As an Antarctic expedition leader, Rachael Robertson understands isolation.
From 2004 to 2005, she spent 11 months on the cut-off continent leading the 58th Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition — simultaneously becoming the youngest and only the second-ever woman to do so.
The mission saw the then 34-year-old faced with temperatures of minus 35 degrees Celsius and sometimes 24-hours of darkness as she guided a team of researchers and tradesmen at the Davis Station base; a place she describes as the "world's most extreme workplace."
That presented challenges for the young leader, who had to live apart from her family and regular society, and quickly learned to manage the professional and personal disputes of 17 diverse, multi-generational teammates. But it also created vast opportunities for growth, with parallels that can be drawn between today's coronavirus lockdown environment, said the now 51-year-old.
"Everything I dealt with, every leader will deal with," Robertson told CNBC Make It. "I had to learn how to deal with conflict, crisis, mental health, personal boundaries. The difference was, I had it truncated into months."
Now, as many countries move to ease restrictions, many are facing new hurdles. Melbourne-based Robertson — who incidentally recently returned to lockdown under new state-wide measures — said that in many ways, readjustment to reality may be more challenging.
"When I came back to Australia after a year, I was really anxious. I thought I'd be thrilled ... And actually, it overwhelmed me," said Robertson.
However, she urged individuals and leaders to demonstrate empathy and compassion to help themselves, colleagues and loved ones through the transition.
"Right now, there'll be people thinking: 'I can't wait to get back to the workplace and socialize;' and there'll be people feeling really anxious; and a whole heap of people in the middle," said Robertson. "My message, particularly for emerging leaders, is to understand there'll be a spectrum. It's about tailoring to each person."
Robertson shared her best advice for helping people come out the other side of lockdown.
Take things slow by continuing what worked for you in isolation, advised Robertson. That might mean following a daily routine, or simply making time to be alone with your thoughts.
"A morning walk, meditation, yoga, simply looking at the sky — whatever worked then will work now," she said.
Changing environments can be an onslaught for the senses, with new smells, sights and sounds all around. "On my return from Antarctica, the simple noise of a city was a huge cacophony for me," said Robertson.
Try to filter through that by gradually easing yourself back into the world; first going outside or to the office for a short time before building yourself back up.
In many ways, life under lockdown was simpler because there were fewer decisions to be made. As restrictions ease, many people will be faced with more choices, which may feel overwhelming.
Go easy on yourself and minimize decision-making by limiting socializing to certain days, for example. "Give yourself time to acclimate to the sudden choices," said Robertson.
Manage other people's expectations by setting your own. You may need to take time to recoup and enjoy some privacy, and it's okay to tell people that — you may find that many of them feel the same.
"People will have different expectations about how we respond on the other side," said Robertson. "Ask people how excited they are about the new normal on a scale of one to 10 and notice the difference."
Experiencing physical contact again for the first time in months may be a strange or daunting prospect for some. Take it easy and don't be afraid to ask people to give you more space.
As the next phase of transition begins, now is a great time to set new rituals or double down on those you already have. That could include instilling better work-life balance practices or honing your company culture.
Set small, achievable goals and revisit them regularly to ensure you're staying on track.
Lastly, regularly check in with your mental health and allow yourself time to process all the change that is happening. Take time to talk it through with others and share any troubles you are facing.
"Have regular conversations with the people you care about, and those that care for you, so we can normalize conversations around mental health," said Robertson.
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