time, however, these makeshift ways of engaging in life and connecting with others became less interesting and even exhausting.
Other participants—often those who were already experiencing chronic stress, teetering on the edge of burnout or going through a personal crisis prior to the pandemic—shared that they went into emotional collapse at the beginning of the pandemic. Their surge capacity was already low, and the shock and stress of the pandemic pushed them into overload right away. Some of the attorneys who collapsed early on are still struggling; they shared that they are exhausted from trying to stay physically well, emotionally afloat, and financially stable this past year. Their surge capacity may be at an all-time low, and they may feel put upon to have to return to work and draw on nonexistent inner resources.
Some who collapsed at the outset may actually experience their surge capacity stronger now than it was a year ago. The pandemic may have been an opportunity for them to focus their attention on their mental health and get the support they needed. Attorneys who had a positive mental health shift during the pandemic share that they are concerned about losing their new edge by returning to old unhealthy habits when they go back to the office. They feel leery about an in-person setup, as they have adjusted well to a work-at-home routine.
It is likely that your team members whose surge capacity for isolation waned will likely feel enthused to return to the office. Attorneys and staff who thrive on in-person connection shared that they are eager to re-engage in person, socialize with colleagues in the hallways, and see clients face to face. Other team members whose surge capacity for working at home diminished due to the challenges of making their home environment appear professional may also be relieved. These team members might have been overwhelmed by their dining room tables becoming desks or having to stay vigilant to the mute button to block out crying children or barking dogs. They may look forward to a clearer boundary between work and home, and not have the reminder of work in their living space. In addition, some working parents may be relieved to return to the office where they can focus and be free from splitting their attention between legal matters and parenting.
Everything is Not “Back to Normal”
As your workforce returns to the office, on the outside it may appear that little has changed. In-office operations may even look and run “normally” on the surface. But don’t let outward appearances deceive you; a lot may be going on under the surface. No one went through the pandemic—and accompanying social and political strains—without experiencing additional stress. Many people’s nervous system and mindset will not yet be recovered from months of uncertainty, loss, and change.
When implementing a return-to-the-workspace plan, firm management should not only account for the fact that people may still be experiencing varying degrees of post-traumatic stress, but they may also have undergone a life perspective shift that impacts their motivation to work the way they used to. Many lawyers’ and employees’ outlook on life, including their values, goals, and aspirations, have shifted over the past year. For example, many attorney-parents shared that, after spending extended daytime hours at home with their families, they realized that they spent too many hours away from home pre-COVID. They felt sad about missing out on important moments in their children’s lives. Other attorneys noted that they liked working alongside their significant others and felt happier overall doing things together. These attorneys may now lament the loss of close connection with their families. These feelings may impact their motivation to work long hours. Other attorneys and business staff shared that they experience decision-making fatigue and are exhausted from navigating hundreds of micro-choices each day about staying safe from an invisible virus. These individuals may be overwhelmed by the thought of returning to work—including having to make another round of decisions regarding vaccines, work travel, and childcare. This increased anxiety may impact their ability to focus on work and meet deadlines as they return to the office.
Additionally, firm management should consider that most team members have conditioned themselves to stay physically distant from acquaintances and colleagues this past year. By forming this new habit, their nervous systems likely developed an aversion to being physically close to those outside their “pods.” Even the sight of friends hugging on television made one of my client’s body tense up and unconsciously feel like the characters were doing something “wrong.” The proximity of co-workers in office work spaces may feel unnaturally close and even threatening to your workforce’s nervous systems, even with additional space between workstations. This aversion to physical closeness may trigger neurobiological defenses and cause team members to consciously or unconsciously withdraw both physically and socially at work. This impulse to withdraw may impact in-person collaboration, fostering of workplace morale, and looking relaxed during in-person meetings.
A Clear, Flexible Plan
A clear plan, flexible choices, robust resourcing, and resilience training are additional keys to a successful return to the office. Whether team members are excited or reticent about returning to the workspace, most people will have some amount of uncertainty about going back to the office. Many will wonder if it is truly safe and what will be required of them. Feeling anxious about transitions is normal, especially when a person doesn’t have enough information about the transition plan to feel safe. If your firm hasn’t yet thought through the return-to-office policies—including your firm’s expectations regarding vaccinations—do so before communicating with your workforce about returning to the workspace.
That said, don’t wait too long to create and discuss a plan with your team members. One tactic that quells anxiety about transitions is to communicate as much information about the plan as soon as possible. Provide written material about the firm’s plan. Lay out what will be the same, and what will be different. List the things for which you don’t yet have answers and acknowledge the challenges being faced; identifying what isn’t yet decided but is in the works can also calm anxiety. Another approach that can quiet an anxious nervous system is reassurance and appreciation. When possible, when communicating about the back-to-office transition, reassure your workforce about job stability during the transition, and share verbal and written appreciation for your workforce’s flexibility with adapting to so many changes. Firm management should also relax by remembering that it’s all right for management to not know the answers to everything—remember, there is no playbook written for returning to the office after a pandemic.
