The reverse culture shock of returning to the office

Understanding reverse culture shock and its effects may be the best way to prepare for post-pandemic work and life.

After college, I spent a year living in Nairobi, Kenya. Coming from a small college town in Massachusetts, my arrival in Kenya was a culture shock. Surprisingly, coming home a year later turned out to be just as hard.

Back in the United States, I saw things in a new light. Everything felt familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Only later would I appreciate that there is a name for this experience — reverse culture shock.

While leaving home to return to work will be remarkably different than coming back from an overseas tour, there are similarities. Understanding reverse culture shock and its effects may also be the best way to prepare for post-pandemic work and life.

The Reverse Culture Shock of Going Back to Work
When people return home from overseas, they face two key challenges. Sometimes, established relationships are difficult to rekindle. Also, activities and products you missed while overseas may no longer carry the same appeal. Depending on where you traveled and what you did abroad, even a favorite comfort food may no longer offer comfort. Where you once saw a treat, you may now only see excess.

As we return to work onsite, it seems likely that we will face similar challenges. Previously strong relationships with colleagues may feel strained. In addition, some team members will have moved on to other jobs or chosen to go permanently remote, leaving notable gaps around the table. But old ties with team members aren’t the only thing that are bound to feel fractured.

In large cities, including New York and San Francisco, there has been a massive exodus of white-collar workers. Along with these workers, the small businesses that once served them have also vanished. When you return to the office, your favorite barista or coffee shop may be gone. Sure, you can find a new coffee shop. But the absence of established routines and familiar faces are bound to make the return to work even harder.

The Effects of Reverse Culture Shock
A 1963 study by John and Jeanne Gullahorn suggests that culture shock follows a w-curve. When you travel somewhere new, it’s normal to go through a honeymoon phase followed by a period of crisis, recovery and adjustment. The cycle is repeated when you return home.

At first, you’re elated to be back, but you soon find yourself facing another crisis. In “The Art of Coming Home,” Craig Storti suggests that this crisis can take many forms. You may be excessively critical about your old home or feel your friends and family no longer share your perspective. As you struggle to adjust, you may also feel exhausted and even withdrawn or depressed. Storti also suggests that some forms of re-entry are more challenging than others. As a result, there are also things one can do to mitigate the effects of reverse culture shock.

Consider the following ways leaders can help team members prepare to come back to the office:

Empower Team Members with Options
Ensure team members have options on how and when they come back to the office. According to an early 2021 study, 70 percent of American workers still don’t feel entirely comfortable going back to work. Since reverse culture shock is worse when the return is involuntary and unexpected, one of the best ways to avoid its adverse effects is to ensure that team members can control how and when they return to the office.

Make It Gradual
The degree of difference between one’s overseas and home culture also impacts reverse culture shock. The greater the difference, the more likely it is that reentry will be difficult. When you’re coming back from overseas, it is impossible to re-enter gradually. Returning to work post-pandemic is different. In this case, leaders can create buffers to ease the transition back to onsite work. For example, this might mean inviting employees back just two or three days a week at first. As a bonus, if we do this, some of the good habits we’ve adopted during the pandemic (e.g., sleeping more and eating more home-cooked meals) won’t be immediately disrupted.

Assume Everyone Has Changed
Work on the assumption that all your team members have profoundly changed since they walked out the door in March 2020, but don’t assume everyone has changed in the same way. After all, while some people have enjoyed more time with family and friends during the pandemic, others have experienced major losses, including the loss of family members and close friends.

Invest in Rebuilding Relationships
Even if your team has spent the last year hanging out with team members on Slack or Zoom, don’t assume that relationships haven’t been damaged. Many people have been putting on a game face, but this doesn’t mean they haven’t profoundly changed. The return to work on-site will likely expose new cracks. Be prepared to proactively invest in relationship-building exercises to help repair old relationships and foster new ones. After all, in addition to bringing together existing team members, after 14+ months, you’ll also likely be meeting some team members in person for the first time.

Give Extra Attention to the Youngest Team Members
Reverse culture shock generally hits the young harder than the old. The theory is that the more transitions one has weathered in the past, the better equipped they are to handle new ones. This has proven true throughout the pandemic. COVID-19 posed a higher risk to older individuals, but they generally coped better with social isolation. In fact, the youngest members of the workforce have experienced the greatest mental health struggles throughout the past year. For this reason, leaders and organizations may want to consider investing additional resources in supporting Generation Z and younger millennial members of their teams.

If we go back to the familiar places and people that were part of our lives before the pandemic, some things are bound to feel unfamiliar. Understanding reverse culture shock and how to mitigate its effects is one way to prepare for re-entry.