With the covid death rate collapsing and the number of vaccinations rising, New York and California, two states hit early and hard by the virus, ended nearly all of their pandemic-era restrictions on Tuesday.

The occasion, celebrated in New York with fireworks displays, means that states across the country are now fully reopened. Americans who have worked from home since restrictions were ordered are experiencing their first days back at work since March 2020.

Many have struggled over what to wear and whether work clothes would still fit; snagged prime parking spots in still-deserted lots; scanned cavernous office floors for signs of other returnees; and enjoyed reunions with co-workers.

Some acknowledge a tangle of emotions: feeling joyful, strange — and a little lonely since they may represent the first wave in their workplace, having volunteered to return to offices that are continuing to operate at extremely limited capacity.

Some say they deeply appreciated their work-from-home lifestyles during the pandemic. Others are relieved to be back to their pre-pandemic routines.

The Washington Post talked to workers in California, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, and Washington, D.C., who described that first day back at the office. Their comments were edited for length and clarity.

Eugene Izotov

Performing arts

San Francisco returned to work on June 16

The first performance since the pandemic
Eugene Izotov, principal oboe for the San Francisco Symphony, played his first performance to a live audience at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall on June 17. (James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Izotov is the principal oboe of the San Francisco Symphony, which resumed live concerts with a full orchestra on June 17. Born in Russia, Izotov was trained at the Gnesin Russian Academy of Music in Moscow and later at Boston University. He has been based in San Francisco for 14 years.

I woke up at 4:25 a.m. and tried to go back to bed because I had a big day. We had our first rehearsal since March 2020, before everything was canceled due to covid. I was wired and couldn’t sleep. So I gave up, made some coffee, and listened to a YouTube video of the first piece in our program, which we were scheduled to perform at our first concert back in front of our beloved San Francisco audiences.

We start the concert with “Wind Serenade” by Richard Strauss and finish with the “Violin Concerto” by Johannes Brahms. Both pieces are very dear to me, and not just because they have prominent oboe solos.

My two kids, sons Sammy, 7, and Rafa, 10, heard me moving around, got up, and refused to go to bed. They’ve gone back to in-person school and were talking about how excited they are, what classes they’re taking. We haven’t had conversations like this for a year and a half because every day was the same. You wake up, eat breakfast, open the computer and you’re in Zoom world.

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Afterward, I chose my reeds for rehearsal and drove to work. As I drove, I kept coming back to this idea that, for a year and a half, we have not been able to breathe, to just be who we are as live musicians. It’s like I had wings.

My workplace is on the stage of the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the home of our orchestra, which is midsize, maybe 70, 80 people. I noticed a lot of covid protocols, like a body temperature scan, extra forms, and masks throughout the hall.

On the stage, the string players were wearing masks, but the wind players and brass were not because our mouths can’t be obstructed when we play. We all sat together with the way we normally did before the pandemic.

You can’t have live music without other musicians and without audiences. Zoom has really improved tremendously and can capture pretty accurate sound, but it also has delay and sync issues. So like many musicians, I became a recording artist instead. That was the only way I could make music. At first, I did it alone. Then I connected with colleagues from all over the world, and we made recordings together. I’d lay the track from point A to B, someone else from point B to C, and someone would record them and mix it all together. So thank God for that. It gave us a purpose and kept me in shape, musically and physically.

But to be able to finally play together on the same stage, that’s really the most important part of our identity. It was exhilarating. We had each other. We could breathe together, move together, look at each other and just really share, experience, and just create this atmosphere in which we make music.

Before we rehearsed, I gave the A — the note the entire orchestra tunes to — for the first time since March, and my heart started beating faster because I realized this is happening. This is for real.

The San Francisco Symphony and hall have been such a huge part of my life. It feels like home. I can close my eyes and visualize where everything is — the stage, the hallways. I can feel the touch of the elevator button that gets us to the stage. In some ways, it’s like I never left. It feels, on one hand, very normal.

