How to Bring Up Concerns About Returning to the Office During COVID

Now that the “new normal” has become normal, many people don’t want to go back to the physical workplace. Here’s how to talk to your boss.

Published: Dec 15, 2020

Lena’s office is reopening at partial capacity in the new year, but she’s worried about being exposed to COVID if she goes back. Her boss is optimistic about the new plan, and Lena isn’t sure how to talk to him about her concerns.

According to a Korn Ferry survey, 28% of employees say they’re afraid to go back to the office when it reopens, and 58% say they’re more productive working from home—even when there are distractions such as children or spouses. With ongoing confusion around COVID-19, many employees are wondering if a return to the office makes sense, especially when they’ve been able to work from home successfully since March.

With ongoing confusion around COVID-19, many employees are wondering if a return to the office makes sense, especially when they’ve been able to work from home successfully since March.

But some jobs are best done in person, especially those requiring collaboration. “If your company is expecting you to return to the office and you find your blood pressure rising, speak up and communicate—but first make sure you have a well-thought-out plan,” says Nancy Von Horn, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Here’s our advice for preparing for a conversation with your manager.

Prepare your why.

As the Korn Ferry study revealed, employees have a wide variety of reasons not to want to return to the office. It’s important to understand yours so you can make a clear and specific case. Are you in a higher-risk category for illness? Would a long daily commute throw off your work-life balance? Do you have children at home? All of these reasons require a different type of conversation.

Let your work-from-home results speak.

Von Horn says to talk about your performance, your value to the company and team, and the results you’ve been able to achieve while working remotely. “Focus on what’s in it for them,” she says. If your achievements and engagement have remained high or even improved while working from home, you have a solid case to present.

Anticipate objections and make a plan for compromise.

Listen to your boss’s priorities; if they want the team to hold major weekly meetings in person, you may want to come in for those meetings. Or if you have a great plan for virtual collaboration, then be willing to meet another one of your boss’s requests. “Be flexible and open to negotiating something that everyone can live with,” Von Horn says.

And keep in mind that everyone is under extreme stress, your boss included. Make your case strongly, but also be patient and calm and maybe even bring some much-needed humor and joy to the conversation.

Know your rights.

If your boss is rigid in their ask, you have the option to rope in HR or a union if available. And if you have a medical condition that makes you especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, your employer may need to help you find a way to limit your exposure, under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because things are changing quickly, frame your request as “what’s best for now”—both for you and your employer—with room to revisit the conversation later.

The ultimate career guide, from Korn Ferry CEO and New York Times best-selling author, Gary Burnison
Complimentary with every Premium subscription
It Starts With You...
How to take control, uncover your blind spots and make more money.
...But It’s Not About You
Surviving bosses and coworkers, managing, and networking success.
To Earn More, Learn More
Don't be a know-it-all, be a learn-it-all with practical advice and tools.
"Advance gives you a wealth of practical and actionable advice. You'll have what you need to take control of your career, starting today."