Stranger in a Familiar Land

After a year of the ‘new normal’ of working from home during lockdowns, many of us will have become accustomed to new and different ways of working. For many a return to the workplace has been a welcome return to normality, but it may also have resulted in surprising feelings for some.

Reverse culture shock is the name given to this phenomenon, commonly associated with students and employees who work or study abroad but is now becoming more common among workers who are beginning their return to their respective places of work.

Common signs of reverse culture shock include:

  • Feeling bored, restless, or even depressed.
  • Feelings of being left ‘out of the loop’ or unable to keep up with the latest developments in work, technology, standards, regulations and practices and so on
  • Difficulty rekindling relationships both inside and outside the work environment

Many people who experience these feelings have also found that on their return, the things they used to enjoy no longer hold the same appeal as it once did or has changed significantly prior to leaving.

When I was growing up, my father worked abroad for four months at a time in the Middle East. He would look forward to spending time with us and catching up on things he had missed, such as his favourite foods, drinks (we always made sure we had a stockpile of bitter lemon waiting for him!) and we would spend many days on walks around the Brecon Beacons taking in the scenery. It was noticeable as the weeks went on, however, that he was struggling to readjust to this lifestyle after living on his own many miles away. Looking back at it now, I can understand that - through no fault of his own - that he had been experiencing those exact symptoms of reverse culture shock.

Changes in office culture

While leaving the comfort of our home offices is significantly different than coming home from studying or working overseas, both actions result in similar challenges being faced. For example, previously strong relationships with colleagues may be difficult to rekindle and conversations may feel strained and awkward.

For new starters to an organisation, it can feel strange to have only met one or two colleagues face-to-face – strong induction processes can go a long way to ensuring a new colleague is made welcome, particularly where some members of the team may still be working from home, either full or part-time.

Lessening the Impact of Reverse Culture Shock

It has been a turbulent eighteen months, but there have been positives to take from the changes that have been seen in the workplace.

Remote working has worked for some, and not so well for others – a balance may be reached through hybrid working models. Video calls have become common place, saving travel costs and allowing colleagues who may work remotely or in other offices to meet quickly and efficiently. Training sessions have been able to continue through webinars or e-learning modules, allowing for a more flexible approach to learning, as an alternative to the classroom-based approach.

The adjustment back into the workplace has been gradual, with lockdowns having been lifted and re-imposed. Understandably, we will all have been affected differently by the events over the last year and a half; for some, the adjustments will have been harder than for others. Empathy between employers and employees can aid effective communication, where there may be concerns over a return to the wokrplace.

We cannot go back to the way things were before the pandemic, but finding ways to move forward is a step in the right direction.

About the author

Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Her role as a content designer involves developing new and engaging e-learning modules as well as assisting in the creation of articles for Insight. 

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