My boss, Jane, is a very vocal remote-work advocate. She is constantly sharing articles on social media about how work from home is the future and writing long rants criticizing companies that are bringing people back to the office for needing to “get with the times.”
Our company is finally reopening the office in a few weeks, and returning is optional for now. Jane has, of course, chosen to stay remote. I’ve opted to go back and am very excited to do so because I’ve felt really isolated working from home and have no space for a home-office setup in my tiny apartment.
While she hasn’t said so outright, it’s clear to me that Jane strongly disagrees with the decision and tries to indicate she doesn’t think it’s normal to want to return. When I first told her I wanted to take the in-office option, she responded, “You can go in if you want, but there are going to be a ton of distancing rules and you’ll probably be the only one there.” (I know the latter part isn’t true — I have asked the rest of our small team and the majority are also planning to go back at some point.)
Since then, every time the office has come up in conversation, she has made comments about how undesirable it is. When I mentioned that I was getting ready to move in a recent one-on-one, she laughed and was like, “Well, good luck. Who knows what it’s going to be like with everything so empty and all the COVID precautions?” When I asked if she knew whether conference-room capacity had changed in a different meeting, she answered in a gleeful-sounding tone, “It shouldn’t matter, because nobody else will be using those conference rooms. Nobody’s going to the office. We’re remote now.” When I responded that I knew a few co-workers were going in, she clarified, “Yes, nobody besides them is going to go in.”
I know that it’s reasonable for Jane to try to manage my expectations, but hearing so often about how miserable the office is going to be and how I’m such an odd one out are really just bumming me out. I was so excited to go back to the office before, but Jane has made me feel really bad about it. I have made my decision, and I’m not sure what benefit these comments are adding. Since I know it’s possible Jane might not realize how negative she is being, is there a subtle way I could try to shut these remarks down without straining our relationship?
Yeah, remote work is awesome … for some people. It is not awesome for everyone. Some of us don’t have homes that are conducive to working there (tiny spaces, roommates, loud spouses, etc.). Some don’t have temperaments that are conducive to working from home. Some have jobs that genuinely benefit from being in the same workplace as others. Pushing all remote work for everyone in all jobs is just as impractical as insisting no one should be able to work remotely. It varies by job and by person.
But I don’t think Jane is just trying to manage your expectations about what going back will be like. It sounds like she’s gone well beyond that and instead is pushing a specific agenda in an obnoxious way.
Maybe she’s just exulting in the glory of remote work for herself and not realizing how pushy she’s sounding, but I’d bet that she’s worried that her own continued ability to work remotely will be threatened if others are going into the office … and so she’s deeply invested in discouraging it/suggesting it’s an odd choice/making it sound like no one is doing it. She needs what she’s doing to be the One True Way because that makes her feel more confident that she’ll be able to continue doing it long-term. That might not be her conscious thought process — but I’d bet it’s what’s happening.
It would be one thing if she simply warned you to anticipate distancing rules and fewer co-workers around than before. Those are reasonable things to give you a heads up about! But claiming that no one else is going in when the majority of your team plans to return, coupled with what sounds like a constant stream of pro-remote rants, indicates pretty clearly this is about her agenda more than it’s about concern for you.
Sometimes when someone is repeatedly harping on a topic, just naming it and asking about why can shut it down. So the next time Jane makes one of these remarks about how the office is going to be a barren wasteland and it’s odd that you’re going back, one option is to say, “You’ve made so many comments about how empty you think the office will be and my decision to go back that I’ve started to wonder if there’s a subtext that I’m missing. I can’t tell if you’re trying to dissuade me from returning, or if there’s some other concern we should try to hash out?”
This approach — name it and ask about it — often works because once you call out the behavior like that, you’ve signaled “this is odd enough that I need to ask you about it” and so it gets more awkward — and frankly strange — for the person to keep doing it.
I also wonder if you’ve ever shared with your boss your own reasons for returning and that you don’t have a space at home that you can comfortably work from. I’m constantly talking to people who love working from home and don’t understand why others don’t, and when I mention cramped studio apartments or noisy roommates, it often does seem like they simply hadn’t considered those factors before. Relating your personal situation to your boss isn’t likely to make her a less rabid work-from-home advocate, but it might broaden her perspective, make her realize that not everyone else is in the same situation she is, and maybe even get her to tone it down a bit around you.
Beyond that, though, since ultimately there’s no guaranteed way to make your boss change on something like this, your best bet might be to reframe her behavior in your head. Instead of experiencing her as overbearing and discouraging, can you see her as amusingly over-the-top? She does sound pretty ridiculous, and there’s humor potential there. Sometimes reframing something from “annoying and discouraging” to “hilarious caricature” can make it a lot easier to live with (if you find you can’t ignore it altogether).
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.