After college, I spent a year 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 proved just as difficult.
Back in the States, I saw things in a new light. Everything seemed familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Only later would I appreciate there being a name for this experience – reverse culture shock.
While leaving home to return to work is remarkably different from returning 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 returning to work
When people return home after leaving abroad, they face two major challenges. Sometimes established relationships are hard to rekindle. Also, the activities and products you missed while abroad may no longer have the same appeal. Depending on where you’ve traveled and what you’ve done abroad, even a favorite comfort food may no longer offer comfort. Where you once saw a treat, now you can only see excess.
As we return to work on site, it seems likely that we will face similar challenges. Previously strong relationships with co-workers can feel strained. Additionally, some team members will have moved on to other positions or chosen to step away permanently, leaving noticeable voids around the table. But the old bonds with the team members aren’t the only ones feeling fractured.
In major cities, including New York and San Francisco, there has been a mass exodus of white-collar workers. Along with these workers, the small businesses that once served them have also disappeared. When you get back to the office, your favorite barista or coffee shop may be gone. Of course, you can find a new cafe. But the absence of established routines and familiar faces makes returning to work even more difficult.
The Effects of Reverse Culture Shock
A 1963 study by John and Jeanne Gullahorn suggests that culture shock follows a W curve. When traveling to a new place, it is normal to go through a honeymoon phase followed by a crisis period, recovery and adjustment. The cycle repeats itself when you return home.
At first, you’re thrilled 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 overly critical of your old home or feel like your friends and family no longer share your point of view. As you struggle to adapt, you may also feel exhausted and even withdrawn or depressed. Storti also suggests that some forms of reintegration are more difficult than others. As a result, there are also things one can do to lessen the effects of reverse culture shock.
Consider the following ways leaders can help team members prepare to return to the office:
Give team members options
Make sure team members have options for how and when to return to the office. According to a study from early 2021, 70% of American workers still don’t feel entirely comfortable returning to work. Since reverse culture shock is worse when the return is involuntary and unexpected, one of the best ways to avoid its ill effects is to ensure that team members can control how and when they return to the office. .
Do it gradually
The degree of difference between the overseas culture and the home culture also has an impact on reverse culture shock. The greater the difference, the more likely it is that re-entry will be difficult. When you return from overseas, it is impossible to return gradually. Returning to work after the pandemic is different. In this case, leaders can create buffers to ease the transition to on-site work. For example, this may mean inviting employees only two or three days a week at first. As a bonus, if we do this, some of the good habits we’ve picked up during the pandemic (like sleeping more and eating more home-cooked meals) won’t be immediately disrupted.
Suppose everyone has changed
Assume everyone on your team has changed significantly since leaving in March 2020, but don’t assume everyone has changed in the same way. After all, while some people have spent more time with family and friends during the pandemic, others have suffered significant 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 relationships haven’t been damaged. A lot of people have put on a game face, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t changed profoundly. Returning to on-site work 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 reuniting existing team members, after more than 14 months you will likely meet some team members in person for the first time.
Pay special attention to younger team members
Reverse culture shock usually hits the young harder than the old. The theory is that the more transitions a person has gone through in the past, the better equipped they are to handle new ones. This has held true throughout the pandemic. COVID-19 posed a higher risk to older people, but they generally coped better with social isolation. In fact, the youngest members of the workforce have experienced the greatest mental health challenges over the past year. For this reason, leaders and organizations may consider investing additional resources to support Gen Z and younger Millennials on their teams.
If we return to the familiar places and people that were part of our lives before the pandemic, some things are bound to feel unfamiliar to us. Understanding reverse culture shock and how to mitigate its effects is one way to prepare for reintegration.