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‘I’m Worried Going Back to the Office Will Mean More Work’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

As companies that went remote last year slowly reopen, a lot of employees are finding work is just different now — from adjusting to offices that are still half empty to dealing with new setups where no one has an assigned desk anymore. Here are some more questions from people who are trying to navigate this strange “new normal.”

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‘Do I have to cover for my remote colleague just because I’m back in the office?’

My company was almost entirely in office before the pandemic, but transitioned to fully remote last March. Now they’re starting to bring people back, but are letting those who want to remain permanently remote do so. I have chosen to go back to the office, but almost no one else on my team is.

Many of our clients and external associates we have to meet with are beginning to schedule in-person meetings again. (These meetings are possible to have over Zoom, but are easier and more informative when done in person.) My boss is aware of this, but he is also a very vocal remote-work advocate and is remaining remote himself so I don’t expect him to require any of our team to come in for anything, including these meetings.

The other day, a client asked to schedule an in-person meeting near our office with one of my co-workers, but since my colleague is now remote (and has moved away from the city where our office is located), my manager asked if I could take the meeting for her and then forward her the information. These meetings are a very regular thing, and I am worried this could happen again. I didn’t have a scheduling conflict or any real reason I couldn’t do it that time, so I went on her behalf. But I feel like on principle I shouldn’t have to take on extra work because my co-workers have opted to work from home. Am I correct to feel like these extra meetings should not be my burden? If so, how could I bring this up with my boss? 

A lot of companies are only just starting to grapple with this, and many haven’t figured out how they’ll handle it. As a result, on-site employees are getting stuck not only with their own responsibilities, but with pieces of their remote colleagues’ jobs as well. While that burden may only be small things — taking a meeting, opening and scanning off-site workers’ mail, and so forth — but when you’re doing it repeatedly and for multiple people, it can add up. And it’s reasonable to feel resentful if this transfer of responsibilities happened without an explicit conversation beforehand or a discussion of the impact on your time and workload.

So yes, talk to your boss. Say something like, “I was happy to cover Jane’s meeting the other day, but I wanted to make sure there’s a plan in place for people to cover their own clients going forward so that I don’t end up taking everyone’s meetings because they’ve chosen to stay remote.”

Be aware, however, that your boss could end up deciding this is now part of your job. If that happens, you have a few choices: You can push back on that decision, if you’ve got some political capital you’re willing to expend. Or you can approach it like any other workload prioritization problem — “if we’re adding this significant ongoing responsibility to my job, let’s talk about what to take off my plate to make room for it.” Alternatively, you can point out you’re now playing a new and crucial role in helping your team run smoothly and ask for a raise that reflects that. Or hell, you can decide if you still want the job at all under these new conditions. But do speak up, and don’t let this get pushed on you without a discussion.

‘My remote employees say our in-office perks are unfair’

I manage a team of nine, and we’ve given people the choice of whether to return to the office or not. My team has split pretty evenly, with about half deciding to return and half staying at home. This is fine with me!

The problem is that the employees who have chosen to stay at home seem resentful of the things we’re doing to ease the return to the office for the others. For example, on the first day people were back we threw a catered lunch to welcome everyone, and later that week we hired an ice-cream truck to come and give out free ice cream. When my employees who are staying remote heard about it, they asked if we could cover lunch and treats for them, too (two of them suggested we send them gift cards to a restaurant delivery service). We’re not doing that, because the whole point of these perks is to make the transition back to the office easier for people and to let them know we appreciate them coming back.

Our CEO has also been talking about giving everyone who’s coming back a small stipend to buy new business clothes because we know no one was wearing them this past year, and when my remote staff heard about it, one of them was livid about how “unfair” it was. 

I can’t see anything unfair about incentivizing people to return to the office, and not offering those incentives to people who don’t come back. But am I being unreasonable?

You are not being unreasonable.

Your employees who are staying remote are getting benefits of their own, like not having a commute, wearing more casual clothes, getting laundry done while they work, being able to easily walk the dog during lunch, and on and on. And just as there are benefits to staying remote, there are benefits to being in the office, too. It’s not reasonable to expect to get the perks afforded to both groups.

To your employee who’s livid about not getting a stipend for business clothes, you could say, “There’s a burden associated with coming back to the office, as you probably recognize since you chose to stay home. We’re doing what we can to make the return easier on people who choose to come back. So, yes, people at the office might have meals or social activities that people working remotely don’t get, just as you’ll have perks that they don’t enjoy. You are welcome to come back to the office too, of course! But it sounds like you prefer the benefits of staying at home, and we support that as well.”

‘We don’t have assigned desks anymore’

My company has announced that when we return to the office soon, we’ll do a hybrid schedule (three days in the office, two days at home). As part of that, we’re moving to hot-desking — giving up assigned desks and instead grabbing a random one each day.

I have a disability that means auditory distractions can severely limit my ability to focus. When we were in the office before COVID, this wasn’t a problem; the people nearest to me were accommodating of my need for a quiet space, and my team is pretty quiet anyway. But now that we’re switching to hot-desking, I’ll have much less control over my environment, and I’m worried that on any given day I could be working next to someone who’s on the phone all day long or who’s just … loud. Since the whole company is moving to this hot-desking model, I’m guessing I won’t have much recourse, but is there anything I can do?

Yes! Because this is connected to a disability, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires your employer to work with you to come up with an accommodation that meets your needs. An easy accommodation could be creating a quiet section that you have a permanent desk in. (And I bet if your office does create a quiet section, there will be lots of support for it among other people who work better without noise or distractions.)

You could have an informal conversation with your boss and see if that’s all it takes (sometimes you don’t need to go the legal route if you have a good boss who’s responsive to issues), but otherwise start by sending an email to HR with the subject line “formal request for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act” and explain what you need. They might float other options to see if there are alternatives that would work — they’re not required to accept the first solution you propose — but they can’t just dismiss your request. The law requires them to enter into an interactive dialogue with you to find a solution.

‘How can I find jobs that aren’t remote?’

I am currently working remotely and very much dislike it! I want to return to working in person, but since that’s not an option at my company anymore, I have been applying to jobs elsewhere that do not include any mention of remote work in their postings.

I have now gone through a few phone screenings and first-round interviews. I prep for these calls and interviews and answer their questions, but at the end of the conversations when I can ask my own questions, I find out that they are remote with no concrete plans of returning to an office. It ends up being a waste of everyone’s time. Is there a way to screen this out earlier, or politely ask ahead of time? 

Are you mentioning it up-front in your cover letters? If not, start doing that — say explicitly that you’re looking for a job where you would be working on-site rather than remotely. (You don’t need to give a long explanation; just a single sentence will do.) Lots of employers would prefer to bring people back and are struggling with the number of people who don’t want to return, so many of them will be thrilled to find someone who’s actively seeking that in a new job!

Don’t rely just on that though. Hiring managers often skim cover letters and might overlook your note, so make sure to bring it up when you have a chance to talk with them as well. And to avoid going through the hassle of an interview only to find out about this deal-breaker at the end, it’s fine to ask about it when you’re first invited to interview. When an employer reaches out to you about scheduling a meeting (phone interview or otherwise), say something like, “I’d love to talk with you about this job! Before we set up a time to talk, I wanted to check — is this position remote or in office? I’ve found remote doesn’t work well for me, so I’m seeking a position that works from the company’s office.”

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 Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I’m Worried Going Back to the Office Will Mean More Work’