As the coronavirus pandemic swirls, our collective top priority is staying safe and healthy and doing our part to help stop the spread. For many, that has meant working from home during the past few months. Now, as some states slowly begin to reopen, so too will certain offices. But what if you're scared to go back to work because the prospect doesn't make you feel safe? In this edition of Good@Work, career expert Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor of and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—walks you through how to have a hard conversation about this with your manager. And also, what to do if you don't get the response you hoped for.
I've been working remotely since a national state of emergency was declared in mid-March in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and my office is currently making plans to reopen. While I understand the importance of taking steps to slowly open the economy, I'm scared to go back to work at my office—I don't feel safe about the choice. Is there an effective way to help my manager see my point of view and continue working remotely?
Clear and professional communication is vital here. Find a time to speak with your manager over video chat or a phone call. Just don't opt for a text-only mode of communication—over email or Slack—because there’s too much opportunity for the recipient of your message to impose a certain tone onto your words. You absolutely don't want your earnest ask getting lost in translation.
That said, prior to your meeting, do write down what you want to say; this will help you organize your thoughts and also ensure you don't forget to make a certain a point. But you also want to sound natural, so try using bullet points instead of drafting a cohesive script. Discreetly consulting your written notes—which you can hide outside of a video frame and obviously can't be viewed by a phone-conversation partner—isn't an awkward choice for this conversation, so use the opportunity to your benefit.
As you organize your thoughts, consider why your manager might be keen to reopen the office. Working to see their perspective and communicating it may help you appeal to their sense of compassion. Think about what they've been dealing with. Can you imagine why they might be trying to come up with ways to reopen the office? Have you found it difficult to get work done under lockdown? Can you imagine why they might feel work has been difficult under these circumstances? Furthermore, there's a good chance they're messenger, not even the originator, of the message.
Surely you're aware that the economy is suffering and that many businesses are on the precipice of closure (or have already closed). As a more senior person in the company, your manager may be privy to certain goings-on in your company about the economic implications of decisions like whether to reopen office operations, so try to have empathy for this position. Managers often unfairly cast as "bad cop," when, in reality, they’re simply juggling conflicting sets of concerns from their bosses and direct reports. Sure, not all managers are stellar, but let's address this situation presuming that yours is among the good ones.
List the specific issues you foresee being a problem, because your manager is more likely to see you dedicated a lot of thought than if you present a generalization like, “I just don’t feel comfortable with your plan.”
As far as where to start and what to say, kick off your conversation by acknowledging that the situation is bigger than you. Say something like, “I know the company is going through a lot right now, and I know that you, personally, are dealing with a unique set of challenges as we manage the pandemic. As your direct report, I'm here to support you and the mission of the company.”
Then get to your main message: “However, I also have some concerns about coming to the office in the near future. While I would love to get back to normal working life as quickly as possible, I have some concerns about doing this safely and remain scared to go back to work right now.” Then, list the specific issues you foresee being a problem, because your manager is more likely to see that you have dedicated a lot of thought to the matter than if you present a generalization like, “I just don’t feel comfortable with your plan.”
Some examples of specific issues you may be able to note to articulate your concern may include: you and your team take public transit to work, and your municipality hasn’t come up with a way to make passengers feel safe on trains and buses every day, twice a day; you sit in tight quarters in an open-office plan; your office hasn’t ever made providing hand sanitizer to employees a habit; none of the conversations about reopening include testing to ensure only healthy or likely immune people are at the office; face coverings have not become building-wide policy.
You can propose solutions to these problems, and offer to help explore them. Say something like, “I would be happy to price out the cost of plexiglass dividers for work spaces and regular hand sanitizer shipments, and I can also ask building management what they’re doing to sanitize and clean our workspace. But I have to confess I will feel scared to go back to work unless all of these things are done, and I want to be able to focus on performing at my best right now instead of being distracted by fear.”
After the conversation, send your manager a short, easy-to-read email summarizing what you discussed, framed like a thank-you note. You may even be able to use thoughts from the bullet-pointed list you wrote before speaking with them. This email reiterates everything you want to share, in case they didn’t write it down, and it provides a perfect document they can then escalate to their bosses to signal that the current approach, which, again, may be out of their own hands, is problematic.
It's likely that, at the very least, your manager will hear you and work with you to come up with solutions to make you feel safe. But if what you receive as a reply is along the lines of "too bad,” and you’ll have to go back to work, start ideating what you may want to do next. While right now, with unemployment threatening to hit a staggering 20 percent, looking for a new job might not be your most fruitful option, it's never too soon to start researching where you'd like to apply once the economy improves. Just remember that this situation will come to an end; it may not be in the immediate future, but there will be a time when you can look for another job.
But hopefully what happens is that your manager will respond to what you say with empathy, and you’ll remember why you wanted to work at this company in the first place.
Have a career question for Amy? Email us at goodwork@.
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