On the other hand, being back was incredible because we were finally able to do something that truly defines us, something we haven’t been able to do with each other in over a year.

Our reunion was very emotional, but we couldn’t let it overcome us because then we couldn’t play and do our jobs. But during our first break, everything really hit me. I realized when life can go on, music can go on. That’s what this day meant to me.

 as told to Patrice Peck

Amaiya Lockwood

Insurance

Schaumburg, Ill., returned to work on June 2

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Lockwood is a senior coordinator in claims administration at Zurich North America’s headquarters in Schaumburg, a northwest suburb of Chicago.

Zurich reopened its Schaumburg offices for staff on a voluntary basis on June 1, limited to 20-percent capacity. Lockwood, 20, who started at Zurich in 2018 and is one of the company’s youngest employees, returned the next day, after 15 months of working from home. Illinois fully reopened on June 11.

I kind of always had in my mind that I want to go back the moment they allow us because there are a lot of distractions at home. I have two dogs, three cats, a bird, and a turtle. I live in an apartment. It’s just really noisy. It’s hard for me to focus on certain things. I always have to get up because the dogs are being loud or a dog got sick or the dogs have to go out.

And also, I was really over wearing just sweatpants and not getting dressed and ready for my day. I felt like if I can get up and get dressed and ready for my day, it helps my day get going a little better and faster. And it also helps wake me up.

The first day back felt like the first day I started again. It felt so fresh. Everything was big to me again.

I was actually really nervous about what I was going to wear the first day. I decided what I was going to wear the night before, which I never do. But I wanted to be prepared. I had black skinny jeans, a black blouse, and then I put on a pink blazer. And then tan flats. I just felt like the blazer looked very professional. I was really excited about that part. I had a pink mask to match my blazer.

It was really important for me to look nice, especially because my co-workers haven’t seen me in a long time. I don’t want them to know I haven’t been dressing as nice. At home, it was gray sweats, loose lounge shorts, a regular T-shirt that might have a bleach stain. So it’s kind of like, “I’m back! I’m ready to work again here.”

Every day when we go into the office, we have this app called Virgin Pulse that we have to go on and do a health screening to make sure we don’t have any symptoms of covid, that we haven’t been exposed to.

Then we have this other application called AgilQuest where we can go on and reserve our workstation for the day. A mask can be worn in the office unless you are fully vaccinated. Right now, they’re going more like on an honor system. I had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the beginning of March. I did wear a mask that first day.

Since everything’s been opening up again, traffic has started to go back up, to almost how it was before covid. It was pretty much the normal seven minutes. When I first got there, I was able to park on the main level parking lot instead of going down a level because there were barely any cars; I was able to get a great parking spot.

We have a tunnel that we go through to get to the main building from the parking garage, and I was nervous. My heart was racing a little bit. I was like, “Oh! I’m actually back here.” I think it was mainly excitement, too.

It was very interesting when I got to my floor on 4 West. Nobody was there. I was like, “Where is everybody?” I expected more people to want to come in. It was just a little sad. There were only four people on my floor. It’s a big floor. I do miss being able to turn around and talk to my co-worker. It was quiet. I had to stick to myself pretty much.

I had heard little rumors and whispers [in March 2020] about everybody working from home. But I thought it was just going to be for a week, and then we’d go back. I didn’t take any of my stuff out of my desk — I had notebooks, papers, copies of things, different assignments. I left what was on top of my desk. I had a succulent plant. The plant was no longer there. They probably threw it out. It was probably dried and got moldy or something.

It was easier to let the dogs out more [while working from home]. And also to keep an eye on the cats to make sure they’re not destroying anything. Because I’m so close to the office, I come home during my lunch to let the dogs out, play with them and make sure they have food, water. My dog, Reba, is very needy. She really likes to be next to me. She did seem a little lost when I came back for lunch.

The first person I saw that I knew [in the office], I was going to get coffee. It was one of the apprentices. She was sitting there working, and I was just like, “Oh, hey! I did not know you were here! I wasn’t expecting to see you.” It was really nice. I haven’t seen her in a really long time.

