Experts Joanne Lipman and Alison Fragale offer some tips on how to handle back-to-office conversations.
The spread of the highly contagious Delta variant is seriously complicating back-to-office plans. While some companies have already opened on a limited basis, others are opting to delay office returns in light of new mask guidance. The Centers for Disease Control reversed track this week and now recommends that fully vaccinated Americans mask up in areas with high Covid-19 transmission rates, which includes much of the South and West.
This can be a tricky situation for employees and employers alike, especially because this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. Despite the spike in Covid-19 cases, a recent survey by staffing agency LaSalle Network found that 74 percent of companies that still have employees working remotely are planning on returning to the office this fall.
But what if you don’t want to return to the office…ever? A year and a half into the pandemic, many of us have figured out how to master the work-from-home lifestyle. We’ve discovered ways to maximize productivity and enjoy the extra time this non-commuting situation allows — and the independence we’ve developed without having coworkers or superiors lurking around our computers. Plus, the idea of going back into the real world is anxiety-inducing in so many ways.
After a year-plus holed up in our homes to avoid contracting a deadly virus, who wouldn’t be anxious about going back to an office to spend multiple hours indoors with anyone other than your family, significant other, roommate, or pets? (Or plants?)
The idea of remaining remote forever is something that’s crossed many minds. But how do you broach that topic with your boss?
To get answers, we consulted with organizational psychologist Alison Fragale and veteran journalist and author Joanne Lipman, who wrote the New York Times bestselling book, That’s What She Said. They both agree on one pertinent piece of advice: Don’t wait to talk with your employers about staying remote. They also believe this post-Covid anxiety is completely normal. “Not all anxiety is bad,” Fragale told us. “We experience anxiety about a lot of things.”
How to prepare for the conversation
The first step is figuring out what your priorities are, so you can be the “best possible advocate for yourself,” Fragale told us. Whether you’re a parent or just don’t miss commuting, she says what’s important to realize is that everyone’s reason for wanting to stay remote might look different and that’s OK.
You should also evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t, since the pandemic forced a majority of office workers to go completely remote. This is a time to reflect and address some of the “pain points” with your manager, said Lipman. “Maybe they’re concerned that people won’t work enough hours or won’t check in enough,” she said. Be prepared to discuss your at-home productivity levels.
Fragale emphasized that it’s important to show how working from home benefits you and your employer. For instance, you might document how you’ve increased productivity and taken on new responsibilities.
How to bring up this up with your boss
Be upfront with what you want and don’t be afraid to enlist peers to help you make your case. While you’re often your own best advocate, Fragale noted that there’s power in numbers.
But Lipman advised avoiding seeming like you’re making demands and try to see the situation from your employer’s perspective. “You want to have a very good understanding of the headspace of your employer before you start making demands like, ‘I don’t want to come back.’”
This also shouldn’t be a one-sided conversation. “Your employer can’t be a partner in solving your problem until they understand why you want what you want,” Fragale said.
But what if you have to go back to the office regardless of your desires?
Identify what specifically is making you anxious and share them with your employer. “If it’s very Covid-specific or related to having unvaccinated kids or something like that, there might be accommodations that your employer could make,” Fragale said.
Another key way to alleviate anxiety is to get all the information you can, such as your employer’s policies on masks, which could be in flux if your office has already opened its doors to employees. And you should also be clear of their expectations, “More information alleviates the stress on all sides,” Lipman said. “And I think a little empathy would not be a bad thing.”
Above all, Lipman believes it’s important to recognize that there are many others just like you asking the same kinds of questions about remote work. “Whatever your position is, first of all, know you’re not alone,” she said.