I smiled as I put my car in gear on Saturday, April 2nd. I had loaded my dual monitors, ergonomic keyboard, and miscellaneous office tools into my car and was heading downtown to set up my office before for my first day back at work. The first transport is away, I thought as I smiled.
Some of you may recognize this iconic phrase from The Empire Strikes Back, the second installment in the original Star Wars trilogy. A group of rebel fighters is being dispatched from base to defend against the evil Empire, and a disembodied PA system voice (and it was actually Mark Hamill doing the voiceover, in case you need a tidbit of Star Wars trivia to make your day) announced to cheers that “the first transport is away.”
I don’t remember this scene or this phrase or much at all from my first viewing of the Star Wars movies when they were released. I was a teenager and thought I was a bit old for kids’ movies. I was more concerned with who was going to a movie than the movie itself.
But my children fell in love with Star Wars at a young age (too young, in my opinion, for them to have been watching these movies but it wasn’t my decision.) It’s a good thing that I fell in love with the movies, too, since they played so much on our VCR. And Star Wars language and culture pervaded our way of life.
I think it was the joy inherent in the announcement that “the first transport is away” that drew me to use it as a phrase of accomplishment for getting everyone loaded into their car seats, which was exhausting when you have three preschoolers. I would sit in the driver’s seat, summoning the energy for the drive to wherever we were going, and I would announce “the first transport is away.” The kids would cheer, which would energize me. As they grew up, they began to use the phrase too and it has remained a part of our family lore.
And as I headed downtown that Saturday, remembering the phrase made me happy and it gave me energy for the unpleasant chore of moving equipment back to the office.
More lawyers, students, and staff are returning to their offices next week, and law will be starting summer jobs—those who are fortunate enough to have found positions whether in law students or otherwise—in early May. The Great Return continues.
I admit that I was quite stressed leading up to my return to the office last Monday, even after having done my office setup in advance. I slept poorly on Sunday night, worrying about both sleeping in inadvertently, and not getting any sleep at all. I worried about what traffic would be like and how long I would spend trolling for a parking stall. I worried about whether the electric grid would shut down with so many people plugging back in downtown for the first time in two years and that my computer would not work. It was the Sunday Scaries on Steroids.
One good thing about these worries—even though they keep you awake—is that your day is rarely as bad as you imagined it could be. I got some sleep, woke up when my alarm sounded, traffic wasn’t bad, I found a parking spot easily. The entire electric grid did not fail, and the only piece of equipment not working in my office was my second monitor because I missed packing up one cord. Not too bad, compared to my worries.
For those of us who are doing hybrid work arrangements, there is another potential worry: leaving something at home or the office that we need at the office or at home (as the case may be.) We will have to learn new routines to ensure we have the right things at the right place. So far, the only thing I have forgotten is my cell phone—twice. Oops. This stuff is going to happen, and I practiced law without a cell phone for many years, and it turns out to be possible, still.
When this happens, do not panic and do not catastrophize. The first time I forgot my cell phone at home (pre-pandemic), I emailed my almost adult children to tell them to call me on my office line if they needed anything. We can all identify people, including clients, who are likely to call us on our cell phones and let them know how to reach us that day. The world does not end, and sometimes showing vulnerability combined with resourcefulness can help you build more meaningful connections because you are sharing your humanity. There are exceptions to this if you have a client or colleague with bullying tendencies. In these cases, do not share vulnerability. Consider a trip home or a courier.
It is going to take a bit of time to get our habits and routines in place. And it will also take a bit of time for us to adjust mentally.
Many people expected the return to the office to be wonderful, that they would feel a close connection to their colleagues, and that their vague, or not so vague, feelings of angst or depression or whatever-it-was that-just-didn’t-feel right would dissipate immediately. You are not alone if you completed your first week in the office and realized that you didn’t magically feel better, like your old self.
Unfortunately, our wiring is complex—our less-desirable feelings do not come with on/off switches. Research tells us that it takes mere fractions of a second for our stress responses to be activated, but it can take hours to fully return to equilibrium. Imagine two years of abnormal living, infused with stress but also with isolation and gloom. Walking back into our workplaces doesn’t magically lift all these feelings. It will take time.
If you have experienced this already, or if you are concerned that you will experience this when you return to your office, please consider reframing your expectations: as much as many of us have believed that returning to “normal” will be a panacea, things are not “normal”—depending on your definition—and we need to allow time to adjust.
In a recent American Lawyer article (warning: this article contains references to suicide), lawyer and law school wellness lecturer Jarrett Green points out that it took most of us several months to come to terms with the impacts of pandemic lockdowns and it may take months for us to adjust back. He urges lawyers to keep this in mind and to set modest expectations about how returning to office work will impact our emotional states.
May I suggest some simplified expectations for your return to work?
- Consider “it will feel good to see the people who are in the office on days when I am there” versus “being back in the full swing of a humming office is going to solve all of my problems.”
- Consider “I will enjoy connecting with one or two people at my office today” versus “the office will be buzzing with chatter and the whole gang will go out for lunch.”
- Consider “I will try to have quality conversations with a co-worker today about how their lives have changed over two years” instead of “everyone and everything will be just like it was before.”
Depending on the depth of your relationship with your work buddies, you may not know that they lost a family member to COVID and that making jokes about the pandemic may offend them. You may not know that someone else has a new baby—since Zoom didn’t allow us to observe signs of pregnancy—or that someone’ marriage has collapsed. We have all been changed by our pandemic experiences. Expecting that “everyone” will be game for happy hour after work may not be reasonable given people’s life changes.
