How to Decide About Returning to the Workplace
Advice from an expert on what to do if your workplace is about to reopen after COVID-19
American workers are heading back to the office. Nearly half of employers expect to reopen their workplaces during the third quarter of 2021, and an additional 25% hope to do so by the end of the year, according to a recent Gartner survey of 258 HR leaders.
For some, the return to normalcy is cause for celebration. But if you're feeling anxious about a return to the workplace, you're not alone. A Robert Half study found that 1 in 3 professionals currently working from home said they would quit if forced to return to the office full time.
"What has your employer done to ensure your safety?"
Of course, quitting a job is a luxury few workers can afford these days. That's especially true for older workers, who often struggle to find decent paying jobs later in life.
Questions to Answer About Returning to Your Workplace
However, Andres Lares, a workplace expert and managing partner at Shapiro Negotiations Institute in Baltimore, believes you might have more control over your return-to-work transition than you think.
"Over the past year, employers got to see how productive their employees can be working from home. More employers are embracing a hybrid model that allows employees to mix working from home with going to the office," he says.
Given a choice, how do you decide which type of return-to-work arrangement is best?
There are many issues to consider: Will you feel marginalized if your colleagues decide to return to the office and you don't? What happens if your manager wants you back in the office four days a week, but you want to continue to work from home three days a week? Is there room for compromise?
For guidance, I interviewed Lares about the best way to approach the thorny return-to-work decision making process. Highlights:
Next Avenue: Most companies are putting a lot of time and effort into formulating their return-to-work policies. Given that, is it realistic to think there is room for negotiation? Won't some people be stuck with a 'take it or leave it' approach?
Andres Lares: It will vary. With some employers, there won't be a choice and your only choice will be whether or not to quit. But others might ask for your input on things like which days you get to work from home or whether you want to be in the first phase of employees returning to the office.
You say the first step in making any decision is to define the decision. Why is that so critical?
This is the most important, but often overlooked, part of the process. You need to gain clarity about what you're deciding.
Is it whether or not you should return to the workplace at all? Or, if you've been given the option of working from home part of the time, is it about how many, or which, days you get to work virtually? Will this be a short-term or long-term decision?
Once you take a step back and really understand what you're deciding — and what's most important to you — it becomes easier to see alternative solutions.
Many employees want to continue to work from home. At the same time, they worry that they'll be marginalized or could even lose their jobs if they insist on it. How can they reconcile these competing priorities?
Here again, it's helpful to put pen to paper. Think about all the criteria that are impacting your decision. Clearly, if you're worried about job security, that issue will be at the top of your list. But there are other criteria that you might want to consider as well.
For example: Health and safety measures. What has your employer done to ensure your safety? Have they installed new ventilation systems or air purifiers? Have they spaced out desks or installed partitions?
Work relationships. If the majority of your colleagues return to the office, are you concerned that you'll be left out of key decisions or overlooked when it's time for promotions?
Personal communication style. Do you feel like your rapport with your colleagues has been compromised by working remotely? Or have you been able to maintain productive and collegial working relationships?
Flexibility. How much do you value the flexibility of a work-from-home arrangement? Is it a nice-to-have or a must-have? Will a hybrid model give you the flexibility you need, and if so, how many days or hours working from home would be optimal?
Then, think about which criteria are most important and assign a value to each one (using a 5 or 10 is often easiest). For example, you might assign flexibility a '5' after determining it's more a nice-to-have, than a must-have. But if you're most concerned about hanging on to your job, you might assign a '10' to job security.
After you've ranked the criteria, it becomes easier to evaluate the cost opportunity of different scenarios. For instance, if you work from home just one day a week, it could give you at least some flexibility, while minimizing the chances of upsetting your manager.
Once you're clear on what you want, how can you ensure a productive conversation with your employer?
Write down a script beforehand. It will help to organize your thoughts.
Express empathy towards your employer needs. Why does the organization want to bring workers back together? They might want consistency. Or they might worry that the company culture is eroding because everyone is working from home. By acknowledging their needs, you'll set the right tone and show you're a team player.
Be patient. If you can, try waiting for a few months to see how things go before asking for accommodations. Employers have put so much time into designing their policies, most are probably going to want to give their plans a try before they are willing to entertain exceptions.