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Returning to the office after Covid

As we move towards a more ‘normal’ life, for a lot of us this might mean returning to an office environment after working from home for over a year. There are obvious anxieties around this and for those of us who are neurodivergent, these anxieties could be exacerbated.

I should start by saying that I am lucky. I’ve been able to work from home throughout the entirety of the pandemic and I can only talk about this from an office-based perspective. I’m well aware there are lots of people who work in retail, public services, etc, who don’t have that luxury. I am also lucky to work for a progressive, modern, company who have embraced this new way of working and have no plans to force everyone back to the office, instead offering a hybrid approach (i.e. we can stay at home and if we want to, we can have the odd day or two in the office).

A diverse group of people working in a modern open plan office

For the most part, I’ve loved home-working. I have always thought that I coped with my Tourette’s relatively well but working at home has made it clear to me just how stressful and exhausting I found going into the office each day. I suppressed my tics the majority of the time and had nowhere to go to reset or get some quiet. I worked in a huge open-plan office so there was always noise and lots of people, not to mention the huge amount of distractions around me. Focussing wasn’t easy as trying to suppress the tics while my senses were regularly being overwhelmed took up a lot of brain power. I was exhausted at the end of every day.

Being at home has meant I don’t need to suppress all the time. It’s been so much more relaxing. If things get too much, I can go out to the garden for 5 minutes and get away from the screen. I am not as tired as I used to be and because of the reduced stress, some of the time my tics even reduce. There are, however, a few negatives. For example, I do miss that walk to the coffee shop and the quick chats you have with colleagues along the way, and with the best will in the world, sometimes meetings need to be held round a table, in person. There are some days where focus and motivation are non-existent and at those times I miss the camaraderie of a team around me, spurring each other on, or just talking a problem through.

I attend a lot of video meetings and I find I am acutely aware that my tics must be even more obvious on screen. When you’re in a room with a group of people, everyone usually focuses their attention on the person talking. When there are 10 of you on a screen, you notice small movements and, whether you admit it or not, you are looking at everyone. In saying that, video meetings have been a godsend for us all. I changed my job in September 2020 and it gave me the opportunity to see, and really get to know my new team. It’s helped reduce isolation for a lot of people. For teams like mine, spread over the UK, it was the first time they had actually seen each other for a team meeting, and it’s allowed me to connect with so many new people across the company.

I am aware that not everyone has enjoyed working from home, for example some people who live alone have found it terribly isolating and some people just don’t have the setup or space to work comfortably at home. It’s not for everyone.

Alongside my day job, I have the privilege of being the Lead for our Neurodiversity employee network and I’ve had the opportunity to have input to the plans for reopening our offices and any issues that brings for our neurodivergent members of staff.

From speaking to a variety of people, a common concern seems to be anxiety around social distancing or, more specifically, the lack of. Although the social distancing rule will eventually come to an end, it doesn’t mean you have to stop it altogether. Not everyone is a ‘hugger’ and although we might be excited to see our friends and colleagues, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are ready for hugs. It might be that your company has measures in place to protect those who aren’t entirely comfortable with close contact, e.g. a different colour lanyard that says “I’m thrilled to see you, but please stay back”. It’s certainly something worth suggesting to your boss if you think it would help.

Employers have a duty of care to their workforce and will likely need to follow set guidelines to ensure the offices are safe. It might be they have one-way systems in place for moving around, desks could be spaced further apart, or maybe there’s a limit to the number of people in at the one time.

Because I work on a large site, we are going to have a desk-booking system in place. This has led to concern for some people as you won’t know where you will be sitting or who you’ll be sitting with (albeit at a distance). This can prove anxiety-inducing as it means you are not following your usual routine and might be sitting in a different place each time you go into the office. After some consultation, it’s been agreed that adjustments can be requested to minimise any stress or anxiety and systems have been put in place.

The most important thing, however, is to ask - your boss isn’t a mind reader and won’t be able to help you unless you do. Have an honest conversation, tell them what worries you, and see if between you, you can work out something that benefits everyone. You’ll probably find you’re not alone.


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