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From social awkwardness to fun when returning to the office

  • Healthy Workplace

Author: Justin Timmer

Justin Timmer is our In-House Researcher. Contact him via

social interaction

Today I realised that I have not spoken to some of my colleagues for more than a year. Throughout the lockdown, I experienced quite some good collaboration with my team, and I would love to see them again in real life. But I have noticed that my social contact with people outside my team has diminished across this period. Before the lockdown, I spoke with them during lunch breaks or at random coffee moments, but those have vanished. During the lockdown, I did see some of those colleagues online, like during company meetings, but even then I didn’t speak to them directly. I didn’t need anything from them work-related, and it felt like a waste of precious work hours to book a random meeting for some chitchat. Well yes, a colleague did organise open co-working sessions, and I am sure my bosses wouldn’t mind or even encourage these random chats, but they never really came from the ground for me. And I am sure not to be the only one.

Now the offices are re-opening, this has its consequences. We will get quite some awkward moments at the office. Our colleagues have been struggling during the lockdown, and I am not aware of all the important things that happened in their life. And I’m sure everyone is still struggling with going back to the office. How to talk about the issues we have experienced? How to deal with physical distance? What about discussing topics such as COVID-regulations? Can I manage to work in crowds again?

The experience at the office

Returning back to the office should be a fun and social experience of sharing the same physical space and looking each other in the eyes again. But our recent struggles during the lockdown and the loss of social connectedness with our colleagues will lead to challenges. Working in the same space with relative strangers is not good for company-culture, because it has more chances to lead to irritation and other in-group out-group phenomena. If the experience isn’t that great, timid employees will return back to their remote offices. But how to facilitate a good employee experience at the office that brings back the culture? Could we turn the social awkwardness into fun when returning to the office? Both from a Facility- and Human resource perspective, there are several things you can do. We listed a few ideas here below. The good thing is that the office is now a relatively blank slate, where you can go quite wild.

Let’s talk about covid-sessions

One of the most socially awkward things is not addressing the elephant in the room. We don’t know things about others if we don’t discuss them. COVID has affected us in many ways. It is good to know where your colleagues are. There might be extreme perspectives, but those are important to know too, but they should not hijack the conversation. Therefore, it might be smart to keep the discussions in small groups and keep the topic of discussion related to work. Topics such as “How did the lockdown affect your work situation?”, “How do you plan to approach working now?” could be discussed. Furthermore, be careful with including managers in these meetings. In the Netherlands for example, it is forbidden to ask employees about their vaccination.

Initiate small breaks

Breaks are excellent for colleague interactions between departments. One could initiate them when desired, or schedule them around a certain moment. Having a little snack or a specific celebration attached to the breaks always motivates people more to join them. Moreover, if you want to make them a habit, initiate a break at the same moment each day (e.g. 11 AM or 4:00 PM) to make people expect them and fit them in their schedule.

Facilitate spaces for interaction

Coffee corners are good for low-key social interaction. But let’s be real about it, we might need some more time to catch up than the time we have to prepare a cup of coffee. Right now, there is a huge opportunity to reimagine the office as a place for human interaction. Facilitating a physical space where people can sit and talk for a bit longer might be a good start to spend the next year as close colleagues again working together comfortably side-by-side. Spending half an hour on a good conversation can compensate for a year of social awkwardness. One could also use attributes, like a board game, ping pong table, or books to make the space more accessible. Conveying the purpose of these spaces (e.g. through intranet or on a piece of paper) might however be important to have the spaces used as intended.

Avoid isolation

The old habit of people doing individual work in a meeting room is something that we might see more often. Working alone in a meeting room is COVID-safe, and nice and quiet. However, for office use, it’s not effective. As a manager, one could take strict regulations to avoid this, but one could also start a conversation and see their motivation. One could also allow individual work in meeting rooms, but stimulate people to join these individuals and work together, silently. They might even initiate a coworking friendship.

Encourage meetings outside

The office might be crowded and people might struggle with that. Out in the open air in the summer it might be nicer to talk openly and walk a little bit. It’s healthy, the air feels clean and it can be fun. Writing the minutes or sharing presentations is difficult, but this is not always necessary, and one could also split the meetings into parts, or even work on laptops outside.

Socially organise the breakroom

Breakrooms always have an interesting dynamic. The way the tables are organised makes people cluster together, or separate them from each other. The COVID-regulations will cause physical distance between people, but this makes it a stronger argument to stimulate social interaction and avoid separation. For example, one could make the size of the break room larger to occupy more people or place the chairs and tables tactically to improve social interactions.

Organise social activities

Afternoon drinks, especially on Friday, can be very stimulating for people to get to know each other (again). Fun casual drinks starting right after work (or at 4:00 PM) are the best way to improve company culture, without asking too much of people’s spare time. More work-related activities like workshops, brainstorm sessions, or inspiring talks might work too. But one could also think of more extravagant non-work-related activities, like going to the cinema together, company sports, or dinners at home. This is the time to experiment with those activities since the culture needs to be rebuilt.

Fit the experience to your organisation

There are many things to facilitate and boost the experience of your employees at the office. We outlined a few ideas, but you might think of many more. It is important to consider which of these fit with your organisation and adjust them to your company culture. We wish that returning to the office will be a fun and social experience for you and your employees. And we hope to have inspired you to boost your company culture.

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