As many corporate employees have experienced, the period between getting stuck at home and slowly going back to the office was surreal. The first time I went back to the office, it felt like an apocalyptic movie as I was the only car in a big parking area. There were hardly any people in the usually busy streets and restaurants. Before going into the office, I had to go through various checks and protocols. So when I finally made my way to see the colleagues I needed to meet, the hi’s and hello’s were curt but connected. It was a quick agenda, but even if we had our masks on, you could see in everyone’s eyes that we wished everyone continued safety.

Nowadays, more cars are parked, and more people are buzzing in the office again. The hybrid work setting is indeed the new normal that we eagerly awaited while we were all cooped up in our houses for months and years. We are finally here! But I refuse to go back to normal if normal means not enabling some important life lessons we have all gone through. We are all survivors, given the many struggles everyone has gone through as individuals and as a collective, directly or vicariously.

As employees make their way back to an office routine, I’d like to offer some tips that might make these new ways of working a better normal.

If you go to the office, be grateful for everyone’s presence! Give enthusiastic hello and savor the greetings you get from security guards, receptionists, or cleaners. We don’t know what everyone has gone through or still going through. I am not saying to, all of a sudden, hug every person you meet but smile and greet people because they matter. Don’t limit your greeting only to the person you actually know. For some colleagues, it is great to finally see them again, while for some so-called pandemic hires, it will be the first time to see them in 3D. There is excitement but, at the same time, anxiety in seeing one another and interacting in person. So if you give a sunny smile to one colleague, be conscious not to give a zombie-ish expression to another, as that sends clear “you don’t matter” vibes. Smile is free, so don’t reserve your warm smile only for a few.

"Agile thinking is not only for solving problems for clients but agility in feeling what others are going through"

Be genuinely interested in the other person. I learned a concept that spoke about the difference between an outward and an inward mindset. When we operate with an outward mindset, we are more interested in people and more naturally helpful to others, including their needs and objectives. Interactions are more curious. In the self-focus of an inward mindset, however, one tends not to see other people. People are more like objects that can be helpful, an obstacle, or irrelevant. So next time you see someone in the office or even virtually, make sure you make your colleague feel seen. Expand your ‘how are you’ question. Ask them about their work and what they have been busy with or weekend activities. Give a genuine compliment. Remember, we all got stuck at home for the longest time, so it’s good to turn outward.

Combine agility with empathy. Feel the energy in the room. Observe the team dynamics and meeting interactions. Serious, anxious, awkward, focused, confused, excited? In most cases, things will not always go as planned, and a colleague or two may need extra support or a listening ear. Agile thinking is not only for solving problems for clients but agility in feeling what others are going through. It can therefore be exercised when it comes to empathy. You will be more fluid in dealing with team members’ situations better. It will help you adapt to the situation, leverage collaboration, and eventually get things done faster.

The pandemic and so many other harsh global realities created an urgency for employers to focus on the uplifting employee experience in unsettled times. If you are in HR or a leader or team member, come up with programs and activities that will amplify values at work. This can be recommending a better process, organizing charitable activities, teambuilding to support green advocacy, or coaching/teaching team members so they can be better skilled at their tasks. Take whatever opportunity to be a stronghold in affirming your company’s values interspersed with helping break down roadblocks to the progress of a better normal for colleagues. This will help your company succeed, which has a multiplier effect on all its employees.

Moment by moment, there was a point where we felt alone living inside our bubble. There is a tinge of sadness if one goes out desensitized. Instead, we should find ways to make it better. Gandhi, one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our century, said, “he felt that almost anything one can do would be insignificant. Yet to do something is very important.” Each day, each change is small but takes us all in a direction. When we look back over the last year and several unprecedented events, we may have some doubts. But the kind of person we each become in these trying times is as important as what we accomplish in our company and the community around us. Let us do our share to push for a better normal.