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How the Hell Are We Supposed to Work Now?

Photo: The Cut

As a work-advice columnist, coronavirus has overtaken my inbox. I’m hearing from people who are concerned about all the ways the health crisis and the recommendation of social distancing will impact their jobs and the way they work now — everyone from those whose entire companies have gone fully remote overnight to people whose companies are acting as if nothing has changed and still expect everyone to show up every day. People whose virus-related questions are pretty light (“What’s up with my co-worker who’s openly vaping at home during video calls?”), and people whose queries are much harder (“Will my industry ever be hiring again?”). We’re already seeing people being laid off and stuck job searching at a truly dismal time to be doing that. It’s tough out there.

Here, answers to some of the questions people are asking right now.

How can I ask to work from home?

My workplace issued the following guidance regarding coronavirus:
- Stay home if you are sick.
- Stay home if you have been in contact with someone who has recently visited a high-risk area or who is tested for coronavirus.
- No out-of-state travel or large gatherings.
- Contact HR if you or someone you live with is elderly or immunocompromised.

Your company’s “stay home if you are sick” policy is a bad one. By the time someone feels sick, they could have been infected with this virus for days and been exposing colleagues that whole time.

Ideally, you’d band together with co-workers and advocate for a stronger policy, one where anyone who can work from home is told to do so. Point out to your company that if it doesn’t take more precautions now — including separating people via remote work as much as possible — it’s going to be far more inconvenienced later if the virus spreads through your office. Plus, with so many companies switching to remote work for their workers’ safety, ones that don’t when it’s possible are coming across as really callous to their employees.

If there aren’t many other people in your office who can work from home and you’re one of the few who can, you might worry about whether you can still request this. You can and, in fact, will be helping others by doing it. Point out that the fewer people coming in, the lower the risk for those who have to be there.

Is anyone hiring right now?

I am a young professional and I just moved across my state at the end of February, before we knew just how serious the virus is. I am very lucky that I was able to stay in my old position part-time as a remote worker, so I do have some income right now, but I am itching to get started at a new job in my new city. However, with many major companies now having employees work from home or shutting down completely for the next few weeks, I am concerned about companies no longer having the budget to hire, as well as the logistics of interviewing and making hiring decisions while employees may not be in an office. Are people even hiring right now?

Some companies are still hiring, but it varies greatly, particularly by industry. And, of course, for a lot of companies, things are just up in the air right now; there are hiring freezes, or questions of shutdowns, or people’s focus is simply elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply; if you see job postings that interest you, go for it. Just be prepared for longer-than-typical timelines, positions that get canceled mid-process, interviews done remotely, and a lot of uncertainty.

How much is reasonable to expect people to do from home?

I manage a small team, and we’ve all started working from home this past week. It’s a big adjustment. We’ve each worked from home occasionally in the past, but usually been just a day here or there. Now that we’re all at home for the foreseeable future, how much is reasonable for me to expect from people? There’s still work that needs to be done, but can I really expect people to be as efficient as they would be in the office when they don’t have files or the same equipment and when some people have kids who are at home because schools have closed? I don’t want to be unrealistic or unfair, but I’m not sure what makes sense in this situation.

Yeah, this is definitely not business as usual! Managers are going to need to dramatically reassess priorities for this period. Some things that seemed important to do a couple of months ago will not be as important right now, with different resources and different circumstances. Take a fresh look at everything and consider what can be adjusted and what absolutely must be prioritized. From there, do your best to keep work moving, but know that people are experiencing major disruptions, and you probably can’t hold them to the same expectations that you could previously.

With your staff, plan for maximum flexibility. Under normal circumstances, you probably wouldn’t allow someone to care for kids at the same time they were working. There’s no way around that now, and we all need to be realistic about how that will impact work and productivity. And it’s not just child care — people may be caring for older relatives, dealing with grocery scarcities, and just needing more breaks for their own mental health. The more flexibility you can offer people, the better this will go for them and for your team as a whole.

‘It’s just allergies!’

I suffer from pretty severe pollen allergies and am asthmatic, so at this time of year it seems like I have a perpetual cold (congestion, sneezing, and sometimes coughing). I’m not actually sick, though — just allergic! I’ve already done multiple years of allergy shots and take daily allergy medication, so I’m doing what I can. Heck, I even check my temperature daily to be on the safe side, since sometimes it can be hard to tell if it’s allergies or a cold. 

I hate feeling my co-workers’ annoyance with me for coming “in sick,” and given the current climate around coronavirus, I don’t blame them. But I’m already doing what I can to manage my symptoms, and this is about the best I’m going to get. How should I handle this at work? 

Under normal circumstances, you shouldn’t have to disclose your health conditions to co-workers, but right now we’re all understandably invested in the health of people around us. So, for now, you probably have to resign yourself to frequently saying when you sneeze or cough, “It’s allergies. I’m not sick.” And repeating it.

Even then, people may wonder if you can really be sure, so it will probably help to purposely keep a distance, regularly wipe down your work area, and really lean into practicing good handwashing hygiene — all things we should be doing anyway.

Will my new job fall through?

I was offered a job just as the coronavirus pandemic began to take a more serious turn. I am not scheduled to start for another few weeks, and I am worried that they may retract the job offer. The company is entirely remote, so I’m not concerned about not being able to go into the office, but more so if business has slowed, eliminating the need for an additional hire … or maybe they just don’t want to deal with a new hire amid all this chaos! If that is the case, I’d like to chat with my current job about staying on.

Should I reach out to the company to confirm that I will still be brought on? If so, how should I approach the topic? 

Yes, contact them! You’d like to think they would have contacted you if anything has changed, but the reality is it may not be at the top of their priority list right now. Reach out and say something like this: “I know these are very difficult times and lots of things are up in the air at many companies. I wanted to touch base about the position I’m slated to start in April. Should we still be on track for that, or is there any reason to think plans may need to change? I’m very much looking forward to starting work with you, but if the circumstances mean the timing is wrong, I’d need to talk to my current employer ASAP.”

Even if they say everything is fine, use your own judgment. If they’re in a hard-hit industry, or not one where people can easily work from home, proceed with a lot of caution.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate 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.

How the Hell Are We Supposed to Work Now?