The next thing I am really excited about, whenever they do choose to open, in the cafeteria. In the morning, they have the chef making breakfast sandwiches and fruit bars and bagels. In the afternoon, they have a salad bar and so many options you can add to your salad, which I really like. I’m just excited to go down there and get good food.

 as told to Erin Chan Ding

Rory Trotter

Human resources

Louisville, returned to work on June 11

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Trotter is director of total rewards and executive compensation for Brown-Forman, a wine and spirits company headquartered in Louisville, which owns well-known brands Jack Daniels and Finlandia.

Trotter joined the company in December 2019, shortly before the pandemic. His first day back was June 11, the same day Kentucky lifted all remaining covid restrictions in the state.

Before the pandemic, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I worked remotely. Most of the time it was because I really needed to get something done but I was sick enough that going in would be a risk to others. Otherwise, I was always looking to come into the office.

I’ve got mixed feelings about coming back. On the one hand, I’m really excited to get back to enjoying office culture — from seeing team members to being able to collaborate in person. On the other, I really like not having the hour of picking out clothes, getting ready, and traveling in the morning.

Because of the fact that I get an earlier start working from home and am pretty productive in the early morning, sometimes in the early afternoon, I have time to just take a walk for 30 minutes.

Return to work | Rory Trotter
(TWP)

A couple people on my team said they were going to start to ease back into the office a couple days a week. I took a look at my schedule and saw that Friday was light enough that it was a really easy day to get back into the office and reacclimate.

I did not expect there to be very many people there, but it was still interesting to come in and see just how quiet it was.

The HQ overall has 800-plus people, but on my floor, there are about 25 — of which I saw two others in addition to myself. I saw about 10 people altogether, but I didn’t go to every floor. So I would guess that we were at about 10 percent capacity, based on my floor and the few other floors I was on.

The last time that I’d been at the office and it was that quiet during a workday was probably in January 2020 when I was working late and everybody was gone.

It may have been a little easier to concentrate because just being in the office creates more of a start and end time to the day. And there were fewer distractions than there might be at home.

Though Brown-Forman strongly recommends that colleagues get vaccinated, they don’t have a requirement that you get vaccinated. If you aren’t vaccinated, there are masks and things like temperature checks to make sure you aren’t exposed and you aren’t exposing others.

When you were coming up to somebody for the first time there was kind of this social decorum of wearing your mask until you talked to the person and found out both parties were vaccinated. Then it was okay to take it off. That was something I didn’t expect. I don’t think it’s written down anywhere that that’s what you do, but that’s just kind of what everybody was going on.

Some people I saw today I ordinarily would have just said, “Hey, how are you doing?” and then we may have just kept going. Today, instead, it was a stop and a pause, and we had a conversation on it.

There were some khakis that I was going to wear into the office this morning. But when I was picking out my clothes I realized they were a little tight so I went with something else instead. I don’t know if anyone else had that. I’m going to try to hit the gym over the next few weeks and avoid having to buy anything new.

Certain things that we're working right before weren’t working anymore. My keyboard and my mouse are both battery-powered devices, and I hadn’t remembered to turn them off before I left. I’d been looking forward to using my large monitor setup, but I wasn’t able to do that because those devices didn’t work. I ended up working from my laptop the same way I had been working at home.

I had not been driving much during the pandemic. I spent three months last winter where I didn’t drive at all. In February I went to get in my car and realized the battery had died. So the car is just parked there in place. I took an Uber to work.

If I go in two or three days next week and the number of people is similar to what it is today, I might wait until more people are back. If it’s a really bustling office and more people start trickling back in, I can see myself coming in more days.

 as told to Josh Wood

Colleen Caunitz

Sales

New York, returned to work on June 4

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Caunitz is a key account specialist at Beverage Works, which is the distributor for Red Bull energy drinks in New York and New Jersey. New York officially reopened on June 15, after achieving a 70 percent vaccination rate. But Caunitz’s first day back in the office was June 4 for a meeting.

