Maybe you've been asked to chair Monday morning's team meeting – actually in person in a physical office – and you're feeling an uncharacteristic flutter of nerves in your stomach. What's more, you're going to have to set an alarm to make the 0700 train into the city. You're tossing and turning in bed the night before, fretting about the early start.
If you're wondering what's happened to you, you're not alone. The last months have forced many of us into reclusive lifestyles with unstructured schedules. You might feel profoundly changed by the pandemic, and wonder how on earth you're going to adapt to life in the office again.
But you can.
You can think of your personality traits – such as your boldness, friendliness and ambition – as akin to your set of inbuilt strategies for coping with life as well as relating to other people. For much of the last century, the received wisdom in psychology was that these traits are fixed early in life: American psychologist and philosopher William James famously pegged the solidifying moment at age 30.
However, the perspective of most personality experts today is very different. Humans are by nature highly adaptable. We're always learning and changing, and this applies to our traits. A range of new findings, including many longitudinal studies that have tracked the same people through their lives, show that although personality is relatively stable, it is to an extent malleable, even in later life.
This has major implications for how we think about the personal impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how we might best prepare ourselves for re-entry after months of on-off lockdowns. Thankfully, you can now exploit the malleability of personality to get yourself into the optimal psychological shape for re-entry into the world of work.
Broad patterns of change
While our genes lay the foundations for our particular personality – programming our ‘factory settings' – that is not the whole story; life events, social roles and relationships can and do shape us, too. And, for many people, few life events have been as radical or tumultuous as the pandemic. We won't have been changed in a uniform way. There hasn't been a shift to a single ‘lockdown personality', because the pandemic has been different for everyone.
However, for many of us, there will have been some broad patterns of change that will pose distinct challenges as restrictions ease.
By working to restore or even enhance your conscientiousness, you'll be better placed to meet your deadlines, organise your workflow and excel in your duties
For instance, if, like most people, you've been unable to socialise much, especially in person, and you've spent a good deal of time alone, then it's likely that you will have experienced a significant decline in trait extroversion. Over time, you might have come to feel less energetic and sociable. Challenges that used to feel like a breeze might now seem daunting. Studies have shown that loneliness can trigger reduced extroversion, and prompt a series of psychological changes that then can further exacerbate the situation, such as a heightened fear of slights and rejection.
Similarly, if you've experienced unemployment during the pandemic, or your employment was suspended for weeks or months at a time, you might well have experienced drops in your trait conscientiousness (your levels of self-discipline and ambition). Research has shown that unemployment has this effect because of the loss of structure to our days, as well as the loss of work-based reward for diligence, punctuality and effort. This might manifest as a decline in your motivation levels, and a lapse into a less structured lifestyle.
As vaccination programmes gather pace, and restrictions hopefully continue to ease in many countries across the globe, economic commentators are predicting that the world won't just return to how it was before the pandemic. Rather, it will rebound with force – the economy and job opportunities are set to rise at a pace not seen for a generation. This could be an exciting time for many people's careers, but it might also feel daunting, especially if the pandemic has shaped you to become more introverted and less conscientious.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being introverted, of course. But if your chosen career involves socialising, leadership and high energy, then by boosting your extroversion, you will find it easier to mix again in teams, to network and seize opportunities as they arise.
Similarly, by working to restore or even enhance your conscientiousness, you'll be better placed to meet your deadlines, organise your workflow and excel in your duties.
Making a conscious effort to work on your extroversion and conscientiousness can help you slip easily into re-entry, and prime you for post-pandemic success (Credit: Getty Images)
In Be Who You Want, I explain how you can deliberately change your traits both from the inside out and the outside in. For example, as you prepare for re-entry, to boost your trait extroversion from the inside out, you could practise trying to be more optimistic. Strong extroverts are more optimistic than average, and this is what motivates them to seek out reward – they expect things to go well.
One of the most empirically supported exercises for boosting optimism is the so-called Best Possible Self Intervention. Spend half an hour or so each week imagining yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all the goals of your life. Repeat this exercise and over time you should find your willingness to engage and take risks increases.
At the same time, there are ways to revitalise your extroversion from the outside in – for instance, if you have a romantic partner, friend or friends who bring you out of your shell, plan to spend more time with them if you can. Our close relationships represent an important influence on our personality traits. Most importantly, different people tend to bring out different aspects of our characters. By being more strategic about who you spend your time with, you can rediscover the more outgoing side to your character.
Similarly, there are ways to reinstate your trait conscientiousness from the inside out, for example by checking your beliefs about willpower. Do you see it as akin to a fuel that is drained by demand, or as more like a dynamo that generates power with use? Try to practise seeing effort as rewarding and self-sustaining. People who take this view tend to be protected from fatigue and distraction, showing performance gains the longer they work.
You might also tune into the way your emotions could be causing you to be avoidant. Procrastination used to be considered a time-management issue, but psychologists today recognise that it's an emotional problem. Address your fears around a task (don't forget to ask for help if you need it) and then identify the very next step you need to take to progress.
Just because the pandemic changed you in ways that are counterproductive for the modern workplace doesn't mean you can't take ameliorative steps to adapt
You can also work on your conscientiousness from the outside in, by making tweaks to your environment that facilitate your goals; for instance, make a habit of preparing in the evening what you will need for work the next morning, wear headphones in an open-plan office to block out distraction and use apps to set limits to your social-media use. Highly conscientious people don't have more willpower; rather, they're more savvy at avoiding temptation in the first place. As you prepare for re-entry, you can establish supportive habits to help you rediscover the self-discipline you had before the pandemic. Over time, it will become second nature again.
Good news about progress
The good news is that simply by recognising how you might have been changed by recent events, you've already taken a crucial first step in preparing for re-entry. So, be honest about the current version of you, and then take heart that change goes both ways: just because the pandemic changed you in ways that are counterproductive for the modern workplace doesn't mean you can't take ameliorative steps to adapt.
Next, the more specific your plans for personal change, the more likely you are to succeed. Merely wishing for the best is unlikely to be helpful. Lay out a clear plan and then stick to it – persistence is key.
Also, recruit the help of others if you can. Tell them what you're trying to achieve; even better, see if they want to join you. Accountability to others will give you a motivational boost, and make the process of personality change much more fun.
Finally, your manager has a key role to play here, too – if you can, it's worth letting them know that you and other members of your team might have been changed by what everyone's been through. We need our team leaders to be patient: it's going to take us a little time to rediscover our former selves, but we will. And managers – be supportive and communicate clearly what's expected of your team as they re-enter the world of work.
We've been through a lot. Let's help each other get back to business.
Christian Jarrett is author of Be Who You Want: Unlocking The Science Of Personality Change.