Re-entry after COVID is a rite of passage. Why don’t we treat it like one?

In a new column, Korn Ferry’s Dr. Laura McHale asks: can rituals from other re-entry programs help organizations define the rules of the new post-pandemic workplace?

By Dr. Laura McHale, Senior Client Partner, Leadership Psychologist, Hong Kong

Media coverage points to a uniquely post-COVID organizational pickle: whether employees should return to the office. Some companies have drawn lines in the sand and insist workers go back in-person, while others have adjusted strategies after facing significant employee pushback. But lost in the debate is an opportunity to better understand the big picture of what is happening. Re-entry after COVID is neither a return nor a destination, but is actually an important transition period—a marker on the journey to a completely new working paradigm.

I came to this epiphany while reading a remarkable interview with Adria Horn, who compared re-entry in the post-COVID workplace with her experiences returning home after deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. She said that although re-entry is always tough, especially after a traumatic military deployment, one key difference is that the military provides formal programming to help veterans navigate the ambiguity of readjustment—with all its attending strangeness, anxieties, and fears. But there seems to be no equivalent in the world of work. Indeed, companies were ill-equipped to prepare workers for the seismic changes that the COVID pandemic brought, and now they are facing even bigger challenges with returning to the office.

Horn’s insights prompted me to consider my own experience with re-entry from a foreign country: when I returned home to the United States after two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in sub-Saharan Africa. And I began to wonder whether the Peace Corps close-of-service programming might provide a roadmap for companies that want to bring people back to work in person.

After the program began in the 1960s, Peace Corps administrators started to notice a strange trend: many volunteers were reporting greater difficulty with returning to the United States than they had experienced when they first departed for their posts. But the re-entry anxiety was of a curious kind. When volunteers arrived at their posts, they had had months of training and an expectation of significant culture shock—an understanding of what the alternating cycles and phases of cultural acceptance and rejection would look like.

The anxiety of “return culture shock” was of a different stripe; that which should have felt familiar was no longer so. Returned volunteers described an uneasy sense of being strangers in their own land. They expressed difficulty with making sense of their experience, both in terms of translating what they had learned into marketable skills, but also in describing how their service had impacted and changed them. Many also had difficulty reintegrating into their previous social circles. Peace Corps came to realize that it needed to devote more time to the issue of readjustment, which led to the creation of the “Close of Service” (COS) conference, now attended by every volunteer around three months before they complete service.

The COS conference is not just about closure, but also—perhaps more importantly—about beginning. It is designed to prepare returning volunteers for an important identity transition.

Psychologists have studied identity transitions for some time and use the term liminality (from the Latin līmen, meaning "threshold") to describe the periods of disorientation and ambiguity that occur during rites of passage. Liminality is a kind of identity limbo, where participants no longer hold their previous status but have not yet completed the transition to what they will become. It is a fascinating time, of potential and promise, but rife with uncertainty and vulnerability.

People experience liminality all the time: moving from childhood to adolescence, going to college, leaving an old job and getting a new one, getting married—and getting divorced. Yet, modern culture is notorious for handling liminality badly, largely because many of our previous societal rituals and rites have become extraneous or diminished. For example, we no longer ritually purify soldiers returning from battle. Nor do we engage in extended public mourning, even for those suffering from prolonged, complicated grief. Liminality gets short shrift in a society perpetually striving toward completion.

This is a big problem for modern culture, as Arnold Van Gennep, the esteemed French anthropologist, observed 1909. There is a reduced perceived need for rites of passage—and we ignore them at our peril. Many people feel distress because they are forced to navigate key transitions alone, without the benefit of group validation and support.

The same can be said of our post-COVID world. The pandemic required extensive and prolonged social isolation, which research has already shown led to a decline in mental wellness globally. This is in addition to the physical and mental impacts of the illness itself, which has been found to be correlated with high rates of post-recovery depression.

Might rituals be able to help ease the emotional burden? And how organizations might use them to cope with the transition through post-COVID liminality?

At my Peace Corps COS conference, we talked about the practical concerns of going home, such as purchasing health insurance, financial and tax matters, finding a job, and how to make sense of our volunteer experience for possible employers. But just as relevantly, we explored the complex emotional reactions we would likely experience. Many of our feelings, we discovered, would be ambivalent and even contradictory. We’re happy to go home, but fearful of leaving. We’re deeply connected to our host communities, but relieved to escape their poverty. Above all, we discussed the importance of treading lightly with ourselves and letting readjustment unfold organically, recognizing that we would go through stages of relative acceptance and rejection of our home-country culture.

Perhaps we need to do the same as we work in the post-COVID transition. We need to adjust our lives to fit into the new cadences of being in the office, doing hybrid work, or working from home. Most of us will probably have mixed feelings about how our new work norms play out. Some may love going back to the office; others may resent it. These are normal reactions. And these emotions may alternate, like a pendulum swinging back and forth.

There is no rulebook for how we learn to make a workplace community again, how to support each other through re-entry anxiety, or how to recover from personal and collective grief. Most of us experienced a loved one dying or know someone who had someone close to them die. And the majority of us came down with the virus ourselves, with some still dealing with its lingering effects. This should not be ignored at work—or indeed anywhere else. We have all been touched by illness, grief, and loss.

To recognize this rite of passage for what it is, leaders and human resources managers can focus on practical considerations, such as conducting workshops on the new rules on working from home or implementing adaptive approaches on how to move away from presenteeism toward looking specifically at outputs and productivity levels.

But the social and emotional aspects of re-entry should also be honored. Leaders can facilitate small group workshops where employees reflect on the biggest lessons they are taking away from the pandemic, share the names of people who influenced them the most over the course of the crisis, and honor their proudest accomplishments during that time. All of these are ways of creating meaning from the experience and sharing it with others.

Rituals are proven to help facilitate the way toward healing and becoming better equipped to prosper in the undiscovered country we glimpse ahead. In the words of Van Gennep: “Life itself means to separate and to be reunited…It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way.”