Return to on-site work

Talking about work-life concerns during the transition to onsite work

The return to onsite work is a hopeful sign of progress in the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also be another major shift during a year marked by uncertainty and disruption. Everyone experiences change differently, and the reopening of schools and workplaces will present different opportunities and challenges for each of us. Employees and managers may have strong feelings about returning to the workplace, including enthusiasm about creating a “new normal,” anxiety about unknown and apathy about making another life-pivot.

This resource is specific to helping managers and staff navigate returning to onsite work in preparation for the 2021 autumn quarter. It recognizes that units have different operational needs and that employees in different types of positions (professional staff, contract-covered, overtime eligible, overtime exempt, etc.) have different rules that impact work schedules. UWHR encourages managers to be flexible and agreeable to pilot workplace flexibility that meet employee and unit operational needs and align with the rules of the employee’s employment program.

Onsite work planning may involve conversations about personal goals and concerns, in addition to professional ones. Remote work during COVID-19 blurred the boundaries between work and life. It also demonstrated that technology and collaboration can enhance workplace flexibility in ways we had not previously considered. For many employees, returning to onsite work will raise questions about how work and life can intersect and support one another post-pandemic.

Not everyone has experience responding to emotions that may show up in the workplace and talking about personal needs in a professional setting may not always feel comfortable. However, research shows that engaging employees as whole people supports organizational success and employee well-being. The good news is that anyone can develop their communication skills and there are several tips for talking about work-life concerns specifically. This webpage includes resources to help managers and employees plan together for a new normal that supports not only the University’s success, but the well-being of the employees who make its world-renowned reputation possible.

Work-life considerations for employees and managers

The University of Washington is a large employer with complex operational needs and diverse position types. Organizational leaders have the authority to approve flexible work arrangements because they are responsible for managing resources, including employees , to ensure their unit’s success. In many organizations, the authority to approve such arrangements has been delegated down to the manager level.

Flexible work arrangements are strategies that can support operational success and advance strategic goals for employee recruitment, retention and engagement and can include hybrid telework arrangements and/or flexible scheduling. When planning for return to work, employees and managers should keep the following work-life considerations in mind and remain open to flexible workplace solutions.

Supporting employees as whole people benefits both individuals and the University. There has never been a solid boundary between work and life: what is happening in employees’ personal lives can affect their work performance, and that what is happening on the job can affect their overall health and well-being. Work-life solutions such as telework and flexible work schedules can minimize conflicts between personal and professional commitments so employees can bring their best to their jobs, and to their family and community roles too. Connecting employees with University resources that support their physical, mental and emotional well-being such as UW CareLink, Professional and Organizational Development (POD) and The Whole U can also support their performance at work.

Changes to work schedules and location do not change job expectations. Telework and flexible work schedules do not change job standards or outcomes; they should be designed so employees maintain, or possibly enhance, their work performance. Employees requesting workplace flexibility should address how they’ll fulfill their job responsibilities and avoid potential negative consequences their proposed arrangement may cause for their manager, teammates, clients or the services their position supports. Managers should support employees by being upfront and clear about non-negotiables and performance expectations and by providing regular coaching to help employees succeed.

Work-life solutions are not one-size fits-all. Some employees seek balance between their work and life by maintaining clear boundaries between the hours devoted to work and home. Others may prefer to closely integrate their work and life, knowing that as long as they meet their performance goals and remain accessible during assigned work hours, they may occasionally address personal issues during typical work hours or wrap-up a project whenever they have distraction-free time – including on their day off. Workers in positions with regular schedules or onsite work requirements are better suited to a work-life balance strategy versus work-life integration. By talking openly about work-life issues, managers and employees can explore ways to minimize conflicts between personal and professional commitments while taking the employee’s employment program and job responsibilities into account.

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Talking about personal concerns in a professional setting

Life-long learning is part of being successful at work. Sometimes we might need to learn a new technology or work process and at other times we need to develop our interpersonal skills to work more effectively with colleagues, managers and clients. As workplaces change, and hybrid telework and flexible work arrangements become more common, continuing to develop our communication skills becomes increasingly important. Talking about personal needs at work may be a change for many employees and managers and individuals will have different levels of comfort with work-life discussions. The tips below can help you feel better prepared for return to onsite work conversations.

Keep the focus on work. The purpose of employee and manager conversations about work-life is to address barriers that may prevent employees from being successful in their jobs. Achieving this goal may require that an employee talks with their manager about a personal conflict or concern that may affect the employee’s work. When deciding what personal information to share with their manager, an employee should limit their disclosure to information that explains what work changes or resources can help minimize their work-life challenge. Managers should not offer advice about employees’ personal situations or ask for details unrelated to providing workplace supports.

Practice the ABCs of empathy. No one can fully understand what is weighing on another person in a specific moment. When planning to return to onsite work, managers may be feeling concerned about their own family’s transition, their employees’ well-being and their unit’s success, while employees will bring their own hopes and fears about the new normal to the conversation. UW Professional & Organizational Development (POD) suggests practicing the ABCs of empathy in workplace conversations where personal experiences or emotions may play a part. This approach is adapted from advice offered by Dr. Helen Reiss in her book, the “The Empathy Effect.”

A – Acknowledge that the conversation is difficult.
B – Breathe, to maintain your calm and focus.
C – Curiosity demonstrates caring and trust. Make an effort to learn more about the other person by making statements like “Help me to understand…” or “I’d like to understand your perspective better, can you share more about…”

Ask for help if needed. Neither managers nor employees have a playbook to follow when planning to return to onsite work. It does not mean anyone is wrong or ill-prepared if the conversation reaches a dead end or seems to be going in circles. More likely, it signals the need to bring in a new perspective or access additional information that can move your planning forward. Talking with your unit’s HR representative or an HR consultant can help.

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Preparing for return to onsite work conversations

Making time to prepare for your return to onsite work conversations can help you be clear about your needs, be thoughtful about what information to share and to propose workable solutions. Planning for your discussion can also help you identify emotions that may affect how you talk about work-life concerns so you can keep them from derailing your conversations.

UWHR has created conversation guides to help managers and employees prepare thoughtfully for return-to-work conversations:


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