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How Should We Navigate the Return to the Office?

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

Offices that went remote at the start of the pandemic are increasingly beginning to bring workers back, with a lot of them slated to reopen after Labor Day (although, at the same time, the Delta variant is causing many to push that date back or put their plans to return on hold entirely). Unsurprisingly, people have a lot of questions about how to navigate this transition. Here are answers to queries from people about making the switch back.

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‘Does my boss not trust me to work from home anymore?’

Like a lot of folks, I’ve worked from home the last year and a half. This week, we started back in the office full-time. I have a writing/social-media management job that worked very well remotely, and so the other day I discussed with my boss the possibility of working from home just one day a week. I like being in the office most of the time, but I thought one day a week to focus on more intensive writing tasks in a quiet environment would be a reasonable request. 

However, my boss said she would like our team to “settle in” back at the office before considering work-from-home requests. When I asked when I should circle back in the future, she said vaguely, “In a few months,” and that she didn’t want to give a solid date in case she changed her mind.

I’m confused. My remote work over the last year and a half has been good; I’ve worked hard to make myself dependable. My boss is generally flexible with where I work during the day (at coffee shops, in parks, etc.), so I don’t understand the sudden unease with me working eight hours a week from my house. I understand wanting to settle in for maybe a few weeks, but a few months seems excessive to me. That, and the fact that she couldn’t give me a solid date to revisit the topic is very frustrating. Does my boss not trust me to work from home one day a week? I don’t understand the logic here, and I’m worried this will affect our working relationship going forward.

There are a lot of possibilities here. The most likely is that she just wants time to see how the transition back to the office goes and doesn’t want to commit to any changes while that’s still unfolding. She might have a lot of people asking for alterations to their schedules and could feel it’s easier to have everyone doing the same thing right now while people are adjusting. (I don’t think that’s particularly well-founded, but some managers feel that way.) It’s also possible that she’s dealing with pressure from above her to have everyone back in the office full-time and thinks it’ll be hard to get any deviations approved while things are still in flux. Or she might have concerns about how the last year and a half went for your team and could want to use this as a “reset” before she considers exceptions. Or, who knows, maybe she’s always opposed working from home, the pandemic didn’t change that, and she’s going to be a stickler about office time forever now.

I get why you’re frustrated! If you’ve done a great job for the last 18 months, why is it suddenly a problem to be at home a single day per week? But your alarm about her response could be premature, and ideally you’d give it a couple of months to see how things shake out. If you really don’t want to wait, though, you could see if any of your co-workers feel the same way and are up for approaching her as a group. Sometimes group pressure can have more sway than a push from just one person.

‘My company isn’t enforcing its vaccine mandate’

My employer announced a vaccine mandate (with a waiver process) several months ago. That made me feel quite confident about returning to work in the office. Now the deadline is upon us. It’s not clear what will happen with people who have not gotten vaccinated or arranged for an exemption by the official deadline. I thought that “We are requiring everyone to be fully vaccinated as of X date” would mean that, well, it was required. That’s also the date when people who have been working from home are expected to start returning to the office. 

But there has been no public planning for how to cover the roles of people who aren’t vaccinated. And leadership did not reply when I asked recently if there will be unvaccinated people without exemptions in the workspace after the deadline. (Other colleagues at my level messaged me to say they appreciated me asking the question.)

If the vaccine requirement is not actually required, I am much less comfortable returning to work in shared spaces. What can I do to get more info about “how required” the requirement is (I hope someone will say it’s actually a strong requirement after all, and my worries are baseless) and to advocate for stronger enforcement of it? I used to give my organization’s leaders the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t anymore. I am getting the impression that they think I am out of my lane for asking about the vaccine requirement, let alone advocating for a different policy. 

Like the letter above, this is a situation where numbers will matter; you’ll have more influence if a group of you approaches your employer, rather than you going it on your own. You shouldn’t need that, in theory — this is a commonsense issue and you should get straightforward answers to a straightforward question — but the evasion you’ve encountered suggests that your company’s enforcement plan might be nonexistent. And since they’re responding as if you’re “out of your lane” (as if the safety of your workplace isn’t everyone’s lane), you probably need more influence than you’ll have on your own.

Can you talk to those colleagues who told you they were glad you raised the question, express your concerns, and suggest that you speak up as a group to ask your leadership for further information and a follow-up meeting on the topic — both to get answers and to advocate for different practices if needed? A group will be harder to ignore, and there’s both strength and safety in numbers.

‘Can I ask to meet co-workers in person without making them feel uncomfortable?’

In April, I started a new job remotely at a large company. While we’re mostly teleworking for now, I’ve started voluntarily coming into the office every day. I like getting out of the house and appreciate my new standing desk! 

Sometimes I am on an email with a co-worker where they will mention in passing that they are in the office that day (our workplace is big enough that I wouldn’t otherwise have known this). When this comes up, I’d like to ask if I could come by and meet them in person. Not only do I miss this type of office culture, but people tend to stay at my company for a long time and nearly everyone here already knew each other before the pandemic began, so being able to make a personal connection will go a long way for me as someone new.

I want to approach this the right way, though! I’m fully vaccinated and, given my line of work, I suspect that the majority of others are as well, and we’re required to wear masks when moving about the building. But I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. We’re all still navigating how safe we feel these days! I also want to be sensitive to potential power dynamics — although I am new, I am a senior adviser to the CEO and thus some folks may feel awkward turning down my request when they might otherwise have preferred to do so. Do you have a suggestion on how I might best phrase things?

If these co-workers are coming in voluntarily, they’re probably not entirely averse to talking face-to-face, but you’re right that you can’t be sure. The key is to offer an easy out if they want it. So you could say something like, “Since we’re both here, I’d love to meet you in person if you feel safe doing it. If you have time for me to swing by your office before you leave today, let me know — but no worries if you’re too busy or not up for in-person meetings yet!” Or leave it entirely in their hands: “If you end up having time to stop by my office before you go, I’d love the chance to meet in person. No worries if you don’t, though!”

‘Should I tell my new manager I’m at high risk from COVID?’

I am about to start a new job, and they are talking about reopening the office in the next two months. I have an underlying health condition that won’t affect my ability to do my job but puts me at high risk if I get COVID-19. I don’t feel comfortable going back to the office five days a week so soon.

Do I tell my manager about my health condition so early on? Or will that affect the way I am viewed and future promotions? I want to be honest, but I am worried about what he will think of me. 

Legally, your employer cannot discriminate against you for having a medical condition. In practice, of course, it’s murkier — employers sometimes do discriminate, and that discrimination can be subtle and hard to prove. That said, so many people are in your same situation right now that you’re unlikely to be the only employee raising this concern. We’re also still in the throes of the pandemic, and asking for permission to continue something they’ve already been doing because you’re at high risk of serious illness or death is very reasonable.

You don’t need to share specifics with your boss about your medical situation, though! Typically, you’d just need to explain that you’re in a high-risk group for COVID and your doctor has recommended against returning to the office until the virus is more under control. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the same federal law that protects you from discrimination, also requires your employer to work with you to come up with reasonable accommodations so that you can safely do your job, as long as it doesn’t cause “undue hardship.”

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.

‘My Company Isn’t Enforcing Its Vaccine Mandate’