As Covid-19 cases continue to rise, plans to return to the office are in flux. For some employers, this means holding off until next year to bring back employees. Others however, are planning for a return to the office in some capacity this fall.
Among employees, physical safety concerns closely tied to the spread of the delta variant are making some carefully consider their return-to-office plan.
A survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of jobs site Glassdoor finds that almost 9 in 10 employees, 89%, still have lingering concerns about returning to the office. Employees are also worried about what their work interactions will look like, how they will need to present themselves, and how they'll get to and from work.
The online survey gathered responses from 1,042 employed adults between July 8-12, 2021. Of those included in the survey, 278 said they currently work full time from home because of the pandemic.
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CNBC Make It spoke with Alison Sullivan, a Glassdoor career trends expert, about addressing those return-to-office concerns and how to approach the conversation with your boss and colleagues.
Have the talk, it could be worth it
Returning to the office can feel like a big transition period with a lot of unknowns. If you've been working from home, you may be questioning the changes that working in person can bring.
Perhaps your employer will implement new work policies and encourage employees to get vaccinated, similarly to companies like McDonald's and American Airlines, that have offered incentives like paid time off and bonuses to their employees.
Or perhaps your employer will move toward an adjusted work schedule, like a hybrid model where remote-work options are available, similar to companies like Twitter and Salesforce that have embraced the trend. Regardless of the changes you may be concerned about, knowing what plans are in store for your workplace before you return can be vital.
"Talk with your boss about how you're feeling," Sullivan says. "Having this conversation is important for you, your team and your success. You'll find that most bosses want to work with you and will take your feedback into account."
Reaching out to your boss before you return to the office is a good way to approach the conversation, Sullivan explains that this can lead to clear expectations and can be an effective way to gauge what things will change and how this can affect your everyday work schedule.
Discuss with colleagues — you may share similar concerns
When you first made the office-to-home switch at the start of the pandemic, maybe some of the first changes your team made were to workflow and collaboration. That most likely meant adjusting communication methods and adapting to a different kind of work environment.
Now, as return-to-office dates grow closer, the everyday in-office concerns you had before the pandemic are most likely bubbling up again, according to Sullivan, and that's completely understandable. But now is the time to check in with your colleagues to discuss the concerns you have about returning to work in person.
Glassdoor's survey found that 35% of respondents are concerned about their commute, while 30% are concerned about making themselves presentable and 19% are concerned about their privacy at work.
Sullivan explains that it's more than just being on the same page with your colleagues, it's about understanding where your team is at mentally. By communicating, employees and employers can prevent an overhaul of uncertainty.
"Connect with co-workers, friends or people in your network and talk these things out," Sullivan says. "I have a strong feeling you're not alone and other people are thinking about this too."
Remember, some co-workers may not want to openly talk about their concerns and would instead prefer alternative methods such as a companywide survey and that should be respected.
Practice empathy and view things from others' perspectives
No matter who you are or what you've been through, the last year has been difficult. And regardless of how long you've worked for your boss or employer, the next phase of your work life will be different. Sullivan says that empathy will be the best way to approach the next period of work-life habits.
"Empathy is not only something that everyone can appreciate, but it can help contextualize the different places we're all coming from," Sullivan explains. "Especially if you've been working from home for the last year, it can feel very isolating."
Your co-workers are most likely still navigating the work they need to do with the personal things that they need to tend to, such as family or child-care responsibilities, and being flexible could be a sigh of relief. The best way to work productively, Sullivan says, is to meet your team where they're at.
Weigh your options if the opportunity is available
Your boss or your employer is most likely considering a number of scenarios in order to create a return-to-work plan that is safe. But if you're an employee that's concerned about working in person, seeking out alternative work options, if available, may be worth considering.
Sullivan suggests pursuing a conversation about flexible work options. "If you're curious, or if you have an idea of a work scenario or setup that you know is going to work for you and that you prefer, make sure to communicate that," she says. "Many employers are either talking through return to office plans or rethinking them and now could be a great time to discuss if flexible options are available."
On the flip side, Sullivan says that bosses should make sure to give employees multiple options to communicate with them so that employees can choose what works best for them, whether it be a phone call, a video chat or an email.
"From a boss's perspective, I would encourage bosses to state, 'Hey if you have concerns or if you have questions or you want to have a discussion with me, I'm available through multiple channels. Use what's best for you,'" she says. "That will help people feel empowered to connect in the way they prefer."
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