update: my company is requiring us to travel because “they miss us”

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose company was requiring them to travel because “they miss us”? Here’s the update.

My follow-up is that I did get to use your advice, though I was also blessed with some intervention by one of my coworkers.

A few days before my letter was published, we had an all-hands department meeting where our department head was gushing about the trip, and several coworkers (including my team members) were happily chatting about what they’d do when we got together. I honestly was getting worried that I was the only one who saw an issue, but, right in the middle of it, one of my older coworkers asked, “What Covid precautions will we be taking?” and that ground the meeting to a halt. He also asked things like “Will we be requiring proof of vaccinations?” and “Are we staying in the office the whole time or are we expected to go off-site as well?” and it became clear that the department head had either not considered those things or had hoped no one would bring them up.

The day after my letter was published, an HR note went out to the whole company saying that no one was required to travel if they did not feel comfortable doing so. My direct manager also followed up with each member of our team individually and told us we did not need to go if we felt uncomfortable. That was when I got to use some of the suggested advice, saying that I didn’t feel comfortable and had high-risk family members to look out for, and she took it well.

In the end, two members of my team and my direct boss went, and they wound up not going off-site (since Delta spiked even higher in the interim). It looked like they had a pleasant enough time, but I was more than happy to dial-in and not need to stress out about travelling during a dangerous time.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

    OP, your older co-worker is my new hero! And so are you for standing your ground and avoiding this idiocy.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed. Hoorays for the coworker who asked the bomb question about Covid Precautions. They definitely popped the balloon of overconfidence the man get who didn’t bother to think/plan about the downsides of traveling during a pandemic.

      1. Liz*

        Yes! the CW gets a gold star for that! Hahaha. Although I can see me doing that too; I’ve never been one to shy away from stirring the pot when needed (in a professional way of course)

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, me too. Thankfully my employer is following all the local health authority’s recommendations and mandates to the letter (and they’d better be, I’m working for the government), so I haven’t had to stir any pots on this.

      2. Momma Bear*

        Really glad someone spoke up and it gave OP the backup they needed to bow out.

        We had a work event recently and a lot of people were not keen on attending. An organizer asked why and people said, “COVID” and then there was no more discussion about people skipping the event. We’re just not there yet.

    2. Quinalla*

      So glad someone spoke up and it popped the bubble of ignoring the pandemic some folks at your company apparently had going on! My husband had to make a trip for work for similar reasons, but they did at least take COVID precautions. It was still ridiculous that it was required, though I’m sure if someone had raised enough fuss they would have made it not mandatory.

  2. Thursdaysgeek*

    I don’t know how large the team is, and how many people were originally expected to travel, but it sounds like the manager and those 2 enthusiastic co-workers were the ONLY ones who really wanted to go. Speaking up saved it for everyone else.

  3. Just J.*

    I missed the initial letter in August when it came through. I am writing today to say that the insistence on business travel by my boss “just because”, is part of the reason I joined the Great Resignation. My health takes precedence over your asinine belief that business should go on like it is / was in the Before Times…….Thank goodness your colleague stepped up and said something.

    1. The OTHER Other*

      I’m amazed so many people just don’t get this, at all. People are dying, and they are focusing on how they “miss” their employees? You know who you will REALLY miss? The person who dies or is irreparably harmed from a needless Covid infection!

      1. Candi*

        I really don’t understand it.

        Student loan interest was frozen because of covid, right? So I have like $58 dollars of interest last I checked cause of that.

        But thinking about it, I’d rather have all the interest and those people alive.

        I don’t understand this not only insular but willfully ignorant mindset.

    2. Ori*

      Yep. Mine had a ton of factors, including complete lack of precautions at work, expectations of travel and dangerous environs. Including an unvaccinated co-worker; who was related to management.

  4. jm*

    the management at my job also uses this kind of language to justify in person meetings, like it’s just nicer or friendlier or whatever. even though my team voted to alternate meeting over zoom with meeting in person, every week my supervisor either says we’re meeting in person or puts it to another vote. this week we’re meeting twice in person because she insisted the gift exchange can’t be done during the meeting. it’s making me really uncomfortable and i don’t know what to say at this point.

