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Is It Safe to Return to the Office?

For better or worse, workplaces are reopening. Let's assess the risk.

fatherly logo The Decider

In the best of times, decision-making is tough for parents. Raising a well-adjusted, healthy human is complicated as hell. Toss in the COVID-19 pandemiceconomic depression, and social injustice and your most basic choices become stress-inducing nightmares. There are rarely risk-free decisions or one-size-fits-all answers, but there are ways to assess and respond to risk.

Many parents have been working from home for well over a year now. But with more people getting their COVID vaccine, workplaces are starting to reopen. Soon, your employer may open up the option of returning to the office, or they may require you to. There are plenty of benefits to office life and reasons that your boss wants you in. Collaboration works best in real life. Employees who see each other boost each other and raise morale. Zoom meetings suck.

Of course, working in an office in the midst of a pandemic changes things. Spontaneous interactions aren’t going to happen as easily. Your health and the health of your family could be put at real risk. And that’s stressful as hell.

Returning to an office job is at the lowest occupational level of risk for COVID-19, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It’s nothing compared to what doctors or even grocery store workers do every day. But a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from November found that of 314 workers tested for COVID-19 at an outpatient clinic, those who tested positive were nearly twice as likely to have regularly worked in a school or office in the two weeks before they were tested.

This makes the choice muddy, and there is still a roller coaster of decisions: If your kids aren’t in school in person and you don’t have childcare options, returning to the office sticks your spouse with full-time parenting alone. If that makes your partner stressed, it’s going to stress out you and your kids too. Of course, if your employer wants you to return to the office, staying home could have a negative effect on your career, including putting your job in jeopardy.

That’s a lot of risks to consider. Let’s map them out.

Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the Office Decision

Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the choices you’re assessing — in this case, working from home, working from the office, or a mix of the two. Then, identify the factors that go into making those choices. The factors we will consider are public health, family psychology, personal career, and family economics.

A risk matrix compares the severity of the potential consequences of a factor (from 0 to 5, or insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of a choice such as returning to the office.

For each choice, the four factors can fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can make the choice without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a factor falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different choices have different mixes of red, yellow, and green factors. No choice is perfect, but the “total score” for each choice can help you get a sense of the risk associated with it. That score is calculated by multiplying the severity of a factor’s consequences (0 to 5) by the likelihood of those consequences occurring, with Very Unlikely being 1 and Very Likely being 4. The higher the total score, the riskier the choice is.

The Four Factors

If you put the decision to go back to the office on a risk matrix, there are four primary factors to assess.

  • Public health: The risk going to the office has on public health.
    • For example, returning to the office means you could pick up the coronavirus at work and bring it home to your family and neighborhood.
  • Psychology: The risk going to the office has on your family’s psychology.
    • For example, trying to work from home while 24/7 parenting takes a mental toll on you and your kid.
  • Career: The risk going to the office has on your career.
    • For example, working from home could mean you miss out on opportunities at work to impress your boss.
  • Economics: The risk going to the office has on your family’s finances.
    • For example, you may not be able to work as many hours if you work from home while helping the kids with remote learning.

The Three Scenarios

Go to the Office

Total Score = 17

  • If you’re fully vaccinated, going into the office isn’t much of a risk to personal or public health.
  • If you’re unvaccinated and anyone in your household is at high risk for severe COVID-19, going to the office is more of a risk to personal and public health.
  • Only employees who trust their employer to follow and enforce public health guidelines should return to the workplace.
  • Think long and hard about if returning to the office will have any real benefit on your career or ability to get work done.

Hybrid Work Schedule

Total Score = 11

  • This option — spending half the workweek in the office and half at home — may be ideal for parents with kids on a hybrid school schedule.
  • There is still a COVID-19 risk, but it will be less if the days of the week employees work in the office are staggered.

Work From Home

Total Score = 16

  • Working from home means you are less likely to get infected by or transmit the coronavirus.
  • Avoiding the office when your boss wants you there could have a negative impact on your career, and some workers have even been fired for refusing to return.

If You’re At High Risk, Keep This in Mind…

If you belong to a group at high risk of severe COVID-19, you may be entitled to work from home by the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, not all at-risk people are covered. And keep in mind that some employees have been fired for refusing to return to the office, even if they did so because they were worried about their health.

The Bottom Line:

When we mapped these three scenarios, going to the office had the highest score at 17, closely followed by working from home at 16. The lowest score was the hybrid at 11 because it’s a compromise between risking your health and your career. However, every family is in a unique situation, so the total scores listed above won’t perfectly reflect the risk of a choice for you.

To get a risk matrix for your own family, think about a potential consequence, for example, being chronically stressed out for the “psychology” factor. If you work from home, this consequence is probably “Likely” and may have the severity of “3” or so. Repeat for each factor.

Making the Decision

Now that you have a better sense of the risks, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether you, in particular, should return to the office. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. Let’s map it out.

Ready to Return to the Office?

If you do decide to return to the office, advocate for these measures in your workplace:

  • The company should have a clear return policy in place based on vaccination status.
  • Everyone must wear a mask.
  • The company should remind employees to wash their hands frequently.
  • Employees should screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms every day.
  • Employees must stay home if they’re sick, and the company can’t punish them for that.
  • Stagger the start of the day, breaks, and end of the day.
  • Rearrange the workspace so that desks are at least six feet apart.
  • Block off common spaces, such as work kitchens.
  • Increase ventilation in the office.
  • Install an air purification system.
  • Continue to hold meetings through video conferencing.