Giving your team members options can help calm agitated nervous systems. The pandemic left many people feeling like they are out of control, and as a result they may still be experiencing increased anxiety or depression, which, unmitigated, can impact work performance and client satisfaction. Offering team members choices is a practical way to help them recover and regain a sense of control over their lives. Depending on your firm’s specific circumstances, when possible, offer options such as a staggered return to the office, or a hybrid setup such as half days or a partial week in-office for the first few months to help people slowly acclimate. Management may also want to consider offering the option for employees to continue to work at home; some people actually performed better at home. Team leaders may have noticed who was particularly productive during the pandemic.
If you notice that certain team members are resisting returning to the office, speak to them directly about their concerns. Discuss firm resources, offer options, and ask them if they need additional help. Take into consideration that some people, especially those experiencing post-traumatic stress, may need to move more slowly back to the office than others.
Offering firm-wide resources targeted toward mental and physical well-being is imperative to replenishing team members’ drained surge capacity and helping them orient to a post-pandemic workplace. These include any program or materials that support your workforce to recover from stress and trauma, build resilience, and foster healthy coping skills to deal with general or post-pandemic specific stress. Offering programs targeted toward well-being creates new ways for people to connect upon returning to the office.
For example, many firms are planning to launch well-being task forces to provide programming for stress reduction, or are conducting a firm-wide needs assessment to determine the kinds of resources needed. (If your firm conducted a needs assessment pre-COVID, know that your workforce’s needs may have shifted during the pandemic and it’s now timely to conduct a new one). Other firms are expanding and customizing their employee assistance programs to provide one-on-one health and finance coaching or are contracting with private resilience coaches. Resilience coaching allows participants to learn the core concepts of resilience building in a group training, and then tailor the tools for their personal situation in one-on-one sessions.
Firms may be able to build on at-home well-being momentum that emerged during the pandemic. For example, numerous people started exercising more, eating lunch, and getting outside. These simple activities support both mental health and lawyering skills such as creative problem solving and cognitive functioning. Think about ways to encourage mental and physical health breaks during the work day at your office, such as a lunchtime walking club, or yoga classes, or meditation breaks. Encourage people through your office culture to eat lunch away from their desks by having a “lunch club” that meets outside, or continue to do Zoom lunches to virtually connect colleagues in multiple locations.
Creating a Surge Capacity Toolkit
Focus firm-wide training and CLEs on resilience education and on creating a surge capacity toolkit. Well-being resources and programming can be small things that don’t have to cost a lot. The key to building resilience and rebuilding surge capacity is what I refer to as “mini-moments of well-being”—infusing small but consistent spurts of wellness throughout the work day.
It dawned on many law firms during the pandemic that their lawyers were lacking the proper education about how to stay resilient and replenish their surge capacity in general, and especially during a prolonged crisis. Resilience training using a neuroscience lens is most effective, as it provides both the theory regarding our neurobiological response to stress along with simple, scientifically researched resilience tools that can be practiced in one-minute increments during the workday. Short, simple practices help people refuel their surge capacity, build their resilience, and improve their cognitive functioning. In short, people feel better and lawyer better. Participants share that blending scientific theory and short, targeted stress-reduction tools work well for lawyer brains. Armed with theory and a simple resilience toolkit, lawyers who are looking for support are quick to implement the skills and reap the rewards. If your firm offers resilience training that is tailored to lawyers and support staff as you ramp back to the office or upon returning, it will address two things: helping your workforce recover from the trauma of the pandemic and building life-long skills that prevent burnout and increase productivity.
Moving Through the Next Phase
As we move through this next phase of life after the pandemic, know that we are still navigating a lot of unknowns, and there are still many choices to be made. If you are wondering what to do to support your workforce’s mental health, assume that others are wondering too. None of us have all the answers and no firm is totally prepared or completely confident about its path forward. Reach out for advice from outside experts or other firms on how to best move forward. The pandemic may shift our legal culture from feeling uncomfortable talking about mental health to normalizing it as a necessary part of lawyering well. Imagine what it would be like to provide training for team leaders on talking to team members about post-traumatic stress.
Incorporating offerings that support mental health and grow both resilience and surge capacity is a cutting-edge way of doing business. It is also a more productive and effective way to run your firm. Be clear with your policies, as flexible as you can with return-to-office options, and as generous as you can with resourcing. Through this process, your team can orient to what’s happening now, make a solid plan, and move forward with greater confidence. A firm that is mental health informed and unites to implement mini-moments of well-being throughout the workday is best prepared to traverse the uncertainties of the now and those to come.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the American Bar Association Law Practice Management Magazine, May 2021
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. If you would like to learn more about CLE course offerings, or to find out more about one-on-one resilience coaching, please email Laura through consciouslegalminds.com.
If you’d like to learn more about stress reduction and improved cognitive functioning using mindfulness, check out: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (online, on demand mental health CLE approved by the NC State Bar): consciouslegalminds.com/register.