Your (Not So Official) Guide to Returning to the Office

Allow us to help you you figure out work attire, meetings, and how to get through a conversation with that guy from marketing without letting on that you forgot his name (I want to say it’s...“Rod”? “Rob?” “Rorb?” It’ll come to me eventually.)

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If you’re one of the many Americans who worked from home during the pandemic, odds are high that you have recently or will soon be been summoned back to a mysterious, oft-rumored-but-rarely-seen land: your office.

After nearly two years of having only preschool-aged children/a spouse we used to like/a spider plant named “Montgomery Blithington IV” as our “coworkers,” many of us are a bit spotty on the basics of workplace etiquette. Now that we won't be able to fake a bad internet connection whenever we don’t want to go to a meeting, and can't spend all day in Spiderman sweatpants (or Batman sweatpants, for executive meetings), how are we supposed to, um, do our job?

In fact, our survey found that 70 percent of respondents felt rusty about navigating workplace social interactions, and 90 percent had a stray piece of Rice Krispies in their hair the entire time they were taking our survey—with an additional 50 percent reporting that they weren’t even aware they had Rice Krispies in the house. (So, um, this was not Marie Claire and LinkedIn's actual survey, but one I very scientifically conducted by shouting down the hallways "HOW ARE THINGS GOING?" to a few neighbors in my apartment building.) When you consider the fact that Rice Krispies aren’t even a high-fiber cereal, you can see just how badly the average American worker needs guidance right now.

So, we turned to our top researchers (me) and experts (also me) to learn how to make a smooth return to our old working lives. Read on for 10 tips on how to ease your back into office life; before you know it, you’ll be working, schmoozing, and ignoring Brenda in Accounts Payable as if you never left the office.

Visualize Your Way Back to...Something.

If you’re struggling to remember office life, many experts recommend a simple visualization exercise: In a dark, comfortable room, breathe deeply for a count of six. Picture yourself covered in soothing white light. Then, picture yourself walking through the front door of your building, confident, poised, and prepared. Envision yourself walking to the office kitchenette to get your day started. Imagine going to the fridge and finding that someone has eaten your key lime yogurt, which was IN A BAG so it’s not even like they could lie and say they thought it was somehow left over and up for grabs. Visualize yourself angrily writing a note entitled “DEAR YOGURT THIEF” and taping it to the front of the fridge in such a rage that you can’t make it stick properly. As you struggle, you realize all the interns are staring at you. The interns are scared. Tell them you will write them each a recommendation letter for grad school if they pretend this never happened. Once you have visualized writing each recommendation letter, slowly open your eyes. Refreshing!

Consider "Pants" Alternatives.

Are pants real? Or just another lie cooked up by the fake media to get clicks? It’s not for me to say. Though many workplaces will be pushing all employees to don these button-fly torture devices, be aware of the innovative and comfortable alternatives you can consider instead, such as wearing a barrel with suspenders (breathable!), the bottom half of a horse costume (soft!), or simply drawing some pants on with marker (freedom of movement!).

Don't Say Weird Stuff Around the Water Cooler (Even Though You Really, Really Want To).

Experts have found that there are mental health benefits to office small talk. We don’t know who those researchers have been talking to (was it Brenda? It was probably Brenda), but either way, you'll likely find yourself cornered into some water cooler chit-chat against your will.

Since “small talk topics” have probably been shunted to the same forgotten corner of your brain that holds the Pythagorean theorem and facts about Chad Michael Murray, here is a refresher on what does and does not make for good office small talk:

  • Good small talk topics: vacations, hobbies, local sports teams, popular TV shows, cute things your children or pets have done
  • Bad small talk topics: politics, a 19-part podcast you listened to on the development of the Roman aqueducts, “fun” facts about the environmental impact of toothpaste manufacturing, politics, your personal thoughts on the essentially melancholy nature of life, politics, how the idea that we “need” to wear deodorant is a corporate conspiracy, how you learned how to fit your whole fist in your mouth, and politics

Don't Forget about IRL Muting!!

