Returning to the office?

covid, in-person

Is your job going back into the office sometime soon? Or maybe you are already back in the office? If so, did you have a choice in the matter? Was risk level of each employee considered prior to the recall to the office? If it was not, then your employer learned absolutely nothing from the pandemic.

Two weeks ago I received a call from an old coworker, the one person on our team who was still going into the office died of covid. This person was still going in conducting the administrative duties of the team, only around a skeleton crew of others needing to be there. They were high-risk, which management was aware of, and only went into the office. There was a covid exposure at the office and this individual was infected. They landed in the hospital where they spent the remainder of their days before they passed. Aside from being high risk, they were vaccinated and only in their 20’s.

Why didn’t management change their duties so they could telework? Especially knowing they were high risk. So I ask you again, did your office consider the risk level of the individual employees before insisting they return to the office?

Plenty of people are still catching covid. It is inevitable. And plenty are surviving just fine after flu or cold-like symptoms. Many workers are tired of being at home all day, many managers are tired of managing certain types of employees long-distance. It is easy to dismiss my story and say, “well she was high-risk,” but consider what you are saying. Given what we know about covid, what is high-risk? And what is not? More importantly, are you sure you are not?

To state you are not high-risk with certainty given the aggressive and wide nature of the virus, you would have to confirm you have little to no health conditions. Even conditions that are otherwise easy to manage, and not lifespan altering. Since covid is still relatively new, any condition based on its mechanics can be a trigger to a larger infection. The most benign heart murmur, asthma, wide range of allergies, obesity (American averages, I am looking at you). The point being small conditions have proven to be larger issues. They are like the little crack in the foundation that the virus can use to break down the walls.

If you are a manager, I ask you this – are you willing to take that risk? And will you be able to sleep at night if one of your staff fall to the fate of my former colleague?

I understand the desire or maybe even business need to return to an office that is empty and costing rent, or holding business needed documents and files. But before packing your staff back into cubicle cells like sardine, consider ensuring the ventilation system is up-to-date and stronger, separating cubicles or desks out further, installing windows that open for fresh air and ventilation (many many offices do not have windows that can open causing a horrible lack of ventilation which spreads viruses like wildfire), consider a hybrid experience with staff on a rotating schedule to avoid 100% capacity, and most importantly consider your employee’s individual circumstances. Your employee, just like you, is a living breathing human being. They have health conditions, risk factors, family members they live with who could be at risk. Children under the age of vaccination, children or spouses who are high-risk.

Perhaps your employee is alright but what about their family? An outbreak in your office could lead to employees becoming carriers of the virus. Although they make go unscathed their children, spouse, or elderly parents could not. If someone’s family is annihilated because of a virus your employee transmitted from your office, what is your role in the tragedy? Surely it is not as an innocent bystander.

Employers, managers, are in a position of power over their employees. Many cannot simply walk away from a profession because they are forced to go back into an office. Who’s responsibility is it when faced with these moral dilemmas? If your employee’s child dies due to an outbreak in your office who is at fault? The employer for requiring staff to be in the office? The employee for not resigning knowing the risk level of their child?

My intention is not to advocate for solely telework at all costs. I firmly believe that some professions only function with an in-person environment. And some employees only operate well in an in-person environment. My intention is for employees to be looked at like human beings more than simply assets. For us to stop looking at things in black and white, and start looking at circumstances holistically.

Most of these dilemmas can be avoided, but the key here is communication and understanding. Be open-minded and willing to have these difficult conversation and make accommodations to individual circumstances. This is not the time to worry about fairness to all employees. Remember the difference between equality and equity. Stop thinking of staff as a liability that must be treated the same across the board in order to avoid issues, and as unique individuals who will thrive when provided the opportunity to given their unique circumstances.

Just my take. Until next time, friends.