It’s reached that stage of social distancing where my mind has started to move to what happens next.

I don’t have a crystal ball and I have no idea when offices are going to ‘return to normal’. It might never happen, and for many, the impact of Covid has already been felt through job losses. But it’s clear that at some point, many of us are going to return to our physical workspaces. It’s time to start the thinking on what that is going to look like.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with various people lately about how, if we try to put a positive spin on it, many of us have been given a chance to rethink how our teams and workplaces operate. So let’s use that. Here are my top of mind thoughts about how to use the return to work well.

Back to basics on mental health

The last few months have been scary. Disruption inherently provokes uncertainty and anxiety. Many of us have had to contend with changing workloads – increases and decreases. We’ve had to adapt to a new way of working. Often we’ve been physically separated from the ones we love, and concerned about their health and livelihoods. There is mounting evidence that Covid-19 has been a tough time for mental health. Good Friday saw the highest volume of calls in a single day to Lifeline in history. In the last week of March, calls to Beyond Blue’s support service were up 30 per cent.

As a leader and a colleague returning to work, it’s vital to recognise the impact of the last few months on everyone’s mental health. So use this time to master the basics on mental health in the workplace. There are plenty of resources out there to help you understand how to recognise and respond to signs and symptoms in your colleagues and staff. I recommend starting with Beyond Blue’s dedicated workplace mental health site, Heads Up, and going from there.

Recognise the challenges of returning to work

The return is going to hit people differently. For some people, it will be a welcome relief. For others, it will be a challenging shift. Understand that the period of working from home will have been experienced differently by people. For example, women are significantly more likely to have been challenged by the remote working period, undertaking the lion’s share of at home caring and teaching duties while kids have been remote schooling. Acknowledge the challenges that this time has presented, and account for them in the shift back to office-based working.

Build on the strengths

While working remotely has undoubtly created new challenges for teams, it’s also created new patterns of behaviour which don’t need to end when people return to the office. For many, the last few weeks have been the first time that managers have started conversations with ‘So how are you?’, that teams have gathered for fun rather than work, and that you’ve got to know your colleagues holistically as their little kid runs screaming through the back of a videoconference or a zoom background is set to a place with special memories. Caring for your colleagues as people shouldn’t stop when you go back to the office. Covid has been a great time to showcase the leadership qualities that create valued and supportive teams, rather than just managers of productivity. SuperFriend has some great Covid-tailored resources on how to lead through this crisis (and beyond).

For others, this has been the first time that their workplace has fully embraced the potential of remote and flexible working. Think about new ways to incorporate that flexibility into your ‘business as usual’ work culture, especially as the chances of an overnight return to normal are pretty slim.

Learn from what we already know

Returning to work is not a new concept. Many of us have taken time out of the workplace for various reasons, including having kids, recovering from an injury or taking a sabbatical. Particularly in those cases where time out of the workplace has not been a choice, such as for health or caring reasons, there is a wealth of expertise around how to conduct that transition effectively. Connect with experts in return to work and stay at work approaches to understand the kinds of flexibility and reasonable adjustments they build into their practice.