When I first received a message from work that we would be holding a meeting in the office, I checked to make sure I was reading it correctly.

“Is this really going to be in person?”

My colleague replied: “100 percent. I sent back the clapping hands emoji.

I wasn’t nervous to go back into an office. I’ve lived in Manhattan for years now.

The city was officially reopening. I’m fully vaccinated. I couldn’t wait.

I just wanted to see everybody. To me, the interaction was normalcy.

On June 4, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. I dressed business casual — and took a cab over the East River to Brooklyn. I got to work early. The meeting was at 6:30 a.m. because sales reps need to get out on their routes. I could tell everyone was still wondering what it would all be like. A lot of my co-workers showed up early, too.

The morning started with our branch meeting at a conference room in our Brooklyn warehouse. There were about 30 of us in seats. Some people I had never met before, but I had spoken with them on the phone or exchanged emails. We hadn’t been back in the same room since March 13, 2020.

Everyone wore a mask. I didn’t ask whether anyone was vaccinated; no one asked me. I was curious to see how we adjusted. Our general manager, branch manager, and vice president spoke during an hour-long meeting. During the pandemic, they were all on our screens in a Webinar format. It was a consistent comfort.

Now I could see people raising their hands, getting more interactive as we reviewed promotions and planned summer events. There was a familiar office feel.

It was a special occasion. There were breakfast sandwiches for us afterward. As the day got going, there was a DJ in the parking lot for even more energy.

I’ve been selling Red Bull for 20 years — from bodegas to corporate cafeterias — and my business is about maintaining relationships out in the field. So much of what we do is face-to-face, but I remember when everything shut down.

One day we were planning additional displays for businesses along the St. Patrick’s Day parade route, and the next we were hearing from college cafeteria managers that they were canceling samplings we scheduled with them.

The corporate office closed; meetings and check-ins went virtual. It wasn’t like we could just take the time off, though. Sales reps and drivers continued servicing accounts. We were always checking: Who is doing sales online? Is Red Bull being represented on the sites?

We had to let the business owners know we’re adapting with them.

Even as we went back into our workspace, we were talking about how others were approaching the reopening and watching the trends.

Who is going back to work? What stores are they going to? Are they buying online? Who’s hopping on planes? We wanted answers for all of that as we got together again for that collaborative office energy.

We had our eye on where people were returning to work and when. I’m fully in the field, whether checking in with managers at JFK Airport or meeting with local store owners.

Business is coming back. I see it in the streets. I heard it in the warehouse.

When you work in sales, you’re not always in the office day-to-day, but when I went back, I felt a good comfort level again, knowing there was a place to go, meet up with co-workers.

I missed that. I sat there and thought, “How great is this?” Everybody needs to go back.

Sometimes you just need that place to get together.

 as told to Kevin Armstrong

Matthew Slade

Security

Washington, D.C., returned to work on June 11

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Slade is director of security at Echostagea nightclub and concert venue with a 3,000-person capacity, where he has worked since 2012. Slade returned to work for the first time on June 11, the day D.C. lifted its final covid-19 restrictions. DJ Zedd was the headliner, and the club opened to a capacity crowd, with a masks-optional policy. Slade did not wear a mask, and neither did most of the customers.

I’m so excited to be back just because our industry being off for a year and a half, especially with us being the last phase to open. Some bars were able to open with limited capacity and stuff like that — but, we had to wait to reopen, and I’m just excited to get back to work.

The first two or three weeks it was cool because it was like, “Oh, we have a vacation.” Then it was like, “Oh, it’s months.” Then it was like, “Oh, it’s a year.” Then you start seeing some of the people in this profession that are losing their jobs because clubs aren’t reopening. A lot of bars and restaurants are closing, stuff like that. The hospitality industry took a huge hit. I feel bad for all of the people who don’t have a job to go back to. I feel blessed that I am able to have a job and can come back to it and be surrounded by the people that I used to work with.