    1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      Yeah, I’m having this issue with my boss too, except she’s mandated to offer a remote option for meetings (union required that due to COVID). She keeps planning everything as in person, with food served so people are constantly unmasking, and a few of us keep trying to remote in to a meeting where she has not actually planned how remote attendance will work or how we will get collaborative discussions or decision-making to happen between the in-person or remote attendees. We aren’t getting anything done at these meetings other than basic announcements (that could have been an email) as a result and I am extremely fed up. I’m not interested in going to an unmasked in-person meeting, but I am interested in us solving our actual work problems that we need to meet about.

      1. jm*

        ugh. that sounds like a nightmare. i hope you find a solution soon. i joined our last meeting by zoom thanks to a couple of time-limited excuses but the supervisor patched me in on their phone instead of the main system, so i couldn’t see anything & could barely hear half the team.

    2. mlem*

      “I would prefer not to.”

      … which is flip of me. I hope you find a way to push back or hold out or get out.

  5. Plebeian Aristocracy*

    I’m glad they weren’t named worst boss of the year. Not because the company and its execs are good bosses, but because they backed down.

    1. Observer*

      Yes, backing down when you get called on something is a REALLY good thing.

      Sometimes handling the error well is more important than not making the error. So, I think that this is a very good outcome.

  6. Emma the Strange*

    Am I alone in thinking that this was an obnoxious request even without the pandemic? Travel was enough of a pain in the ass even before COVID made it potentially lethal; if you’re going to mandate it for your employees you need a better reason than “we miss you.”

    1. Eden*

      Getting remote/distributed workers together once a year was extremely normal in pre-pandemic times everywhere I’ve worked. To me “we miss you” just sounds like an extension of that. Of course the pandemic changes all this but I do think it would all be very reasonable if there wasn’t a pandemic.

      1. Pikachu*

        Me too. Feelings were never the business case, but I really enjoyed getting to see coworkers in person. 3-4 days a year if your employer is paying all expenses doesn’t seem too far out of line.

      2. NeutralJanet*

        I agree that wanting remote employees to gather at HQ is a reasonable thing, partly because it is nice to occasionally see everybody in person, but something about the phrasing, “we miss you!” annoys me—it makes it feel like wanting to get together is a totally emotional and social need, which is irritating.

        1. Thursdaysgeek*

          Yes, the “we miss you” is the wrong wording, but getting together in person does have advantages. I’ve been remote from my team for the entire time for my current job, and I’ve found the times I travelled and met my co-workers in person were valuable, both at the time and later.

          There is a level of collaboration that is hard to replicate in Teams or Zoom. For instance, when I am working in person, I will see them do something on their computer, and “wait – what did you just do? You can DO that? That is so helpful to know!” — that happens in person, but I don’t see it when we are remote.

          1. Insert Clever Name Here*

            Agreed. We are back in the office (distanced and masked), and I overheard a coworker on another team talking about a problem on a call last week. It was obvious from her side of the conversation that no one on her team knew the solution…but I’d just dealt with that problem. I was able to IM her the solution (that it took me 3 weeks to figure out), boom, she’s able to resolve her problem without wasting 3 weeks. I would never have known she had a problem if we were still remote.

            I do still very much enjoy the days I WFH though :)

            1. Candi*

              Eh, that’s why you need an in-house message service/board/forum. One of my college teachers this quarter used Discord for All The Things that didn’t have to be private.

              It was a lot easier to go to ask a question, see someone had already posted that issue, and to read the answer (often posted by a TA) and fix the issue right then. than message the teacher and have to wait for a reply.

              Or, someone said they had trouble with X, and here’s what they did to fix it if anyone else had trouble. And the TAs would say Y was a common issue, here’s a useful fix. Stuff like that.

          2. tangerineRose*

            It depends. I remember being at work in person meant that I got to know a very irritating co-worker a bit better (we were on the same team and temporarily worked near each other), and found him even more irritating in person.

        2. allathian*

          Yeah, this. I’ve avoided going to the office even when it’s been permitted, but we had a two-day planning and development seminar about a month ago, before omicron hit. I found it both useful and valuable, because I got the chance to meet my manager, who works in a regional office and who was hired during the pandemic, for the first time, as well as a handful of new hires in our team.

          It was partly a social “getting to know you (again)” event, but we did get the chance to start planning for next year as well, which was a lot easier to do in person than over Teams.

          That said, with Covid numbers spiking again, I wouldn’t be happy to do it now, and I have zero interest in going to the office if we have to be both masked and distanced to stay safe. My biggest gripe with a mask is that I can’t wear one without my glasses fogging up, and I can’t see my computer screen without glasses. Thankfully my employer isn’t currently requiring employees to work at the office while the stricter mask mandates are in place. Before omicron, masks were required while walking around the office, but not while seated at your desk. Even so, I avoided going to the office on the days my office-mate was going in, even if it meant not seeing my closest coworker for months when it would have been allowed by our Covid precautions.

