Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to run ahead of schedule, many workplaces that went fully remote last year are starting to set timelines for bringing people back to the office—and their employees are not happy.
As reopening initiatives gather steam, I’ve been flooded with letters from people viewing these plans with deep suspicion. Many of them are wondering whether they should even tell their employers once they’re vaccinated, since they fear that knowledge will be used to compel their return to work.
This person and her co-workers got vaccinated back in January but still fears returning:
My grandboss mentioned us going back a few weeks ago and I could almost immediately feel my panic response. I realized I haven’t been around anyone for more than two hours at a time in a year (except for three short occasions), I’m dreading having to wear a mask for multiple hours at work, I’m nervous to be back in spaces with lots of other people (even though I know our spaces are immaculately clean, we’ve still had a few positive cases). I don’t feel like me being there will do any good vs keeping my germs at home and away from people who are immunocompromised. It’s all so fraught and anxiety-inducing.
But bringing people back once they’re vaccinated has been the plan all along, as this manager points out:
I have felt like I am the one taking crazy pills the way some of our staff has reacted to my three-month warning that we will be reopening the office at the start of June. I am impressed we have held it together this long, but it has been a LOT of work and we just can’t afford to keep paying fees for missing things and losing time for development/training.
Part of the problem is one of timing. It’s one thing to plan on reopening in the late summer—Labor Day has been a popular target—but employers talking about bringing everyone back in May or June are ignoring that it’s unlikely we’ll have reached herd immunity by then (and kids definitely won’t be vaccinated yet, which is a concern for many parents).
Workers have also seen over the past year that even when employers claim they’ll implement safety measures, the reality is often very different. Social distancing requirements often go unenforced, and many people report colleagues going unmasked without any consequences. So employees are primed to be incredulous.
Plus, some people just prefer working from home and would rather not give it up. They’re quite happy to have no commute, a more flexible schedule, pets lounging nearby, more casual dress, and easy access to their own kitchen. A lot of us have even found we’re more productive at home, without the interruptions of chatty colleagues.
But the real problem, I suspect, is that in the past year, we’ve experienced a massive loss of trust in our institutions and in one another. After watching the government mislead and fail us on such a massive scale, with hundreds of thousands of people dying as a result of those failures, of course people are skeptical now. We’ve spent the past year not being protected by the institutions that were supposed to protect us and learning that we’d have to protect ourselves. So even at companies that have acted responsibly throughout the pandemic, employees are naturally anxious. When you’ve spent months watching businesses reopen while case numbers rose and governors giving that their blessing, as unsurprising new waves of infections followed, it’s pretty understandable to feel apprehensive of any new timelines for a return to “normalcy.”
This person who wrote me speaks for a lot of others:
I do not trust people or institutions in the same way and I don’t think I ever will again. Even as we “go back to normal” (and since much of the world is not vaccinated, it is not even close to over yet) I will not forget how our societies treated vulnerable people and essential workers as expendable, minorities as scapegoats, facts and public health as suggestions or lies.
The world, frankly, just feels different now:
Even when things are as safe as possible, there’s a sense that we’ve been torn apart.
Maybe I was naive, but I always assumed in a crisis, we’d come together as a society and have each other’s back. It’s been over a year of being proven wrong about that over and over again. Knowing that the people I serve at work and the ones I run into in my life may or may not be willing to throw me overboard for their own personal benefit and comfort makes it hard to be around people.
I feel differently about how I view the world and how much I want to interact with it. And I need to work on that, but I think the impact of this will linger.
All of this is true despite the very good news around us—like the rapidly increasing vaccine supply and new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing vaccinated people are unlikely to carry or spread the virus to others. For many people, that doesn’t change the reality that the past year has been a trauma, one that’s still unfolding. You can’t just turn that off when your office says it’s time to come back. (I also want to acknowledge the millions of people who won’t be “returning” to work because they’ve been working on site all along or have lost jobs that might not be coming back. In some ways, this anxiety about returning is the province of the privileged.)
So what can employers do? First and foremost, when possible, plan your reopening for further out than May or June. Think late summer or early fall. Give people plenty of notice, so they have time to get used to the idea, line up child care, and make any other arrangements. And consider a phased-in return: Rather than expecting workers to resume full-time on-site work overnight, bring people back for one or two days a week at first and then gradually increase that if it’s necessary. (It may not be! Many people have concluded that their jobs could be done most effectively with a hybrid setup, working from home some days and in the office others.) This person describes a system that worked well for her employer:
My facility has been closed to the public for basically a year. We did WFH for a while, then a mostly-WFH hybrid for the whole workforce, and then back into the still-closed-to-the-public office since the new year. We are just now opening up for limited programming, which I’ve had some surprising anxieties about even though I just got my second shot. Being able to ease back into things, and having things like mask guidelines, plexi barriers, and sanitizers everywhere has helped.
Coming back online a little bit at a time has allowed people to readjust. And it has given people with health concerns the flexibility to continue working from home, while letting those of us who feel able take care of the physical stuff that has to get done. I can’t imagine doing a year (or months) of WFH then returning to what is basically my pre-pandemic normal, just with masks on. If there is any way to make this a gentle transition, I think that would be the right call for everyone.
But employers should also recognize the significant break in trust between individuals and institutions, and know that won’t be repaired overnight. That doesn’t mean employers can’t bring people back when it’s truly safe to do so, but there’s going to be anxiety in their ranks for a long time—and the more they can be sensitive to and patient with that, the better reopenings are likely to go.