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How to tell your boss you’re not ready to return to the office

If your offices are reopening and you don’t feel safe (or otherwise ready) to return, here’s how to go about discussing it with your manager.

How to tell your boss you’re not ready to return to the office
[Source photo: Drazen Zigic/iStock]

As offices start to reopen, some employees are finding themselves in a dilemma. Working from home has become convenient, especially if you’re simultaneously caring for children or older parents. And the thought of returning to a workplace may not be welcome due to schedules or potential exposure to the virus.

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“COVID was a forced experiment in working from home, and a lot of people found the arrangement better for them,” says Laura Hamill, chief people officer and chief science officer at the employee engagement platform Limeade. “Ideally, employers should be supporting and caring for their employees, listening to them right now, and adjusting policies and practices. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations aren’t adapting or thinking about how their people prefer to be working.”

So, what should you do if your company is reopening offices and want you to return and you don’t want to go?

The first step is to talk to your manager, advises Hamill. “If they don’t know what’s going on for you, they won’t know you really want to make a change,” she says. “You need to speak up.”

But don’t just blurt it out. You need to prepare for your meeting with some topics to cover. Here’s how to approach the conversation:

Identify Your Why

Be clear on why you want to change the way your work, says Hamill. “If you want to continue to work from home, is it due to your physical health and well-being? Your emotional well-being due to feeling the stress of caring for kids or ailing parents?” she asks.

And the why doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. “It could be that you like your life better now,” says Hamill. “Quality of life is a real and legitimate why. You just need to be clear on why a change is important. The reason can be very different for every person.”

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Know What You’re Asking For

In addition to your reason, be clear on what you’re asking for, says Hamill.

“Are you wanting to try it out?” she asks. “Do this until your kids are in school full time? Or is this a change you’d like to make forever? Be explicit in your ask so your manager understands what you’re suggesting.”

Share How It’s Mutually Beneficial

In addition to being better for you, working from home should also be beneficial for the team, your manager, and the company overall. Share how the arrangement can create a win/win.

“It could be that you usually spend two hours a day commuting,” says Hamill. “Perhaps you could use some of that time working. Or maybe you know office space is expensive and working from home would free up resources for the company. The benefits need to be a two-way street.”

And Have a Plan

You’ll need to know how you will be available for your manager, teammates, and customers, and you should identify how to know if the arrangement is working.

“How can you put checks and balances in place and stay connected?” asks Hamill. “And what results can you and your manager expect? Identify metrics that you could use to measure how it’s going. Getting it set up should be something that doesn’t feel too scary for your manager.”

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Then, Get on Your Boss’s Calendar

Once you’ve worked out the details and know how best to convey your desire to work from home, schedule time to talk to your manager on a Zoom call or in a face-to-face meeting. Facial expressions are important, says Hamill. Let them know in an email or during a prior call that you’re thinking about the return to the office and want to talk about it.

“Tell them that you’d like to work from home and ask to schedule a time to talk it through,” she says. “When you approach it this way, you give them time to warm up to the concept. If you spring it on them, they may be defensive.”

Give your manager room to add to the conversation. Don’t make the conversation a monologue, says Hamill. “Pause and ask them questions,” she says. “Ask what they think it would take to work. Ask for their worries or concerns. Do they feel it would be a burden to the team? Then talk about how you can address that.”

While you’ve likely been working from home during the pandemic, Hamill says it can help to suggest the arrangement on a trial basis. “Time-box it for a month, or provide a few steps into it, such as working from home a few days a week,” she says. “How can you make it easier for your manager? Ultimately, the arrangement should reflect positively on your manager and the organization.”

Working from home is becoming the future way of working, and more companies are coming to the realization after the coronavirus forced their hand. Having your employer embrace the idea will take a willingness to listen and adjust on both sides.

“This is how work is changing,” says Hamill. “Hopefully your employer will agree and be on the right side of history. Organizations that show concern for their employees and treat them like human beings may benefit on the other side.”

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