If you're expected back at the office during the pandemic, be upfront with all your questions and concerns.

By Lindsay Tigar
August 18, 2020
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Though the United States is still struggling to control the spread of COVID-19, some companies around the country are exploring reopening measures and developing best practices at the office. If your employer has asked employees to return to their dusty desks, it’s normal to be nervous. After all, every month of 2020 has brought sudden, drastic change, forcing us to feel a bit on edge. The mere thought of enclosed, tight quarters within a building is bound to cause a little anxiety.

Before you agree to make the commute and go back to working at the office, it’s smart and reasonable—if not expected and recommended—to have some questions. To ensure the leadership team is taking every precaution seriously and to ease your own fears, career experts suggest going through this checklist of inquiries. And if you still don’t feel ready to return, remember that’s OK too.

1

To put it plainly, career expert Wendi Weiner says safety should be a top priority for employers during considerations of reopening a brick and mortar office. This will look different for every workplace environment, but some bases should be universally covered, including:

  • Social distancing measures based on the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations. 
  • Temperature checks and daily health check-ins with all employees.
  • Fewer people in the office and in meeting rooms. 

Your employer should send out a memo outlining the precautions they’re taking to keep everyone comfortable, healthy, and productive. If they don’t, Weiner encourages professionals to ask for it. Given the risks with the coronavirus, knowing what you’ll face when you walk through the doors is vital.

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2

Say your employer has confirmed they’re taking safety precautions to fight against COVID-19 infiltrating the space. That’s great! But what exactly are they doing? It may feel uncomfortable to dig into the nitty-gritty details, Amanda Augustine, a career expert for TopResume, says it could be reassuring to get specific. She suggests posing some questions that go a step further:

  • Has our workplace been altered to make it easier to maintain distance? Have cubicles been erected or plexiglass dividers been installed between workstations? 
  • Have our communal areas been addressed? Single-serve coffee makers with sanitizing wipes nearby? Water fountains turned off? 
  • Has a strategy been implemented to address meetings? Will we continue to use video-conferencing software even when we’re in the office, so we don’t pack into a conference space?
  • Will my coworkers and I be required to wear a mask and/or other personal protective gear? If so, will the company supply us with these, or are we responsible for purchasing our own?

“If you are returning to the office, you’ll want to know what precautions are being taken to ensure your health and safety,” Augustine says. “Keep in mind, not every employer is required to pay for its employees’ face masks and other equipment—this all depends on the circumstances and the state law involved—so it’s best to learn of your employer’s expectations ahead of time so you can be prepared.”

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3

One way that some companies are making their offices safer is by creating a staggered schedule. This means that half of the team would report in-person Monday and Wednesday, while the other half comes in Tuesday and Thursday, and everyone works from home on Fridays. Depending on the size of the staff and your office location, this tactic might be the best—and healthiest—choice, according to Roshawnna Novellus, PhD, the founder and CEO of EnrichHER.com

“Other than reducing the possibility of increased spread and exposure, this method also benefits teams with schedule complications caused by homeschooling or other caregiving responsibilities,” Novellus says. “Adopting such a tactic could be a way to emphasize the organizational commitment to work-life balance, and coming from that angle is a good way to approach the issue with supervisors.”

4

Even if your employer takes every measure they can to keep all hires protected, some aspects are completely out of their control. Say, for instance, a colleague attends a family birthday party on the weekend and then comes in on Monday, not knowing they’ve contracted COVID-19. Augustine says it’s important to understand your employer’s response in the event that you do fall ill. Will they support you through the ordeal? And what about if a family member is diagnosed and you need to care for them?

“Everyone wants to hope for the best and assume they and their loved ones will remain healthy. However, with more and more people returning to their offices and some children going back to school for in-person instruction, it’s best to have a plan in place for the worst-case scenario,” Augustine says.

Before addressing the topic with your boss, she recommends familiarizing yourself with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA or Act) to determine whether your employer is legally required to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. If they aren’t, it’s essential to see what they are offering.

5

Because of privacy concerns, there may be some misinformation and miscommunication about what employers can share about an employee's health. However, COVID-19 can spread so easily in small groups that all staff members must be notified if someone in the office has tested positive. Steven Schnur, MD, the CEO of ImHealthyToday.org, says as a general rule of thumb, those individuals identified as having close contact with the sick person should be immediately notified. Then, common areas should be properly sanitized. “Employers should consider monitoring the office to ensure the safety and health of the organization is of the utmost priority,” Dr. Schnur adds.

If the leadership team at your company doesn’t have this action plan in place, you should feel encouraged to ask them to create one.

6

Remember when hopping down to Miami for a meeting and then flying back to New York on the same day was a thing? Or when no one thought twice about going to a conference in Las Vegas for a long weekend? Business travel looks mighty different today than it did a mere seven months ago, and if it was once part of your job description, you should get on the same page with your employer on their expectations moving forward. Weiner recommends first addressing your own comfort level and how willing you are to expose yourself to germs at the airport for a business meeting. “Traveling domestically can present a problem if you are in a COVID hot spot or staying at a crowded hotel,” she says. 

Share this with your manager, then work together to come up with alternative solutions that allow you to do your job without the added exposure.

7

Even if your employer has done everything “right” in the age of coronavirus, you may still feel uneasy returning to a shared office space. In some instances, it could be too much of a risk to take on for a job, Weiner says. Take, for instance, you’re a high-risk person, or you’re a parent whose child isn’t returning to the classroom this year. The ability to work remotely may be more suitable for your pandemic lifestyle until a vaccine is developed. And that’s OK! Communicate your needs clearly and calmly to your employer. And remain open to providing solutions that give you both peace of mind and the ability to continue doing top-notch work.

“With all of the digital capabilities, WFH is definitely a workable solution for many office-based professionals,” Weiner says. “Remember, this is the new normal, and companies are navigating this as a matter of first impression. Open, honest, and transparent conversations are key.”

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