Advice & News

June 14, 2021

How to Adjust Back to On-Campus Work


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The self-help claim that "you are a product of your choices, not your circumstances" seems like reasonable motivation. But that personal and professional bootstrapping has been less convincing during the pandemic with many people having no choice but to work from home. The remote work environment is not ideal, but for a vast majority of higher education professionals, it's been our circumstances.

That's about to change as many college campuses begin to reopen as pandemic safety restrictions are loosening. According to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, approximately 36 percent of four-year colleges and universities were primarily or fully in-person in the spring 2021 semester because of the pandemic, which means that nearly two thirds of higher education professionals could be switching to a different work environment the next academic year.

No matter which advice you subscribe to regarding your circumstances, you're either going to have more choices to make or you're going to be a product of an entirely new environment.

According to Benjamin Hardy, author of "Willpower Doesn't Work," who we are is not so much from our choices or environment but rather choices and environment. "You shape the garden of your mind by planting specific things from your environment, such as the books you read, experiences you have, and people you surround yourself with," wrote Hardy. He also posited that environment and "circumstances" are not your enemy -- they are how you change.

So, how have you changed during the pandemic? Do you need to reshape your mind before returning to campus after a year and a half of working remotely?

As a higher education professional, you might be preparing for classroom instruction again or adapting to whatever safety protocols your institution is enforcing, and you'll need to change to better serve your students who have learned online the past 16 months. But don't forget about yourself and how you are going to show up in your new, "old" work environment.

To perform well on campus, you have to make choices about your environment to break habits from your remote setting and undo what Zoom has done to you.

Here are some adjustments to make as you return to campus:

Choose Your New Boundaries.
While working from home, you've made decisions, for better or worse, about your workspace compared to your campus setup. You might have just swapped interruptions from coworkers and students for family members and shared bandwidth. But, also, you might have grown accustomed to containing your work to the computer screen for which you've had relative control over people's access to your attention.

Now that you're returning to campus, be more intentional about when people can stop by to see you. This is something administrative staff could learn from the professoriate and implement office hours. Try closing your door and signaling to others that you are in a "meeting," even if it's an appointment for yourself. If you're in an open office, try working from the library or reserving a conference room for an hour each day. Do whatever it takes to set boundaries on your work because there's going to be pent up demand for people's attention now that there's more physical access.

Choose to Heighten Your Frustration Tolerance.
Remote workers have been able to set some boundaries by impulse. They filter their environment by minimizing annoyances and maximizing pleasures, often literally by clicking on a computer window, muting a Zoom meeting, or turning off the camera. By doing this, they've lowered what psychologists call "frustration tolerance." You might have had plenty of technical frustrations while navigating your remote work environment and you might welcome a return to campus to interact with students and coworkers. But at the same time, you're going to have less control over social stimuli.

You could be more easily frustrated by the pontifications of a know-it-all colleague or the incessant complaining of a defiant student. Don't let a few nettlesome people ruin your work environment. Start conditioning yourself now by exposing yourself to annoyances and changing your self-talk to something more positive, like "They are doing the best they can."

Choose to be More Compassionate.
We've all experienced some social atrophy during the pandemic, which is also compounded by the contentious political and turbulent economic environments. Working in isolation not only weakens our social skills but when we resume in-person work we will likely become even more aware of our differences. No longer will your perception of individual students be proportional to a Zoom gallery, nor will your coworkers be rendered to names in an inbox. You'll be confronted with visible reminders of their behaviors and what they are actually doing.

Resist comparing yourself to coworkers or students to one another. Find commonalities. Be compassionate. This transition is not easy and everyone's experiences during the pandemic have been different, from providing care for a family member to the varying capacities to make scholarly progress. If anything, the return to campus will be somewhat of an equalizer because we'll all have a similar environment again.

Choose to Look People in the Eye.
Another way to find commonalities is through eye contact. According to psychologist Christian Jarrett, "we make sense of the fact that we are dealing with the mind of another person who is currently looking at us," and we become "more conscious of that other person's agency, that they have a mind and perspective of their own." This is perhaps the most underestimated part of returning to in-person work because making eye contact is mutually impossible using Zoom, and eye contact is critical for gaining people's trust.

You might have maintained your ability to hold eye contact outside of work, but it's different for family members who already trust you and the stakes are lower for gazing at the grocery store clerk. Train yourself to look more people in the eye without an uncomfortable stare. Try the 50/70 rule: maintain eye contact for 50 percent of the time while speaking and 70 percent of the time while listening. A conscious decision to increase eye contact will close the social distance and gain more trust, which is the currency of the work environment.

Choose Positive Small Talk.
That said, your work is about to become less transactional. There will be opportunities to develop relationships and engage in small talk. Depending on how much you value these interactions, you have control over how informal discussions are conducted. It'll be tempting to discuss your institution's COVID safety measures, face mask policies, or something related to the pandemic. After all, it's a common experience. But it's like talking about rainy weather, and as the saying goes, everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

Decide to engage in small talk that is positive and nonjudgmental. As higher education professionals, our rhetoric should be to learn and help learn, not judge and be judged. Show genuine interest in others and focus on what they've learned or how they've grown since you last worked together on campus.

In Conclusion
Don't expect everything to go back to normal when you return to campus. There's going to be an adjustment to this new, in-person pandemic (and post-pandemic) work environment. As Hardy's book title suggests, using willpower to make these adjustments will not work. Your environment and circumstances affect you more than you might realize. In the last year and a half, you've likely changed by working from home. But you can make choices to make the transition back to campus a better work environment to do your best work.

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