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Prepare for reverse culture shock

2020 has without question been all about adapting to change and uncertainty - both the incredibly tough parts and the release of all sorts of new positives. What's inevitable throughout it all is that we've changed. Have you noticed how you've changed? And are you ready for things to change again?

2021 heralds a more hopeful future but simultaneously promises reverse culture shock as we adjust once again to a more familiar but, still, reimagined landscape. The change curve remains our old friend as we begin to reverse the restrictions and limitations of 2020, feeling the shock of the shifts, mourning the loss of what's become our normal, denying changes, feeling frustrated, angry or scared, exploring and arriving finally in a place of acceptance.

My personal awareness of the reversal began when I travelled into London last week as Lockdown 2 lifted. I've grown to expect an almost unthinkably relaxed commute no more than twice a week now. It surprised me to notice a sense of irritation and anxiety that there were people in my carriage on the train, every seat (with one space left between) was taken on the morning tube and I had to wait a couple of minutes to cross the road to let traffic pass. Now, in relative terms the trains were still very empty, the tube was a quarter full and the streets were far from bustling. However, I realised I wasn't ok with it.

I was reminded of the wide-eyed 22 year old who moved to London, adjusting to commuting on the cattle truck they called the Northern Line. It took some time before I was inured to the daily assault on my senses and had developed a tolerance for the frenetic pace of life and the cut and thrust of working culture.

In sharp contrast to pre-COVID times, returning to 'more like usual' as things currently stand is really only going to be a fraction of the rat race it once was but we've changed in the interim. It's clear we won't be returning to how it was before so it's not about finding that pre-lockdown version of you. For starters, even if you're OK the people around you might not be OK. We need a new over-coat, one that isn't the size and shape it was before and isn't the one you're currently wearing. Whether you will remain working from home, go into the office more or begin to pick up a much fuller social calendar, what is it going to be like as the great reversal begins in line with the roll-out of the vaccine? Whether it's in early 2021 or later in the year, how will it feel to have people around you again and in your face in more ways than one? We need to be anticipating a real, lived sense of reverse culture shock and we need to be prepared as individuals and as employers.

The NHS "hands, face, space" mantra is a helpful reminder of things we will need to carry forward for quite some time to come. But what might your mental well-being version of "hands, face, space" be as we begin to ease restrictions and you resume a more sociable, busier schedule?

I'm thinking about "tolerance, pace, personal space".


We've been hunkered down with limited contact with the general public and all the vagaries of behaviour that go with a diverse group of people. You used to be familiar with meeting idiots a lot but you've been protected from spending much time with most of the human race for 9 months. You are going to feel more annoyed/ angry/ disheartened/ worried than you used to when you meet or see behaviour that rubs up against your values. Be kind to yourself that you're adjusting, dial up the empathy and curiosity for others, speak your mind if it warrants it and increase the activities that soothe you to deal with the emotional stress of how others behave. You need to integrate gradually and expect to feel slightly disorientated, emotional or fatigued. Which brings me on to....


You may have been working harder than ever during 2020 as a key worker or a worker drained by back-to-back video calls. The pace of work may even decrease for you next year. What's likely to increase is the diversity of commitments you need to juggle, gradually at first: social engagements, children's activities, family get-togethers, client drinks, leadership events, travelling to places, possibly visiting numerous sites in one day again. The pace of life will increase and it's going to be very tiring because you're out of practice. Even if the reversal is gradual, the social simplicity of 2020 will change; be ready for the mental load of managing a heavier schedule again. It would be folly to simply return to the diary crush of the old times and lose the learning from 2020 on the benefits of slowing down. Instead, protect some decompression time and family/you time in your schedule. Nurture the inner hermit enough that you don't burn out with the sheer joy of being able to be with people again. Convert the return on the learning from having more downtime this year and take control by blocking out what you need to be healthy and balanced as the great re-set you always wanted.

Personal space

There's a reason you used to plug into your phone, read a book, listen to music or daydream on the commute; it was a coping mechanism for the sensory over-load of being with so many people so close to you. Let's not lose the benefits that increased personal space and a slowed social life have shown us. We've connected more when we have met people, enjoyed short conversations with strangers we've met on walks or at the shops so perhaps we've changed for the better. However, be ready for the sensation of being on high alert; your amydala (the threat-detecting part of the brain) is constantly scanning for danger signals and the sheer volume of new stimulation will mean you are responding to a lot of cues which will feel exhausting to begin with. Build in time to build up slowly, exposing yourself gradually to situations where there are more people around you. Don't be surprised if you feel fatigued, anxious or even flat at times. Be patient.

There's much to be hopeful and happy about as we contemplate at least some reversal of the 2020 restrictions. What an extraordinary year of growth and learning it has been for us all as individuals and as a global community. As you write those new year's resolutions in the next few weeks, why not build in your own version of "tolerance, pace, personal space" to help you readjust and retain all the learning 2020 has bestowed upon you as you move forward into the future.

Go safely, slowly and intentionally. I wish you every blessing for the new year.


Georgie Rudd is the Founder and Director of Rudd Coaching Ltd. She coaches leaders in global FTSE 100 businesses and Partnership firms. Having worked as a senior leader in both, she understands the challenges and pressures and delivers high impact development that makes a difference. The approach is best described as a high empathy, high challenge 'thinking partnership' that delivers actionable intelligence for her clients. This means the work is outcomes-focused, facilitating insights that lead to real change. She coaches on a wide range of topics including helping leaders to deliver strategy, create boundaries and build resilience, lead with empathy and connect brilliantly with others, increase personal impact and dial up self-belief.

For a conversation about corporate or private coaching, contact

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