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Lockdown easing and reverse culture shock

Lockdown restrictions are gradually easing here in the UK and we are starting to return to our previous routines. Pubs and restaurants have opened outdoors, non-essential shops are back in business and many who’ve worked at home for the last year are edging back to the office part-time at least. This return to a kind of normality or ‘new normal’ reminds me of the potential rollercoaster of emotions associated with returning home from living overseas and the experience of reverse culture shock.

Sign saying Welcome please come in

Over a year ago the UK went into lockdown and everything changed overnight. For many it has been truly traumatic in life-changing ways. For others we were confronted with a kind of culture shock, experiencing social isolation, the disorientation of communicating through technology and new ways of working or studying. Local communities grew stronger and there were so many examples of wonderful acts of kindness. But at the same time divisions grew between those with differing views of how best to manage the situation and it was easy to judge others who broke ‘the rules’ or to question the efficacy or fairness of those 'rules’. Competing personal values and different perceptions of ‘right’ and ‘fair’ came clearly into view just as they do when we integrate into an overseas culture.

You have no idea, in short, that what is normal to you is not also universal, that much of what you think of as human nature is only cultural. Craig Storti, The Art of Crossing Cultures

We often surprised ourselves how quickly we adapted, finding new ways of socialising and filling our time, whether social networks from the past, learning new skills, revisiting old hobbies or taking on home improvement projects. Many companies that previously eschewed home working had to start from scratch with new systems and processes. It was tough at first but there was a collective sense of doing what was necessary. I heard some awful anecdotes, but people were creative and adaptable and for the most part organisations did everything they could to support their teams.

Now more than a year later, we are slowly returning to our former lives that have been on hold – it’s a kind of returning home. But are we coming home to a place that doesn’t exist anymore? The rules have certainly changed. Coupled with an enthusiasm for getting back to normal and seeing friends and family again, I have noticed a sense of unease and apprehension among some people I talk to. Perhaps there is a fear of overwhelm, that expectations of how we do things will not be aligned and that sense of what is normal won’t be the same among groups of colleagues or friends who were previously in tune.

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. Nelson Mandela

While most of us have missed the easy face-to-face camaraderie of office life, the idea of returning to the workplace also seems daunting for some. Time wasted on the daily commute, the distractions of unnecessary conversations or noisy work areas no longer appeal. Close colleagues may have moved on and new colleagues have joined. Relationships will have changed in small but noticeable ways and you won’t necessarily know what the last year has been like for your colleagues. Face-to-face protocols will need to be redesigned and the easy routines of the past may no longer be appropriate.

Just like when coming home from overseas, there are practical things we can do support ourselves and others as we readjust.

Keep hold of the ‘good stuff’

If you have developed good habits, don’t let them slip. Whether it’s a daily lunchtime walk, dedicated weekly time for learning or stretching at your desk, keep it going, tell your colleagues and invite them to join you!

Rebuild your network

Be intentional about rebuilding relationships and establishing new connections. Listen and learn from others’ experiences and welcome opportunities to work across other parts of the business – or the building!

Capitalise on new skills

If you were able to use time at home to learn new skills, find opportunities to extend and use your new-found talents and share them with the team. Perhaps the time at home has helped you to realise you need a change in direction.

Develop your resilience muscle

Things may be tough for a while so knowing this and knowing what helps you to stay resilient is important. Take care of yourself, recognise when you are overwhelmed and put in place coping strategies for managing stress.

Experiencing reverse culture shock can make you feel euphoric one day and then depressed and anxious the next. Remember that even though this is something you may not experience yourself, you may have colleagues who need some support.

1 Comment

Very insightful, Cathy. It reminded me of my all-time favourite poem:

"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive back where we started

And know the place for the first time."

4 Quartets, TSEliot

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