Meeting your colleagues IRL for the first time? Here are 6 ways to squash the anxiety and make a good impression.

The Office

Cherise Adkins started a new job last July and so far it’s going splendidly. She’s bonded with her team, cultivated clients, and developed an excellent relationship with her boss — all via Zoom, no less. 

Next month, though, things are about to change. Atkins, a VP at Spectrum Science, the health-focused PR agency, will commute to her Washington, D.C.-based office three days a week and — finally — meet her co-workers, who for the past year have been reduced to mere pixels on a screen.

Adkins, a natural extrovert, is uncharacteristically nervous. She’s worried about being the target of microaggressions; she’s stressed about how she’ll come across; and she’s fearful of not fitting in at the watercooler.  "My colleagues only know me in a little square box, but in reality, I am a 5’10," curvy, unapologetically Black woman," she said. "I wonder, will their perceptions match their expectations?"

About 44% of US employees worked from home during the pandemic, a share that includes millions of people who started new jobs remotely. As the health crisis eases and employers put return-to-office plans in motion, many of those workers are anxious about how the reopening will impact their jobs and professional relationships. 

"You’ve got the first day of school of jitters, and it’s going to be awkward," said Melissa Palmer, a career development expert and professional coach at Tufts University.

Cherise Atkins

Knowing that it’s going to be awkward doesn’t make it easier. What’s the best way to connect with your new-old colleagues? And how can you find your place within the team? Insider spoke with five career coaches and experts about how to make the transition seamless.

Cultivate confidence 

Even if you don’t usually fret about what others think, deep down many of us want to be liked and accepted, and meeting new people — even people we kinda-sorta already know — can be intimidating and bring about our deepest insecurities. What’s more, many colleagues already know each other, which can leave you feeling left out.

Positive self-talk is in order, said Stella Odogwu, executive coach and founder of Intelle, a career consultancy. "Remind yourself of what you bring to the table," she said. 

Odogwu’s go-to tactic for combating self-doubt is to create an, "I did that," list. "Make a list of your accomplishments — the times you navigated change and the muscles you built to adapt to new environments," she said. "You’re the same person who did those things. Remember that."

Curate your brand

Your colleagues may have already formed their first impressions, but meeting you IRL is your chance to make a second one. 

If your wardrobe and posture have taken a backseat over the past 16 months, consider the shift to in-person work as an opportunity to reset, said Tufts’ Palmer. (In other words, it’s time to put on pants.)

"Be intentional about what you project: how you dress, your tone, and body language," she said. "You’re curating your own brand."

Build social capital

Dedicate time for relationship building as if you’re starting from scratch, recommended Palmer. 

"Starting remotely means you’ve not had a chance to build social capital at the pace you usually would," she said. "Knowing people, being known, establishing trust, understanding social norms — those things are so important in starting a new job." 

Reach out to seasoned colleagues for meetings, invite people in other departments for coffee, and accept every lunch invitation on offer.

Your small talk skills are likely rusty, so learn how to ask good questions. Be curious. "Don’t talk about weather — instead, ask: If you have a free day, where do you go and what do you do? Or, are you more of a rule breaker or rule follower?"

Keep an open mind

You may have preconceived notions about your colleagues based on your Zoom interactions: Bob is the obnoxious one; Sally is the snarky one; and so on. 

But try to be open-minded, advised Ashley Pallathra, a therapist, and the co-author of "Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections," with psychiatrist Ted Brodkin.

"Give people a chance," she said. "Make a special effort to listen non-judgmentally."

Besides, said Brodkin, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, it could go in either direction. "There may be people you had a positive impression of who are not so great in real life."

Stay calm and use humor to diffuse frustrations

Working in an office with other people has some disadvantages — being mansplained to, getting talked over in meetings, and getting distracted by inane conversations, to name a few. 

Frustrations are inevitable so you need preemptive strategies for dealing with them, said David Fessell, an executive coach and faculty associate at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. For in-the-moment annoyances, Fessel advises taking slow, deep breaths. "Once you can calm and regulate yourself, you have the capacity to help and co-regulate others," he said, citing the science behind the polyvagal theory.

Humor is another device. "If you’re being talked over in a meeting, you could pipe in and say, ‘I was having trouble unmuting my microphone," he said. 

Exercise patience

Finally, understand that starting in-person work will be an adjustment. "As human beings, we like what’s predictable and safe; this is different and it puts your nervous system on edge," said Fessel.

He recommended taking multiple breaks during the day that include, "wellness anchors that soothe you and boost your mood." You might, for instance, take a walk at lunch, put in your earbuds, and listen to a favorite song. Smile at others and find people you can thank.

Most important, though, be patient with yourself and your colleagues, Fessel said. "Bring an attitude of compassion for yourself and for others and what they’re going through." 

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Rebecca Knight July 15, 2021 at 09:24PM

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