It’s been days since you last sat at your desk. Your inbox is stuffed to the gills with emails you haven’t even considered looking at during that time. Your staff is hoping to grab a few minutes with you to catch you up on a whatever they’ve been working on while you’ve been gone. Your first cup of coffee hasn’t even had time to get cold and you’re already overwhelmed. Whether you were out of the office for vacation, a business-related trip, or the flu knocked you out of commission for a stretch, coming back to the office after a prolonged absence can almost make you question the wisdom of stepping out in the first place. Before you get too overwhelmed, take a deep breath and read this.
It was worth it.
First things first. Before you can dive in and get your arms around all that awaits, you need to let go of the guilt. The time you took away from the office was valuable. In fact, lazing on a sunny beach without a work-related thought crossing your mind can make you more productive and focused in the office upon your return. Taking time for professional development and networking is going to pay off in spades, too. Those flu-ridden days you took? You absolutely needed those days hiding out with your box of tissues, a quilt, and Netflix. The problem isn’t that you were out of the office; it’s how you deal with transitioning back.
Leave the away message on
Let’s back up a moment: set-up an automatic out-of-office message when you’re away. If someone else can step in and address things in your absence, indicate that in your message. This helps alleviate the smoldering fire of urgent issues waiting for you the moment you power up the laptop again. Now that you are back, extend the auto-responder to include your first day in the office. Sure, the folks you’re working with directly (or who see you swing by the coffee pot for your second cup of the day) will know you’re around. For everyone else, though, you’re still out of pocket, which buys you time to catch up.
Make a plan – a realistic one.
You’ve been out for at least a few days. The tasks awaiting your attention didn’t pile up all in one day, so don’t try to clear them off your plate the first day back. Come in to the office a little earlier than usual to give yourself time to rifle through the built-up pile of things that need your attention. Don’t spend too much time reading through your inbox in detail. Skim the contents so you have an idea of what’s waiting for your attention. Prioritize what you find. What must be done today and what can be scheduled out for completion later? What can be delegated?
Speaking of delegation…
Before you dive into the pile of to-dos you’ve sorted, touch base with your team. Start with the folks listed in your away message. Did they field any calls or urgent matters while you were out? What’s the status on those projects? Can they see those issues through to completion, or do you need to step in and take back responsibility? Now, reach out to the rest of your team for a status update. Stop and review the plan you made earlier and verify that your list of priorities is okay as is, or see if you need to reconfigure things based on the input you just collected.
Tackle that inbox
Are you an email hoarder? It’s okay to admit it. Plenty of us are. We keep folders of old emails just in case there’s a tidbit of info that we might need someday. If that sounds familiar, though, you may also be reluctant to delete masses of emails in one sitting. I understand. Take a deep breath, because that’s just what we’re going to do. Coming back to the office from time off is the perfect time to show your email a little tough love. All those newsletters and alerts you’ve subscribed to can go. You don’t need to read last week’s news. (If you do need to read through old news, head right to the media outlets later and skim the content there. Delete the emails. Trust me on this one.)
Next, sort your inbox by conversation. Skim through the most recent bunch. If the parties involved have continued to leave older messages attached to their replies, delete the earliest messages in the thread. You can get all you need from the most recent missive. Save yourself time and space by getting rid of the repeat info. Feeling a little lighter already, aren’t you? Now, look for emails on projects your team members have taken on in your absence. Move the associated emails to a folder that you can refer to for follow-up later but don’t need to address right away. At this point, you have a better handle on what needs your attention and what can wait. Take another look at your priority list and make any necessary adjustments.
Keep to your routine
It can be tempting to “catch up” by working through lunch and staying late. Don’t. You took time out of the office for a reason. You needed to recharge and refocus. Don’t set all that progress back the first day you return. You need to take a break mid-day. Step away from the desk to clear your head and refocus. Eat lunch. Take a walk. Share vacation photos with work friends who want to see them. Got your second wind? Great, jump back and finish out the day strong. You’ve got this!