Once and only once each day, you’re allowed to shout “you’re on mute” to someone you don’t want to talk to and simply back away from them.

Repress Your Emotions With Minty Freshness.

It’s exciting to be back in the office with your favorite coworkers, but getting reacclimated to your less-beloved office mates is going to take a little work. This is why experts recommend keeping your desk fully stocked with a wide array of gum. That way, when when Shane—your 22-year-old coworker who works three hours a day and spends the next five making TikTok “prank” videos in the supply closet—asks “how your panny went,” you don’t have to tell him that you spent the last 18 months trying to lead meetings and balance spreadsheets while your 4-year-old screamed “Does the sun ever get sad???” in the background because, well, it's rude to chew gum and talk! Just pop in a stick of refreshing gum and fill your mouth full of minty goodness, instead of grinding your teeth down to dusty rage-nubs. (Feel free to also report him to HR, making sure to include his screen name, “Dookie King 69”).

Find Creative Ways to Fake Your Way Out of Lunch Dates.

Some people will be eager to hit the ground running when it comes to office social life, filling their calendar with lunch dates and coffee breaks. If you are not one of these people, you might feel trapped when an annoying teammate asks you to lunch. You really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and yet, you would fake your own death to avoid splitting an order of curly fries with Brenda. Luckily, there’s a simple solution: Tell your coworker that you would love to go to lunch, but you have an important client meeting in the boardroom. Then, simply make your own jury-rigged human figure, using the instructions given in the acclaimed survivalist documentary Home Alone 2. Success! Feelings are spared and the curly fries are all yours.

Make a Blood Pact to Save You From Slipping at an IRL Meeting.

After more than a year of hitting mute and turning off video during meetings so that you could shit talk with your roommate, watch YouTube videos in another window, and/or discreetly eat an entire French bread personal pizza, getting used to in-person meetings again will take some adjustment. The good news is, you’re not alone—your coworkers also don’t want to meet with you (except for one try-hard—probably Brenda). That’s why it’s so important to have a pre-meeting meeting during which you and your most trusted coworkers make a quick blood pact to cover for each other if you slip up in front of your bosses (see our October 2018 article “10 Easy Blood Pacts to Increase Your Office Productivity”). That way, if one of you forgets that you’re physically there in person and absent-mindedly begins humming the theme song to The Golden Girls, you’ll all be ready to create a distraction.

Embrace Unconventional Opportunities.

If you left a mostly-empty coffee cup and a half-eaten bag of Skittles on your desk in March 2020, when you thought you’d be gone for two weeks, max, and they both have decayed to the point where they are covered with a lush green fuzz and might actually be developing a rudimentary form of consciousness, you’re not gross; you’re a scientist! Congratulations! Be sure to update your LinkedIn. These are marketable skills.

Manage Workplace Emotions with Creative Shrieking.

Once and only once each day, if you overhear a coworker say something like, “I really missed commuting; it was me time!” or “I just didn’t know what to do with all that free time I had last year!” you’re allowed to unhinge your jaw like a python swallowing a water buffalo, and shriek for sixty (60) uninterrupted seconds.

And Remember, You're Not the Only One Who Feels Like You Have NO Idea What TF Is Going On.

As strange or awkward as it might feel to be around coworkers again, you’re all going through this together. You’re not here to expect each other to be perfect. You’re here to look out for each other, cut each other some slack, and help each other press the “door close” button in the elevator whenever Brenda yells at you to hold up, she just remembered some extra work you could all do. Teamwork makes the dream work, or something!

And who knows—at the rates companies are pushing back returning to a physical office, you might NEVER even have to use these skills! But you'll be prepared if you do. And that's being a good employee.

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(Image credit: Morgan McMullen / Getty / Stocksy/Kat Irlin)