(Slade worked occasional private security shifts while the club was closed).

After hearing the club would reopen at the same time as D.C., I immediately started getting my staffing together, seeing who was coming back, who wasn’t coming back. Getting my sleep schedule back together and stuff like that. But I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve had a plan for the day that we were going to open back. I started going to sleep later at night, basically the hours that I’d be working here, adjusting that and waking up. I’ve done that for the past two and a half weeks, just getting ready — getting my mind and body ready, readjusting to the schedule.

Just being back with my co-workers, being back in the environment with all of the customers and live music, live shows, the total package. It’s a family. Our entire company is a family. Most of us have worked together for a minimum of two years. It really is a family.

It is work but it feels like having fun while you’re at work which is always a great thing to have in your profession. It’s almost like having a soundtrack to your working experience. You always have this nice music around. The crowd is always having such a great time and that makes you happy, feeding off their positive vibes.

People basically came back, and it really didn’t seem like anything had changed. It literally picked up where we left off. For the first couple of minutes, it was, I don’t want to say shocking, but it was kind of interesting to see it picking right back up where it had left off.

It was a great day, a great feeling to be back in that environment and see how happy everyone was — to see how excited they were to be back. We were lucky enough and blessed enough that our entire team [96 percent] pretty much came back, which also helped facilitate us not having any hiccups that other places faced. It was perfect.

Seeing how comfortable everyone else was, kind of just made it feel more comfortable. If everyone else was tense and kind of nervous then that would have me a little more tense and nervous about the situation.

But everyone was just relaxed and calm and excited, and it literally felt like it did before a year and a half ago. It just helped us not be too stressed about anything and just ensure that they were having a good time just like we always try to make sure they’re having a good time. It’s good to be back. It felt really good.

If you’re anxious about how your team is going to navigate the transition to whatever form of in-person work your company is planning, you aren’t alone. By now, you’re likely aware that most employees don’t want to return to whatever normal looked like pre-pandemic. A recent survey from Harvard Business School of 1,500 employees revealed that 81% of them either don’t want to come back at all or would prefer a hybrid model of work. Of those, 27% hope to remain working remotely full time, while 61% would prefer to work from home two to three days a week. Only 18% want to return to in-person work full-time. While those percentages might vary among your team, it’s fair to expect that the vast majority of your employees won’t be cheering when your organization announces its expectations for a return to the office.

So, as a leader, how do you keep your team motivated and engaged during your company’s transition? Of course, some of that will be determined by factors outside of your control, like the degree of flexibility your organization is offering. But the more say employees have over their work structure, the less resistance they’ll feel to the transition. Setting aside the things that are out of your hands, here are a few things you can do to ease everyone’s transition to whatever your company’s version of “next” looks like.

Be transparent without being a victim.

When the level of flexibility you’re able to offer employees doesn’t match their expectations, listen to their concerns and disappointment with empathy. Be as transparent as you can about the organization’s reasoning behind the policies being put in place. Never respond with anything like, “Sorry, but it’s out of my control,” as that signals helplessness and defensiveness, likely riling them further. Surface concerns early and communicate consistently.

People will assume you have more answers than you probably do about new policies and protocols, and you may get asked questions for which no satisfying answer exists. Learning to provide honest responses will be key to showing good leadership. Proactively alert people to any impending changes you hear about, and let people know what you’re doing to stay informed on their behalf. By effectively managing others’ expectations, you help ensure they don’t become obstacles to an already complicated transition.

Involve the team in balancing individual and group needs.

If you do have some discretion over how to implement WFH policies on your team, you’ll need to determine how to apply those rules to certain individual circumstances without being unfair to others. Reestablishing cohesion after being apart for so long is vital, so you don’t want to begin with some people feeling resentful for the flexibility you show others but not them.

When possible, engage your employees in figuring out how best to use the discretion you’re allotted. Have each person express their needs and preferences, and within the bounds of what’s allowed, charge the team with working out how to balance them. For example, single parents may have different needs for flexibility than those caring for aging parents. People will be inclined to be more flexible, even sacrificial, for the sake of the team when it’s their choice to do so.