As was reinforced for us all during COVID, we can’t change the situation. All we can change is our reaction to it. Instead of feeling frustrated-- or perhaps angry—with how your co-workers are behaving now, ask yourself to think about how their pandemic and lockdown experience has affected them.
If you are working on a hybrid arrangement like me, accept that you are going to forget something from time to time. This will happen because we are human. We try to organize ourselves—I have a sticky note on my door that says “Laptop Cord Cellphone” and I am still struggling. But if there are documents you think you need, pack them in your bag the night before. If you forget something truly essential, know that solutions can be found. You may have to go back home to get it as your last resort or send a courier if there is someone at your house, and you may lose an hour or so of productivity or the cost of a courier, but no one died. Shake it off and do the work you can do with the tools you’ve got.
Remember that people may be less flexible in the work-from-the-office world. Co-workers with children in daycare now will have fixed pickup times. Some daycares assess a charge per minute that a parent is late for picking up their child (or children). If you work with someone with children in daycare, you may have to consider their timing when you are assigning work later in the day. If you give them enough notice, perhaps they can arrange for their spouse or a family member to do the pickup but handing off work that you need for the next day may set you up for disappointment and frustration. People want to maintain the flexibility that they enjoyed while working from home, but please consider that some people you work with—both support staff and lawyers—may have more constraints now.
Do you have concerns about workload in the coming weeks and months? There may be lawyers who are overwhelmed by the volume of work they face and there may be lawyers who are worried about the lack of work they have. We seem to live in a feast and famine world. When you have a banquet of work that is more than you can do, please delegate, hire, and ask for help. Please don’t wait until crisis is looming—there are always solutions. The Law Society’s Locum Connect program connects lawyers with excess work or coverage needs with lawyers with capacity.
If you feel distressed about your workload and how you can possibly get everything done, please call Assist. Our counsellors can help you identify viable strategies. And if you are in crisis, even if it is late at night or on a weekend, we have a 24/7 crisis line (1-877-498-6898 and follow the prompts to be connected with the registered psychologist on call.) We staff this line because this is when crises arise. Please use it.
On the other extreme, your days may be long for the amount of work you have. Please consider using this period to volunteer and to network. Pro Bono Law and legal clinics are always looking for help. Click here for a list of legal clinics in the province and check out what is going on at CBA-Alberta.
Even when you set realistic expectations and try to plan your workflow, you may still encounter pockets of frustration, anxiety, and stress. Why, you may ask? Because we are human, and things aren’t always going to go our way. Mr. Green, the lawyer and wellness lecturer, recommends taking two-minute breaks three times per day for breathing or mindfulness exercises, or for an act of kindness or forgiveness, or which promotes self-awareness.
Three two-minute breaks add up to six minutes per day—a .1 in terms of billing. You know how many hours you bill in a day (or what you are expected to bill), and you know how much time you lose during the day due to distractions and frustrations. What if, instead of going into your next-door neighbour’s office and griping about the source of you frustration for ten minutes and then listening while your neighbour does the same, you took a short break designed to help you set you back on a better course in a fraction of the time?
Here are a few concrete examples you can consider for your two-minute breaks:
- Breathing exercise for two minutes like square breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Click here to learn more or search YouTube for videos
- Send an email or go see someone in person to thank them for the help they provided or to compliment them on doing good work
- Stop to consider what you are feeling and why. What can you learn about yourself from this situation? Are you hanging on to minor grievances? If so, can you quietly forgive the driver who cut you off this morning or the person who must have seen you coming but didn’t press the Door Open button on the elevator.
- And can you apologize for anything you did that may have bothered someone else? Were you curt with someone who was trying to be friendly because you had a deadline? Send a quick email apologizing and tell the person that you look forward to catching up with them when you are not in a time crunch.
You can learn more about mindfulness activities in Assist’s weekly mindfulness session (Tuesdays at noon for 15 minutes, except for this week when it will be held on Wednesday, April 20th. See the event schedule at the top of the newsletter.) You will learn techniques that you can deploy for your short breaks.
Whatever phase you are in for returning to the office, developing a hybrid model, or continuing to work from home, Assist can help you if you run into challenges. We can’t change the pace of the return to full active and safe living—especially with a new variant making its way towards us—but we can change how we react.
An Assist volunteer told me they proactively accessed counselling services in anticipation of a challenging family interaction. This is a great proactive strategy. If you foresee stress and unpleasantness in your return to work, please book into see one of our counsellors. At worst, you will lose an hour of your time and will feel confident that you have good coping skills and tools in your well-being toolkit, and, at best, you will learn ways of managing challenges which will last a lifetime and you will feel more confident about weathering storms. It sounds like a wise investment of an hour (or two) of your time.
On behalf of Assist, I want to wish those who are celebrating this weekend a happy Easter, joyous Passover and Ramadan Mubarak. And to all, may you find peace and renewal. We don’t know what life and the pandemic have in store for us, so let’s set realistic expectations for ourselves and take time for self-care. We don’t have to be perfect—aim for excellence instead. And if you forget your cellphone for two out of your first six days back in the office, forgive yourself—we are in a period of adjustment for both the physical and emotional aspects of The Great Return, and it will get easier with time
PS—Lawyer Well-Being Week is the first week of May, which means that it will include May the Fourth Be With You. Assist is partnering with CBA-Assist to provide activities that week, and we will have an online social on May 4th. Get your costumes and props ready. Or plan to come as you are!