ask a boss

‘I’m Frustrated That My Employees Don’t Want to Return to the Office’

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

Dear Boss,

I am a single millennial living in a Manhattan apartment I share with a roommate. I don’t have any children or pets. I work at a midsize company where most of the employees are around my age and the culture resembles a start-up. We are a very social workplace and I truly enjoy my job and my co-workers. I have an active social life outside of work as well, but I definitely get a lot of fulfillment from my career.

After a few months of lockdown with my parents in the suburbs, I moved back to NYC and have been back at the office consistently for almost a year, working my way up to the optimal schedule of three days in, two days at home. Our CEO, however, has been preaching “do whatever you want” and … well … I am really struggling to understand people’s attitudes toward coming back to the office. A small group of us have picked our days and come in regularly, but everyone else tends to just come in when they feel like it, and I am starting to get incredibly frustrated. With vaccines available and precautions in place (my company requires return-to-office training and proof of vaccination, and we also contact trace), I personally feel that people are running out of excuses not to come back. I started coming back in well before vaccines were available and it was completely fine … so if you didn’t move outside of commuting distance and you were previously expected to come to the office five days a week, why are you acting like coming in for even one day is “too much”? 

To be honest, my biggest frustration has been with my boss. I have two direct reports of my own, but am not senior enough to mandate anything without her backing, which I don’t have. She had her first child during the pandemic and much of the child-care responsibilities fall on her, so I think that is a big reason why she hasn’t come in as much. My boss and I are very close and agree on almost everything except for this. Selfishly, I want her to come to the office so that I can spend some time with her, but I am also frustrated that she isn’t willing to give any direction to our larger team, which means I can’t set any expectations for my own reports (ideally, I would want everyone in the office three days a week). So all I can do is keep going to the office myself and hope that maybe some of my team will show up on occasion, which defeats half the purpose of being there in the first place. 

While the days of being in the office full-time are over, I still think it’s a valuable place for networking, team-building, and maintaining a strong company culture. Do others not feel the same? If they are choosing not to come in, does it mean they don’t value their careers? With lack of guidance from leadership and no authority to change the situation, what can I do to make sense of all this and stay happy at work?

Whoa. Please do not make your reports come back to the office right now if their jobs don’t truly require them to be there, and don’t judge them if they’re not eager to return.

It sounds like you personally have a situation where returning to the office makes sense. But your situation is not the same as everyone’s, and other people have excellent reasons for not wanting to return.

For example, many people with kids still don’t have reliable child-care setups. There’s a shortage of available spots in day care, and people with school-aged children can have their kids sent home to quarantine with no notice whenever they have a potential COVID exposure. Moreover, people with kids who are too young to be vaccinated (which for now remains any under age 12) need to worry about bringing COVID home to their families.

And it’s not just parents. Plenty of people don’t yet feel safe returning to the office — the Delta variant is still very much a thing, and your colleagues may be immunocompromised or otherwise high risk in ways you don’t know about, or may have loved ones who are. The pandemic is not over.

These aren’t “excuses” not to come back, and they’re definitely not signs that people don’t value their careers. They’re legitimate, well-founded reasons not to return yet.

It sounds like you’re assuming everyone should share your risk tolerance, but that’s neither realistic nor fair. You wrote, “I started coming back in well before vaccines were available and it was completely fine” — which says you got lucky, not that it was actually safe or that everyone else should have done the same or that they’re wrong to continue to be cautious now. (Frankly, it also says you might be looking at this through a wonky lens. There’s a reason “I did a risky thing and it was fine so what’s everyone else worried about?” is not public-health guidance.)

Beyond safety reasons, many people have found they simply prefer working from home, whether that’s because of the lack of commute or other quality-of-life boosts or because they can focus better and are more productive when they don’t have a dozen people taking calls nearby.

And to be clear, it’s not that being in the office doesn’t have value. It does. It can be simpler to collaborate when everyone is in the same place, more gets discussed when you don’t need to pre-schedule a Zoom call, it’s often easier to build relationships in person, and sometimes the work itself just isn’t done as effectively from home.

But I noticed that you didn’t cite any work-related reasons for your colleagues needing to be on site more often. It sounds like personal preference, and if that’s the case, you’re going to be a lot less frustrated — and a better manager to the people on your team — if you realize that your perspective on this isn’t The One Right Way of Being.

As for what to do … it sounds like your CEO has told people that they can do what they want, and your manager hasn’t okayed you contradicting that. So for now, that’s your workplace’s policy. If there are specific work-related reasons you need someone to come in, talk with them about that work need. But if your desire to have them there is more amorphous than that — if it’s rooted in a general sense that people should be there because of team-building and culture — well, we’re in a pandemic and we’re prioritizing those things below safety right now.

Beyond that, as a manager you’ve got a professional obligation to broaden your perspective and see that your staff may have circumstances and opinions that are different from yours (possibly in ways you’ll never know about). Your default stance can’t be “it works for me so it should work for everyone.” That doesn’t work for core managerial responsibilities like how you delegate or how you provide feedback, and it definitely doesn’t work for something like navigating a pandemic.

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.

‘Why Doesn’t My Team Want to Go Back to the Office?’