Back to the office? Try the tactics of America’s best change managers – First Grade Teachers

If you’ve been working from home, going back to the office has probably been on your mind. And if you’ve opened your news feed recently, you’ve probably noticed innumerable articles focused on “returning to the office.” Their authors have provided practical information and have guided us to:

  • Identify and prioritize tactical steps for re-opening
  • Determine which employees will return to the office and identify their supporting requirements
  • Select the right technology to enable communication and productivity
  • Ensure employee safety
  • Communicate with employees regularly

These articles are helpful and well-written. but they were written assuming that when we humans undergo a big change, we operate as fully functioning, mature adults. I am here to take the stand that we do not. Putting it bluntly, we don’t. In my book “The Learned-It- In- Queens Communications Playbook – Winning Against Digital Distraction,” I noted that when we experience any major life change that hits emotional buttons, we can count on our inner child getting into the act.

So, as someone, who has worked her way through numerous organizational changes, I recommend that you pay attention to your employee’s emotional state. While your staff is nodding from their side of the Zoom screen, and your colleagues are uttering logical, left-brain responses, I can assure you that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. And don’t think for a minute that conducting “re-onboarding virtual town meetings and surveys  will elicit the comprehensive, honest responses you seek.

Start by being honest. Own up to the fact that this “return to normal” may be anything but normal. It contains multiple unknowns and stressors. For example, what will it be like to work together in close quarters and contained environments for long periods? Or, how will the return of the regular commute and restrictive schedules affect us?

Then I recommend that you learn from our country’s foremost experts in change management  First Grade Teachers! Yes, I can’t think of experts better qualified to address making major, emotional and stressful life shifts.  Take a moment to review First Grade Teacher’s time-tested processes and use these points as thinking prompts when planning “The Great Return of The Employees.”

First Grade Teachers know that:

  • Emotions are a given – They know that their little charges emotional states are in constant flux and react to their classmates’ moods. This is a given. They don’t pretend otherwise. Working around them is what makes them a teaching pro.
  • Structure and rituals matter – Kids like knowing where their stuff is (backpacks, desk, etc.) and what’s happening next.
  • Breaks and snacks matter – Listen, I had strict, old-school nuns in first grade. And even they knew that it was a great idea to release crowded classrooms of pint-size baby boomer bundles of energy into the schoolyard at regular intervals so they could eat and play
  • Limit the number of new experiences – Teachers knew that the act of “showing up at school” was a major big deal. They knew that at some point in the morning those kids were going to realize that this was their “new normal.” They knew better than to try to teach a weighty subject like the entire alphabet the first day.
  • Know when it’s time to send the kids home – Again, even the nuns understood that after a few hours the wisest thing they could do was to let those kids out of the building. So, half days ruled until the kids got reasonably adjusted to their containment.
  • Manage for success – rewards, listening, patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor will make a difference when managing a big life change

Don’t forget to remember that you’re going through this momentous change too. So, like the savviest first-grade teachers, remember to acknowledge your efforts with a star, a stickie, or a spa treatment when you and your team have settled into their “new normal.”

Note: If you’d like to read what other authors are writing about  “the great return to the office” ” visit my website at

Julienne Ryan is the author of “The Learned-It-In-Queen Communications Playbook – Winning Against Digital Distraction“ She likes to find humor and irony in everyday situations and use it to guide her clients’ communications and productivity!