I have been working remotely for 18+ months and return to a hybrid work schedule in one week and a full return to students just 1 week later. While I am excited to be back in the office because I miss valued relationships with colleagues, I am not excited to work on a college campus while the pandemic is raging in my community. My campus has experienced massive Sr. leadership turnover in 12 months and has many new hires everywhere. Pre-pandemic nearly everyone had individual offices and now, due to organizational growth and changes we are often sharing offices or working in more public "hot spot" spaces. We have a vaccine requirement to return to campus that has no teeth and a mask indoors requirement that Sr. leadership have already expressed won't remain throughout the fall. I have an unvaccinated child at home and will be welcoming international students without access to vaccines before arriving to the U.S. I am comfortable wearing my mask everywhere, requesting social distancing, or similar needs with individuals I know. I have less comfort doing this with new colleagues for fear of coming across in a negative way. I am a ball of anxiety about how I'm going to make it through another roller coaster semester and don't want my anxiousness to impact building relationships with my new colleagues. What suggestions do you have about approaching new colleagues and the situation overall?
Masked Up and Not Ready to Go
Dear Masked Up and Not Ready to Go,
Going back to any kind of social environment where it is unclear who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t, or how people feel about wearing masks vs not, is something that is causing many people to be apprehensive and even fearful, myself included. This is very much uncharted territory for all of us, but keeping in mind that your safety and that of your family and those around you should be the number one priority, here are a few suggestions:
As I’m sure you know, one of the big pieces of connecting with new colleagues and building rapport is genuineness. What do you do when you normally have new colleagues? One thing would be to ask them out for one-on-one coffee, lunch, a drink, etc. (perhaps in an outdoor venue for safety reasons!) and spend some time getting to know them a bit. This will hopefully make it easier for you to bring up your concerns around safety and get a sense of where they stand on the issue and share your concerns in a way that is more natural and honest. Even if they don’t agree with you on your stance, perhaps they will be sympathetic to the fact that you have kids and be supportive in following the safety protocols.
If meeting like this doesn’t make sense because of safety concerns, then what? Well, then I would express those same concerns one-on-one but in a way that is, again, genuine, and that will maintain your professional boundaries but still get your point across. Point out that this is an awkward thing to ask or to say, if that’s how you feel, and then say it. In a work environment, hopefully, professionalism will allow people to respect their colleagues' wishes, even if they don’t agree, without causing any negative feelings. If they do react negatively, and you did everything in your ability to be calm, non-judgemental, and professional, then I would have some serious concerns about your coworkers which may go beyond their ability to respect your safety concerns.
Beyond talking to your coworkers, I would also speak to your supervisor about your concerns and see what they are willing to do to address them. If the current office climate is putting you, your children, and your fellow colleagues at risk, then this is a serious issue, especially with the now rampant Delta Variant. I’m betting you aren’t the only one feeling anxious. Maybe a survey needs to be done to do a pulse check on how people are feeling about being back in the office. Multiple voices expressing the same concerns will hopefully prompt management to do something.
Finally, if all else fails, do what you need to protect yourself. This could be anything from asking for an exemption to work from home, purchasing better masks for yourself, finding the farthest desk from people, bringing your own air purifier if one isn’t being provided, etc. Do whatever you need to be safe even if that means pissing a few people off. Your health is more important than a few bruised egos.
P.S. Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I’m curious what the amazing community of educators reading this post has to say. Chime in, folks! What thoughts do you have for Masked Up and Not Ready to Go? Share your thoughts on the Global Leadership League’s LinkedIn page. Have a question for Sophia yourself, ask here!
Please note: This response is provided for informational purposes only. The information contained herein is not legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice or legal opinions of a licensed professional. Contact a personal attorney or licensed professional to obtain appropriate legal advice or professional counseling with respect to any particular issue or problem.