Encourage the team to create new work practices everyone adheres to for both where work happens as well as when work happens. For example, ensure all meetings include video links so those working from home can participate equally. Or set defined work time hours, like 11:00 am – 2:00 pm ET when everyone must be available online, while also setting weekend boundaries when everyone is expected to be offline. For large meetings, have everyone join from their computer, regardless of whether they’re at home or in the office so that nobody feels left out. People will feel far more committed to solutions they help create, and the creativity they exercise may feel energizing and ignite excitement for the transition, easing any angst they may be experiencing.

Allow people space to grieve.

For some, regardless of what level of flexibility you offer, the transition from WFH may represent a deeper loss than just control over their time. Some people lost loved ones to Covid-19 but never had the chance to say goodbye. Others rekindled their connection to life partners and discovered newfound closeness with their children. Still, others developed personal routines they came to enjoy that will now be disrupted. No matter how positive “next” maybe, allow people space to grieve the loss of whatever this past season has meant for them. Grief may take on many forms. Some may be unusually quiet. Others are a bit terse. Some may be suddenly teary after a colleague mentions their family. If you create the space for people to let go of what these last 18 months have been, you’ll enable them to more fully embrace the next normal you’re inviting them to help create.

Don’t burden them with your ambivalence.

Be honest with yourself about your own struggles to return to the office. You too will have to adapt, and probably have mixed feelings about what you’re giving up.

While being vulnerable with your team about personal difficulties may build deeper connections, take care not to overdo it. As a leader, appreciate the difference between saying, “I fully understand what coming back means for you as a parent. I’m going to miss the time I got to spend with my four-year-old,” and saying, “Believe me, I know how much coming back sucks. I wouldn’t either if I didn’t have to!” If you need a safe haven where you can vent, consider engaging a coach or close confidant. But for your team’s sake, remember that they’re following your example.

Consolidate pandemic stories together.

While there’s no getting around the horrors of the pandemic, for many, there were some unexpected benefits and learning. There were WFH mishaps with video cameras and kitchen chaos as dinner tables doubled as classrooms and offices. There were unexpected discoveries of personal resilience and creativity and revelations of personal limitations that required learning self-compassion. One organization I work with is hosting a “return-to-next” reentry party, at which they’ll create a digital scrapbook of each team member’s favorite pandemic stories. By sharing aspects of the past 18 months that your team experienced while separated, you’ll help them see each other in a fresh light. None of us will return the same as we were 18 months ago. Creating a special experience to discover who you each became will rekindle your team bonds while refreshing your sense of newness about what’s to come.

Be a source of joy.

One of the best ways to ease any angst your team might be feeling is to create a sense of lightheartedness for them. There are unquestionably things that people miss about being in the office: rituals your team enjoyed, celebrations that were suspended, opportunities to be off-camera and feel less isolated.  A PwC survey from June 2020 revealed that 50% of employees felt that collaboration and relationship building were better in person. Help people see the new ways you’ll be able to reestablish those things once everyone returns. Humor used thoughtfully, can be especially helpful for creating joy. Share stories of your own WFH mayhem that makes it safe for others to follow suit. As the team’s leader, this is an especially good time to show servanthood — doing what you can to personally ease the transition for team members for whom it might be difficult. Demonstrating genuine support now will build the team’s loyalty and dedication to each other and to your performance commitments for the year ahead.

If the transition to WFH wasn’t challenging enough, the transition back to the office may prove even more difficult. Our brains will be looking for familiar routines to “return” to that simply won’t be there. And when that happens, our brains will have to expend extra energy to adjust on the fly. This transition will invite us all to bring the best versions of ourselves back to the office and reveal how the pandemic made us even stronger. Knowing that your role as the team’s leader is uniquely important in helping others traverse this with hope, kindness, and patience to make sure those are the versions that actually show up.