McDonough School of Business
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Office Hours: Jeanine Turner on Negotiating Your Return To Work

As professionals across the U.S. have adjusted to a new way of working, major companies announced plans to allow employees to continue working from home forever, come back to the office, or a combination of both. These announcements  have left some with the choice to return and others without — so how do we negotiate our return to work in the post-pandemic era? Jeanine Turner, professor of communication at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business highlights the important conversations about returning to work.

What specific advice would you give to those negotiating their return to work?

Advice for Employees:

  1. Reflect on your priorities and how they might have changed over the last year.
  2. Identify specific concerns that you might have as you go back into a physical, in-person workplace.
  3. Consider how you see yourself being able to manage both work and home to accommodate these new priorities.
  4. Engage your supervisor in a solutions-oriented conversation about the possibilities.

Advice for Supervisors: 

  1. Recognize that this year has garnered change for all of us.
  2. Understand that leading effectively in post-pandemic means engaging your employees about how the last year has affected them and how it will impact their priorities at work and their career.

What should employers be prepared for as many employees negotiate their return to work?

Establishing an empathetic workforce will be vital during this period of transition. It requires a company-wide buy-in, and continued communication. This transition into the post-covid workforce may expose workers and leaders to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable level of vulnerability. For example, some people have not raised concerns about balancing work and family with their supervisor before and they might need to think about how to have this conversation now. 

It’s going to be important for employers to establish trust with many employees working from home exclusively or in a hybrid model. If an employee asks for more flexibility in a schedule, it is important to consider positive intent in that they are trying to both accomplish organizational goals while balancing personal goals. Trust in the workplace has been emerging as one of the most popular topics before the pandemic. With many employees geographically spread out, there will be a whole new level of trust that will need to be established.

It’s also important to note that returning to work can’t always be established by setting an arbitrary date. Organizations are trying to regain the culture and community that was present prior to the pandemic. But asking employees to adapt virtually for the past year or more, and then again, asking them to return on a specific date to as they did before the pandemic won’t necessarily work. It will take time to develop culture and community again. This kind of negotiation between employees and the company should be an on-going conversation.

How is the nature of returning to work going to change the way we communicate?

After a year of changing our habits to work virtually, we have become accustomed to adapting to varying levels of multitasking outside of the traditional office setting. People have found that they can work and spend more time with their family and friends. Now, both employees and companies have to be more intentional about how and why they justify asking people to return to work. Over the course of this year, many have established a new routine outside of the office setting and it’s going to be a difficult conversation with many who are not ready to give up their new routine.

Through collective conversation, teams, employees, and companies will learn the instances that warrant more face-to-face, physically in-person conversations. Some companies might realize that in order to establish company morale, virtual work might negatively impact morale-building in the long-term. There are tangible benefits to having employees in the office to foster impromptu ideas and conversations. 

Why is this topic of negotiating our return to work taboo for many organizations and employees?

Like many other conversations in the workplace (family, politics, mental health etc.), negotiating your return to work might seem taboo. The virtual environment has allowed us to be more present for our families. For example, someone working from home who wants to go to their child’s baseball game will make sure to attend meetings and get their work done, but they won’t necessarily ask for the time to go — they’ll just go. Upon returning to the office, employees may be more hesitant to ask for the time to attend a similar event. Employees may feel that they have proven that they can get their work done from home and still be present for the baseball game or the painting class they really wanted to take. However, those conversations will be harder to have because we are not accustomed to talking about the reality of work-life balance. If organizations push a less flexible agenda, the conversations can be closed off.

What should we remember as both employees and companies when talking about our return to work?

Adapting to these changes  isn’t going to happen overnight. Just because we give employees a date to come back into the office, doesn’t mean that office culture returns to the way it was. Everything has changed and nothing will go back to the way it was. But in many ways, things can be better. For recent years, organizational psychologists and companies have touted the importance of work-life balance. Now companies and individuals will have the opportunity to start conversations about what that really means. 

Turner’s new book (releasing January 2022), Being Present: Commanding Attention at Work (and at Home) by Managing Your Social Presence, draws from fifteen years of research, interviews, and experience from teaching students and executives, which provides a framework to navigate social presence at work and at home.