“Back/Return to work” is really “Into a new workplace”

Language impacts how we think and behave, and the culture we create for ourselves. What we say and how we say it matters. As our social and work activities are moving to in-person more, I am struck by the language many are using around this change.

If we want to maintain engagement, creativity, and effectiveness as we navigate another new phase of workplace life, I believe we need to be more intentional in our language.

First, we need to pay attention to our words regarding where and how we work, especially when talking about in-person settings. Key words I am hearing a lot lately include:

  • Back
  • Return
  • Normal
  • Again

After the changes of this past year, nothing will be as it was again. We can’t “go back.” We have undergone both physical and psychological processes that have moved us forward. 

We are different people in a different place, and being asked to “go back” or “return” or be “normal” “again” may feel unrealistic. This language ignores all we have been through. The past 16+ months required major life adjustments for many. Some people fell severely ill, had to move homes, lost work, unexpectedly became a primary caregiver, or lost loved ones. For some, talk of a return to normalcy is not helpful, and could possibly feel dismissive. It misses an opportunity to acknowledge the reality of the moment.

Now is the time to stay creative and to be intentional about reshaping the world we live and work in. We don’t have to fall back into patterns just because we hope they will feel comfortable after so much discomfort and uncertainty. 

As we collectively begin to reintegrate, I want to see our organizations, their cultures, and their communities thrive. It is essential that we be aware of the language we are using and make choices that support creativity and engagement, not get in their way. 

Here are a few ideas:

In Managing Transitions, William Bridges recommends we create a “new normal” with the 4 P’s:

  • Purpose (what is the intention of the new beginning?)
  • Picture (what does the new beginning look like?)
  • Plan (what is the plan for the transition into the new beginning?)
  • Part (what part does each person play?)

It is important to not only identify these 4 P’s, but to communicate them clearly with those you work with and commit to a plan together. Be creative when developing this! Engage in consensus building about what patterns or practices work best for your team as individuals and as a group in service of the work to be done. This will increase transparency amongst colleagues and increase commitment to whatever plan is created. 

As you create the 4 P’s, ask yourself:

  • Who does this work for?
  • Who doesn’t this work for?
  • Who is comfortable?
  • Who is not comfortable?

Now, think about the language you are using. Here are some considerations: 

  • Avoid language that refers to the past. Omit qualifying words like “back,” “again,” and “return.”
  • Use language that references the actual present and a realistic future (being overly optimistic can lead to skepticism). 
  • Leave space for creativity — include multiple descriptions of what participation, engagement or presence can look like. 
  • Acknowledge the potential for revisions to your plan as new information surfaces or circumstances change. Some examples include:
    • We will revisit this as a team during the first meeting of each quarter. 
    • To discuss making adjustments, email the team.

We proved there are more ways than one to work, to connect, to create culture. Let’s continue to be innovative, resourceful, and intentional in tailoring our language to set us all up for success in an ever-changing, ever-growing, ever-adapting work environment. 

Because if we have learned anything since March 2020, it is that the way we work and engage with each other needs to (and can!) change and we need to be set up for success as we make those changes!

For more on managing transitions intentionally, please reference:

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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