Help My Career: ‘It’s not about the future of work, it’s about the future of living’: How to handle the dreaded ‘return-to-work’ Zoom call with your boss

When is it good for you to return to the office? 

Some people may be tempted to quote that famous New Yorker cartoon and reply, “How about never —  is never good for you?” But what is acceptable in a smarty-pants magazine cartoon strip is hardly acceptable in real life. Few managers will take kindly to a zero-sum game.

So how do you handle that conversation? Because if it has not happened yet, it likely soon will.

Some companies have gone fully remote. Airbnb
for example, launched a “live and work anywhere” program for its employees. With more cities instituting strict rules around short-term stays, the company clearly has a vested interest in leading by example and having its employees work from home (or an Airbnb in the country). Coinbase
Slack, Shopify

and other companies are also staying remote. 

Meanwhile, a large number of companies are allowing their employees to work on a hybrid schedule, meaning a few days a week at home and a few days a week in the office. They include Twitter
Reddit, Facebook parent Meta

and, of course, Zoom

 — another company that benefits from people working at least part of the time at home.

It’s also worth remembering that remote work is a luxury. Only 7.1% of workers in June teleworked specifically due to the pandemic, according to the latest jobs report, a decline from 7.4% in May. A Federal Reserve report released in May found that in late 2021, just 22% of people were working full-time from home.

“Research suggests that members of Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, are more likely to have an easier conversation with a boss who wants them to go back to the office.”

We’ve come a long way. First we had The Great Resignation. (Some called it The Great Renegotiation.) Then there was The Great Resistance, where some employees dug their heels in under the sofa and point-blank refused to go back to the office. Has the time come for The Great Return? If so, how many days a week is appropriate? And if you don’t want to return, why not?

More than two years into the pandemic, members of Generation Z are more likely to have an easier conversation with a boss who wants them to go back to the office. Gen Z — born between 1997 and 2012 — are the most likely to say they’d prefer to work in the office, according to a survey of 11,000 high-school and college-aged respondents conducted by the National Society of High School Scholars this past spring.

This younger generation could be more in need of mentorship than millennials, Generation X and baby boomers, and they may have fewer familial responsibilities. Research has shown that women, particularly working mothers, are more likely to want to work from home. Other people may have underlying conditions that put them at greater risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes, or a person in their household who is at heightened risk.

“Transparency and directness work best. See how your coworkers feel about it, and look back at the challenges and successes of the last two-plus years.”

Before clicking into the Zoom meeting with your manager, digest these data points: Despite return-to-the-office mandates introduced by some companies, non-executive employees are nearly twice as likely as executives to return to the workplace full time, according to a survey of 10,818 workers in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.

Over one-third (34%) of “knowledge” workers — those who deal in information — returned to the office five days a week, found a poll conducted between Jan. 27 and Feb. 21, 2022 by Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack that aims to put a digital workplace first. Meanwhile, “employee sentiment has dropped to near-record lows,” the report said.

“Work-related stress and anxiety is at its worst since our surveying began,” the authors wrote. “The data also indicates that employers will pay a price for this discontent: Workers who say that they are unsatisfied with their current level of flexibility — both in where and when they work — are now three times as likely to say they will ‘definitely’ look for a new job in the coming year, compared to those who report satisfaction with their work flexibility.”

Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University and prominent remote-work researcher, suggested avoiding the return-to-work talk altogether.

“Do you even want to have this conversation?” Bloom said. “If you bring it to people’s attention, they may formalize your situation. If you say nothing, they may turn a blind eye. Keep calm and carry on. That might be the way I’ll go. It’s clear that that’s what’s happening in a lot of places.”

Still, that won’t work for everyone. And for a happy, healthy workplace, transparency and directness often work best. See how your coworkers feel about it, and look back at the challenges and successes of the last two-plus years. Has your company risen to the remote-work challenge?

Here are some handy talking points for employees who want to negotiate working from home, at least part of the time. There’s a lot at stake for both employers and their staff. Chris Herd, the CEO of Firstbase, which advocates for remote work, puts it this way: “It’s not about the future of work, it’s about the future of living.”

1. No two employees are alike

Some employees live with an elderly parent, while others have comorbidities that make them more susceptible to serious illness from COVID-19, even if they are vaccinated and boosted. People may also prefer remote work due to a disability, caregiving responsibilities, a reprieve from workplace microaggressions, greater productivity at home, or a desire for better work-life balance.

2. You’re saving your company time

Not only does commuting less save you stress and anxiety, it also saves you 70 minutes a day, according to research by a group of economists at WFH Research, including Bloom, who calls it a “magical trick” to restore 35 minutes to your home life and 35 minutes to your work life. In other words, it benefits you and your employer. “It’s a win-win,” Bloom says. 

3. Hybrid schedules are smarter

Bloom suggests telling your manager: I want to be organized.” The team should pick X number of days a week to come in, but people need quiet work time at home that complements more “watercooler brainstorming,” he said. Of course, it’s a balance. Studies have shown that employees can waste precious hours social networking, online shopping, playing videos or simply doom scrolling through their feed. But to allay any fears, your results and level of virtual engagement should speak for themselves.

4. Smaller offices cost less money

There is a financial and environmental advantage to working from home and/or working in a hybrid setup: Less commuting provides less congestion and fewer carbon emissions. Although man companies are locked into multi-year leases, many are finding that don’t need all that office space five days a week, and that hybrid working will require less space. Plus, hybrid work can save the commuter anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per year in fuel and/or transportation costs.

5. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship

“People want to work, but they want to work for companies that treat them well,” Herd said. Most people need to work for a living, but Bloom and Herd said companies need high-quality employees, and highlighting your productivity and happiness — and the productivity that goes hand-in-hand with hybrid work — can be persuasive, with or without a recession on the way. “If it’s not about work and productivity, what is all this for?” Herd added.

“Help My Career” is a new column that helps readers navigate a changing workplace.

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