As a work-advice columnist, I’ve been able to track the evolution of the pandemic through my email: In the spring of last year, I was flooded with questions about companies that weren’t keeping people safe, the adjustment to working from home, and dealing with furloughs. Then it was co-workers who wouldn’t wear masks or keep their distance, along with frustrations over endless Zoom meetings and how to work with young kids around. And now my inbox is changing again, as offices that went remote last year increasingly start to bring employees back on-site and people begin thinking about how their returns will work.
Here are answers to some of the questions I’ve received recently. (Have your own questions about returning? Send them to email@example.com.)
‘I don’t want to go back to the office’
My company is slowly but surely gearing up to go back to the office. I just. Cannot. Can you help me convince my boss to let me continue to work from home?
Since going remote, my work has improved both in quality and quantity — even my boss has commented on this. I finally feel like a person while working. I make coffee when I want. I’m not worried about having to leave ten minutes early so I can pick up my kids without incurring a late pick-up fee from the day care. I’m not desperately trying to keep my eyes open around 3 p.m. when I’m exhausted and nearly falling asleep at my work station. Now, I get up and leave my desk to take a walk outside or have a snack or, yes, a nap! Then I return to work recharged and refreshed and perform much better than I was in the before times. Without a long, tiring commute, I’ve had time to make proper dinners for my kids. I’m a better parent and employee because so much of the b.s. of daily life is gone now, and because I’m well rested. How do I convince my boss to let me keep working from home?
This is getting raised with employers a lot right now, so your boss isn’t likely to be surprised by it — but having so many people ask for it has also made some employers more resistant to working out individual arrangements than they otherwise might have been. But plenty of people are requesting it and getting it, so you should definitely try.
Point out that your productivity and work quality has gone up since you’ve been at home. If you have hard numbers, use them, and remind your boss that she commented on the gains herself. Say it’s been a huge boon to your quality of life as well as your work, and ask if she’d be open to you continuing it. If she’s hesitant to give you a concrete yes, ask if she’d be willing to let you keep doing it for, say, four to six months and then revisiting it again at that point. Often managers who are wary of agreeing to a permanent change find it easier to say yes to a limited-term experiment with an agreement to reassess afterward. (And there’s more advice on asking here.)
If your boss is really resistant, you could try proposing a hybrid model, where you’d work from home three days a week and be in the office the other two (or the other way around). That’s not perfect, but if it’s easier to get approved, it would let you keep a lot of what you’re happy with right now.
‘Do I have to wear a bra again?’
I’ve been working from home since March of last year but now that most people on my team are vaccinated, my office is starting to talk about bringing us back soon. Honestly, I’m fine with that except that I haven’t worn a bra in over a year and I have found that I love being braless way too much to want to return to wearing them every day. My office is business casual, but pre-COVID I never noticed anyone going braless. Is it too much to think that this past year might have shown we can be just as productive in comfortable clothes and I might not have to start wearing bras again when we go back? Or am I doomed to have to put one on again?
I would love to tell you to shed your bras forever! And you can if you want to. You’d just want to be aware that in a lot of offices (not all, but a lot) it may be A Thing that gets you marked as less unprofessional, less polished, or just “the one who doesn’t wear a bra.” You’ve got to decide if you’re willing to live with that. You might be! If you are, I salute you. Just know that’s the trade-off.
To be clear, it shouldn’t be that way. What underwear you do or don’t wear shouldn’t have anything to do with “professionalism,” and obviously this is all wrapped up in problematic cultural stuff about women’s bodies. But the reality is, bras are still an expectation in a lot of offices. They don’t need to have underwire or rigid structure though; sports bras, bralettes, and even camisoles are all options.
(That said, if your body shape or your clothes mean that no one can tell you’re not wearing a bra, all of this is moot.)
‘I can’t unsee my co-workers’ ugly views’
This year has taught me that I really, really don’t like some of my co-workers. Seeing them flaunt their anti-mask stances, spread conspiracy theories about COVID being fake and the election being “stolen,” and make callous comments about police violence — I feel like I’ve seen a part of them that I can’t unsee, and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to put that behind us and interact with them like I used to. How are we supposed to resume the old relationships we had with colleagues when they’ve shown such an ugly side of themselves?
It’s understandable if you want those relationships to be different now. You do need to be civil to people you work with — you can’t freeze them out or be rude — but you don’t need to resume warm, social relationships with people who have acted in ways you find ethically repugnant. That said, there can be workplace political realities to factor in — relationships at work can matter in all sorts of ways, from what projects you get to whether you’re supported for a promotion, and so over time you’ll have to figure out where you’re personally comfortable drawing your lines.
‘I’m anticipating fending off comments about weight when we return’
My company is gearing up for a return to the office soon. I’m bummed for a number of reasons, but one thing making me very anxious are the inevitable weight loss “compliments” that I expect co-workers will make upon seeing me for the first time in over a year. I was eight months pregnant the last time they saw me and my body has changed significantly. The constant hum of diet culture has been impossible to avoid in all my years working there, and I just know I’m going to get comment after comment about losing the baby weight or looking good or whatever. These comments are unwanted and frankly fatphobic. I don’t just want to shrug it off or say “thanks.” I would love any suggestions you have for how to respond directly but professionally to these kinds of comments in a work setting.
Yeah, we shouldn’t be commenting on people’s bodies at work at all. And acting as if thinness is always better is rooted in some really toxic beliefs about weight and appearance. But the office isn’t the place to try to educate people about fatphobia either; you’ll be opening up a conversation that generally doesn’t belong there (and once it starts, the likelihood of truly offensive remarks goes way up).
That doesn’t mean, though, that you need to thank people who comment on your appearance. You can say something utterly neutral like, “It’s been a while since we’ve been in person,” or “It’s good to finally see you again,” or anything else that doesn’t engage with the weight stuff. And then if someone persists after that, it’s reasonable to say, “Oh, I’d rather not discuss it at work!”
‘Can we just refuse to go back?’
My office is making us all come back, even though we’ve been working at home successfully for over a year now. We’ve asked every way we can think of, and they’re just not open to remote work. Our management has a traditional, butts-in-seats mentality and doesn’t think people are as productive at home, all the evidence from the last year notwithstanding. Can they require this? If a group of us flat-out says no, we won’t come back to the office, what could happen?
Your employer can indeed require you to come back to the office, no matter how good your arguments against it might be. The exception to that is if you have a medical condition that’s protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act and which requires you to stay at home, in which case you can ask for continued remote work as a medical accommodation. (Even then, though, depending on the details of what your health does and doesn’t permit, they could counter-propose other accommodations, like having you at work but in a separate space.) So in most cases, yes, coming back to the office can be a condition of your continued employment — meaning that if you flat-out refuse, your employer can decide not to keep you on. Whether or not they will decide that is a different question, but I wouldn’t bet on them just throwing up their hands and saying, “Okay, fine.”
For what it’s worth, there can be decent arguments for bringing people back at least part of the time that aren’t always visible at the individual employee level. For example, your productivity might have been fine, but that might not be the case for the person who got stuck covering the in-office duties for the rest of the team. And sometimes it truly can be harder to collaborate when people aren’t in the same location — especially when it comes to spontaneous, unscheduled conversations — and harder for junior staffers to get the same mentoring and support that happens organically when they’re around senior colleagues more regularly. Those things don’t necessarily negate the benefits of remote work, but they’re worth factoring into your thinking too.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.