Dr. Frederika Schmitt, associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Sociology and Anthropology.

How will it feel to go back to the office after more than a year of working remotely? Do we shake hands? Give hugs? How do we set boundaries?

Dr. Frederika Schmitt, associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Sociology and Anthropology, has some ideas and suggestions.

How do I think about going back to the office?
As a sociologist, I see our response to COVID as a public health issue. I defer to science. The first concern is public health and safety. When whoever is saying get back to the office, are they creating an environment that is safe for employees’ health?

How do I prepare for life in the office?
I’m not a psychologist, but I am familiar with exposure therapy. Instead of having the first day back be a full day, try a few hours or a half-day. Start out a little at a time. Going from zero to 60 would be overwhelming for me. This isn’t about ripping the bandaid off, this is about stimulus overload and the trepidation people are feeling.

What about hugs?
My department is close – after a long time away – we would hug. I used to be a hugger. But I’m not going to hug people back in the office. That would be inappropriate for them and me. As much as I’d love for the situation to be different, I realize that the structure has changed. We have to realize things have changed. Maybe someday we will go back to shaking hands. For now – don’t touch each other. It’s not kind. We need to rethink what it means to take care of each other.

How do we set boundaries?

You can only control yourself. You can’t control others. But you can control your response, your tone of voice and your physical behavior. Learn to read eyes. Focus on the delivery of your message. Practice your message.

  • OMG, I would love to hug you – you graduated. A virtual hug for you!
  • Hashtag virtual hug (and make the movement in the air)
  • A COVID air hug for you.

Make it funny or whatever works for you. Run through scenarios in your mind, so you won’t be caught off guard. Don’t let fear take over. Be kind, but protect yourself.

How will I deal with relationships in the office?
We really have to restart them, or at least refuel them. Build them the old fashioned way. Do a socially distanced lunch outside with co-workers. Ask questions about eating inside. Some people may not be comfortable. Don’t assume anything. Be thoughtful and gracious, recognizing our comfort level isn’t the same as others. Get away from being judgy and labeling people. People who are more cautious, they are more cautious. No idea what’s going on with them that makes them that way. You don’t know their health history or their family’s health history. Similarly, if people don’t want to wear a mask, why? I understand that people don’t want to be told what to do,, but there are still rules to follow. In the end, I  care about my neighbor.

What about wearing masks?
I’m fully vaccinated, but I still wear a mask for myself and others. It’s not just about our health; it’s about everyone’s health. It’s not a political issue; it’s a health issue. It’s about caring about others.

What if other people in the office won’t wear a mask?
We need to be conscious that everyone feels differently. Some take it seriously, and some are more lackadaisical about it. There could be clashes in the office setting. We need to be prepared that some people may cross our boundaries or our comfort zone and we’ll need to have a plan of how we will deal with that. Kindly remind them of MU’s mask policy, if you are not comfortable doing that, ask a supervisor to do so.

After all this time away, I’m afraid I’ll feel awkward in front of others.
The American culture is built around extroverts. When we flipped to online learning and working, it brought out the introverts. They are loving this. When we’re back in person, we’ll need to make eye contact and know that it is going to be awkward. Start off by seeing friends or co-workers in small groups. And, admit to yourself that it is going to take some time to get back into the swing of things.

Any last words?
Remember the good things about the past year. We had a window into each other’s homes, hopefully we became more “human” to each other. Did we get to see someone’s child or hear a dog barking? We’ve all been affected by this disaster – and we still are. We have to give each other and ourselves the space and time to recover.

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