With COVID infection rates declining modestly across the country, the prospect of returning to our offices is inching closer to reality. After 11 months of living through a pandemic, you might feel uneasy about settling in to a confined space next to dozens of colleagues, and you’re not alone: a recent survey from the jobs listing website Live Career found that out of 1,000 respondents queried about returning to the office, 29 percent would rather quit their jobs entirely before clocking in at a physical space.
As more companies start outlining plans to get workers into offices, some tough conversations between uneasy workers and the corporate hierarchy are bound to happen. Here’s how you, as a worker, can negotiate with your company about returning to the office once the pandemic is fully in retreat.
Talk to other employees about your approach
It can be hard to haggle with management about a serious situation on your own, but going about it with a group of colleagues can work toward your benefit, especially if the group is united and clear in their desire for a safe return (or no return at all).
Start small by reaching out to work friends who might share a similar anxiety. Grow the cause from there, perhaps starting an email chain or Slack channel to get on the same page, and communicate what you feel might be necessary to have your concerns heard effectively by management. Companies have more reason to cater to a united front of employees instead of a few, scattered misgivings expressed by a handful of people.
Explain what your idea of “fair” is
As with most negotiations, the goal is finding common ground. On one side, management has a financial incentive to get people to use the property it leases or owns; there’s also an argument that in-person collaboration poses a boon for productivity (though that’s debatable). But there’s a crucial caveat, because employees need to feel safe in order to do their jobs sufficiently.
One thing you can ask is for your company to survey employees about their preferences for a return to the office. Are you more comfortable if your building implements all sorts of contact-free controls on its doors and elevators? Is sitting in a socially-distanced environment with masks on reasonable to you? Do you want to explain to your bosses that sitting in a socially-distanced environment with masks on is basically no different than working from home?
Above all, there needs to be a coherent sense that your company is at least trying to make things fair. As the leadership strategist Nate Bennet wrote in a recent Forbes article, there are a few things that employees should consider about proposals for returning to work:
Do the policies and procedures treat employees with dignity and respect?
Have employees had a voice in the development of the policies and procedures?
Are the decisions that result from the application of the policies and procedures made in a transparent, objective, and consistent way?
Is there a mechanism for employees impacted by the decisions to appeal to ensure the appropriate decision?
This is just the baseline, though. If your bosses have little to no interest in reaching a compromise, you might need to resort to a plan B.
When it’s time to look for a different job
When your bosses won’t budge and demand you back in the office full-time despite your apprehension, it might be time to look for work elsewhere. Given the popularity of remote work and the normalization of hybrid office setups as we (hopefully) leave the pandemic behind, it makes your company especially unreasonable if they can’t offer some kind of alternative to mandatory office attendance.
But you have another strong bargaining chip in your corner, if you cite all the prominent companies that have fully embraced long-term work from home. Remote work is having a major moment—22 percent of the U.S. workforce will be working remotely full-time, according to analysis from Upwork—so it’s likely that you’ll be able to search for a remote job while you grapple with unaccommodating corporate policies at your current one.
Plenty of people prefer the human connection offered by an in-person work environment, but if you prefer working from home for reasons related to personal and family convenience, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be trying to make this a permanent reality.