On the morning Alexia Layne-Lomon returned to her office for the first time since the pandemic began, she woke up anxious. Her stomach felt queasy. Commuting into work, once a mindless daily routine, now felt foreign and risky.
Layne-Lomon, 38, of Roslindale, Massachusetts, is one of millions of employees across the country who hastily made the transition to remote work last spring. A couple of weeks ago, she went back to her building to train a new employee at the anti-poverty agency where she is the director of development and grants.
The day was full of reminders of how much has changed since she was last in her office.
Layne-Lomon is not yet eligible for a Covid-19 vaccination, so instead of taking public transportation like she used to, she opted to drive to work. Inside her building, everyone wore masks, elevators had capacity limits to allow for social distancing, and traffic flow signs had been posted to reduce crowding in corridors.
But when she arrived on her floor, Layne-Lomon saw a familiar sight. Two co-workers with whom she had communicated only virtually since the pandemic started were there.
"It was nice to see them and have that social moment and breath of relief," she said, adding that she had to stop herself from greeting her colleagues with hugs. "It was like: 'Hey, look at us, we're all still people! We're not just these little machines!'"
As office spaces that the pandemic shuttered begin opening back up, not every employee is eager to return. With concerns from health to rusty social skills to preserving the new work-life balance that some discovered when their commutes disappeared, many are reluctant to give up their remote work setups.
"We focused a lot on what has been lost this last year," said Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and the senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. "Now we're at this point where it's like, 'I've lost a lot this year, but what have I gained?' I think, in particular when it comes to work, there's been a lot of gains."
Not everyone has had the luxury of working from home. But for those who have, the ability to throw in a load of laundry while they work, spend more time with family or make more home-cooked meals have been silver linings in an otherwise challenging year.
"I just feel like I can take care of myself better and have the ability to," said Brittney Dales, 27, a legal secretary who lives in San Bernardino, California. Not driving into work has saved her mileage on her car and money on gas, and it has given her the opportunity to schedule doctors' and dentists' appointments more easily after work, as well as take her dog for a walk on her lunch break.
Like Layne-Lomon, Dales recently made several trips back to her office, but she does not know when — or whether — she will be expected to return on a regular basis. Her visits to work have felt overstimulating compared to the solitude of working in her bedroom.
"The other day, I was in the office, and one of the attorneys was talking to me, and the printer was running, and there were all of these background noises happening," she said. "I could not get my attention to focus, because I'm so used to a quiet place now that a little bit of noise — even though it wasn't that loud — took me out."
Why vaccines won't take away all the anxiety
Many companies have already welcomed workers back. Per data released on March 29, 24.2 percent of employees in 10 big cities throughout the United States were going into their offices, according to Kastle Systems, a managed security services provider for 3,600 buildings throughout the country.
The number is expected to grow as more people get vaccinated. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a target date of May 3 for about 80,000 municipal office workers to return to their offices. On the other side of the country, Microsoft has begun bringing back some employees in a "soft open" of its Redmond, Washington, headquarters. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, Target Corp., anticipating a permanent combination of hybrid and in-office work, has downsized its corporate office space by a third.
Whatever companies decide, experts say, they should recognize that Covid-19 vaccines may not eliminate employees' anxiety.
A survey released last month by the American Psychological Association found that 49 percent of adults feel uneasy about returning to in-person interactions once the pandemic is over. Vaccination status did not affect that: 48 percent of those who have already been vaccinated say they, too, feel uncomfortable with in-person interactions.
That could be in part because of the uncertainty that remains over the vaccines, Wright said, even as encouraging evidence emerges indicating that they offer protection for at least six months.
"We know we have effective vaccines, but we still don't know for how long. We still don't know how effective they are against the variants. We still don't have vaccines for children," she said. "There is still a lot to figure out."
Safety in the workplace is of particular concern. In a survey of 1,000 adults conducted in February by the workplace technology company Envoy, 66 percent of employees said they were worried about their health in returning to the workplace.
Schedules, too, are on employees' minds: 48 percent said they wanted to work a hybrid schedule of in-person and remotely, with 41 percent saying they were even willing to take a small pay cut to make that happen.
The unknowns over what office returns will look like, from schedules to safety precautions, have rattled employees, said Brad Klontz, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute and an associate professor of practice in financial psychology at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Employers should be prepared for anxiety among their workers, he said. Those who were already prone to anxiety may have struggled more during the pandemic, and those who were not may have experienced anxiety for the first time in the past year.
"Try to find somebody who didn't have a sleepless night," he said. "There's going to be lasting effects."
How employers and employees can make this easier
Without question, the pandemic has posed mental health challenges. From August to February, the proportion of adults with symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder during the previous seven days increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A return to the office does not have to worsen those feelings, experts say. Both employers and employees can take steps to mitigate worries.
"Accept that there's going to be some anxiety."
"Accept that there's going to be some anxiety," Klontz said. "Acceptance is really important versus trying to fight it."
He recommended that employers be flexible at the start in terms of expectations.
"Understand that this is going to be easier for some people and harder for others, especially the people who were perhaps most closely touched by this," he said, meaning those who lost loved ones to Covid-19, had it themselves or are still dealing with lingering health problems from the coronavirus. "Normalize the fact that it can be challenging. Say, 'Please come talk to me if there is anything we can do to make this easier for you.'"
And after such an extended period of not seeing one another, everyone should be prepared for interactions to feel a little stilted at first, Wright said.
"Some of our social skills have probably atrophied a bit, so there's going to be a little awkward transition where we try to figure out both how to engage in small talk but also how to find the right words in the right sentences and ask the right questions in a way that we haven't been," she said.
"Working from home was initially exhausting. Then we got into our routines and figured this out," she added. "I would anticipate that happening here."
She urged employers not to take a "one size fits all" approach to bringing employees back, recognizing that some may need scheduling accommodations that are tailored to their mental and emotional needs. She also suggested that employers be as transparent and communicative as possible about reopening plans to reduce employees' levels of uncertainty before the return.
The bottom line, Wright said, is that both employees and employers should be open-minded.
"We need to get out of this framework that things are going to go back to how they were before, because I don't think they have to," she said.