In a recent survey, a majority of over 1,600 employees (58%) reported being worried about having tough conversations about returning to the office, and close to a third (29%) said they now have a strong preference for continuing remote work and are nervous about whether their company or manager might take the opposite side of the conversation. With topics as charged as vaccinations, safety, and flexibility, it makes sense that so many respondents reported some level of distress over addressing them. The authors present three anxiety-reducing principles to confidently and respectfully voice your concerns about returning to in-person work.
As many companies in the U.S. begin to bring people back to the office, plenty of employees have misgivings. Our recent survey of 1,697 employees reveals that many people aren’t just anxious about going back into the office, but also about talking to their coworkers, managers, and reports about work preferences and anxiety about returning. A majority of employees (58%) reported being worried about having these awkward but important conversations, and close to a third (29%) said they now have a strong preference for continuing remote work and are nervous about whether their company or manager might take the opposite side of the conversation.
The drivers of these employees’ anxiety about having these conversations aren’t surprising. Here are a few of the responses we received:
- “I have two direct reports who are not going to get vaccinated. They are also against wearing masks. Our policy is that they won’t be able to return to campus, but I know we’ll need ongoing conversations about this that I am not looking forward to.”
- “I have a coworker who isn’t vaccinated. She told me she is planning on coming to work and not wearing a mask. Is it my place to discuss such things?”
- “I resent having to disclose if I have been vaccinated or not — I don’t believe this is something that should be able to be asked of anyone. I have my personal opinions on the matter and believe everyone is entitled to their own.”
- “Our executives preach ‘flexibility’ and ‘compassion’ but are forcing us middle managers to relay messages that aren’t in line with those values, like forcing everyone to return to a fully on-site workday.”
- “My boss says we can continue to work from home, but I’ve heard she also told someone, ‘Those with hustle are those who want to return to the office, where they can make important contacts and get more done!’”
With topics as charged as these, it makes sense that so many respondents reported some level of distress over addressing them. These conversations involve high-stakes, opposing opinions and strong emotions, and if not held well (or at all), they’ll impact relationships and results. This anxiety can work to your advantage if you treat it as an invitation to prepare. To confidently and respectfully voice your concerns, make a list of the conversations you might find yourself in, then use these anxiety-reducing principles to prepare for them.
Know your priorities
Anxiety (and its fully blossomed form, fear) is a response to the perceived threat of a cherished value. For example, your job might be at risk if you demand to continue working from home. Or you might be socially marginalized (or worse) if you confront an unvaccinated boss who refuses to wear a mask. We unwittingly perpetuate our anxiety when we refuse to accept that these risks demand we make value trade-offs. And anxiety decreases the instant we make a priority decision between the two by deciding which matters most. For example, you must decide whether this job is more important than work flexibility, or whether a comfortable relationship with your boss is more important than a heightened health risk.
If you refuse to make these prioritizing decisions, you risk turning your anxiety into resentment. You’ll begin to blame others for not giving you the world you want rather than taking responsibility for confronting the world you’re in. In the old world, you were able to have a friendly boss and physical safety. In the new world, you might not be able to achieve both. Denying the reality of your situation is a form of entitlement — and entitlement breeds resentment.
Mature acceptance of reality reduces anxiety as you work through the trade-offs life is presenting you. There may be creative ways to transcend the trade-offs and protect both values, but the beginning of peace is accepting the need to prioritize.
Plan for the risks
Entitlement is the first way we unnecessarily amplify our anxieties. The second is neglect, when we fail to take responsibility to plan for the risks of acting on our priorities. For example, if you believe the vaccine is dangerous and your company requires you to get one, you’ll live in a state of constant dread of confrontation. The dread dissipates measurably when you make a plan for the inevitable consequences of violating your company’s policy. If your priority value is to avoid vaccination, it’s your responsibility to either find an employer who agrees with your views or proactively work out an arrangement with your current employer that accommodates your belief.
When we neglect our responsibility for our own values, our guilt manifests as blame toward others. We come into crucial conversations hot because we’re unwilling to acknowledge our own entitlement and neglect. If you’re anxious about conflict with others, it could well be that you’re ignoring conflict within yourself. You knew you should have taken responsibility for your own needs and priorities, but you didn’t. Now, when the inevitable consequences emerge, you blame others for the avoidable misery. And for most every waking moment prior to this tough confrontation, you live in anticipatory rage about it — not because of the unreasonable demands of others, but because you’re refusing responsibility for your own needs. Reduce that anxiety by planning for the risks of the priorities you’ve chosen.
Prepare for the beginning of the conversation
Much of our anxiety about tough conversations comes from our uncertainty about how they’ll begin. We rest easier if we have a plan for the opening exchange — roughly the first 30 seconds. Fortunately, there’s not a lot of controversy about how to construct it. My colleagues and I have spent decades examining how to approach this “hazardous half-minute.”
Your first task is not to solve the problem, it’s to create psychological safety. If others feel safe with you, they can engage in even-spirited disagreement in a way that’s productive. If they feel unsafe, even the smallest bones of contention can become insurmountable behemoths. The way to help others feel psychologically safe is to reassure them of two things: 1) You care about their needs and concerns, and 2) you respect them. The best way to do both is to validate the values you think they bring to the conversation.
For example, if you’re uncomfortable because your unvaccinated and unmasked boss is joining in-person meetings, don’t start the conversation by demanding they wear a mask. Instead, begin by validating the values that might underly their decision: “I know you’ve got strong feelings about masks and vaccines. And I respect your right to make those decisions. I also need to make my own. I don’t know if my needs are compatible with yours. Can we talk about it?”
If during the conversation your boss becomes combative or defensive, remind yourself that their behavior is about psychological safety, not undiscussable issues. Try to reestablish safety by validating their values and reaffirming your respect. And remember, neither validation nor respect denote agreement. We’re not suggesting you feign agreement with their opinion, but that you recognize their firm right to reason through their own decisions and live their life as they see fit — without incurring judgment or derision from you.
Your best preparation for the hazardous half-minute is to create a roughly sketched script that generates psychological safety and sets the table for a healthy exchange.
By acknowledging the need to make value trade-offs, prepare for risks, and assemble a script that helps you get the conversation onto safe footing, you’ll substantially reduce your anxiety about returning to the workplace. Hopefully you’ll come away with happy anticipation of seeing people you admire and enjoy once again.