          1. Engineer*

            My partner is a glasses wearer who works in a Biosafety level 3 facility and has thus been wearing a mask even before the pandemic. If your glasses are fogging up, you are not wearing the mask correctly. After all, air is leaking from the top of your mask instead of going through the mask. You want a mask where the nose-wire is starts out flat. When fitting the nose wire over your nose, start at the middle and gently press the nose wire onto your nose, moving the finger outwards. (Bending the nose wire too sharply may result in a hole where air can leak.) We always wear ear savers so that the mask is tighter around the face.

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        I agree, without the safety concerns wanting to see your remote employees once in a while is 100% normal and reasonable.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      I think the “we miss you” excuse would never be used outside of a COVID-like situation

    3. anonymous73*

      It’s not an obnoxious request, but the “we miss you” is an odd reason. If a company’s employees are spread throughout the country, it’s not unreasonable to have them travel to a main location once in a while.

  7. Mannheim Steamroller*

    As I said the first time around, “We miss you” is probably code for “We can’t micromanage you remotely.”

    1. Hills to Die On*

      They’d miss their staff a lot more if they were in the hospital or worse, but by all means, don’t let that stop you from being able to confirm that everyone has their butt in a chair on site because you can’t hold people accountable. Grrr.

    2. Colette*

      That’s really unlikely. Someone who wants to micromanage won’t be happy with a few days together.

      1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

        Also, if they can’t micromanage remotely, it just means they aren’t trying hard enough – haven’t they heard about all the new amazing productivity tracking spyware you can install on your employee’s computers, as part of them working remotely?

        1. CatDancing*

          I bet the amazing productivity tracking spyware don’t work real well once it’s been hammered flat . . .

          Gahhhh. I have to say that although I was no naive youngster when I joined my current employer 21 years ago, I’ve gotten a who-o-o-o-ole new perspective on the absolute craziness of some offices by reading AAM. I’m not saying that everything is roses and butterflies where I am, but there’s a whole lot of lunacy I’ve been fortunate enough to miss.

  8. Pomegranate*

    I like the co-worker’s approach. Instead of saying that he doesn’t want to travel or has concerns, he just asked questions. Basically, employing Allison’s approach to assume that, of course, the management have COVID precautions in place and they just haven’t communicated them yet, so the rational thing is to ask. Brilliant.

  9. metronomic*

    Glad that worked out!

    One item in my department’s manager meeting later today is “retreat planning and in-person staff gathering”, with the question posed in the agenda “When should we aim to have our first in-person all-staff gathering?” and I’m like, how about 2023?

    My org and department are generally very sensitive and careful about Covid precautions, but with skyrocketing cases in the northeast the past couple of weeks I find it strange that this is on the agenda right now. We even received official word last week that we’ll remain working from home for now, one reason being the spike in infections.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I really was hoping we would be able to do some in- person stuff by now. But I don’t plan on making any firm plans until the infection rates go way down.

  10. Becky*

    My (all-remote, even before the pandemic) employer just announced they wanted to have an in person team bonding event that everyone would fly into shortly after the holidays. Glad this update got posted today so I could go back and read the original advice!

  11. Critical Roll*

    My “the pandemic isn’t going away just because you’re tired of dealing with it” broken record is starting to wear out. Glad this had a good outcome.

    1. Zombeyonce*

      It frustrates me to no end that pandemic continues because people “tired of dealing with it” keep acting like it’s over, not realizing we’re ALL tired of dealing with it, which is exactly why the rest of us continue to be so careful. They’re why it just keeps getting dragged out.

        1. J.B.*

          I will offer a counter point in that my family had a drastically reduced number of colds last winter and this winter, which is a huge boon to my quality of life. I hope that masks in winter remain. I am glad that I can have less distancing with the people who are close to me and that I know are vaccinated, but distancing in public is much more comfortable.

          1. Candi*

            Last time I picked up my forever-meds refills, the pharmacy tech said they’ve seen WAY less colds in general.

            I know when my dad (masks only when he legally has to) gave me something when he was over visiting, I attended my one day of classes that week before knowing I was infected or that he was sick.

            Of my classes, a grand total of SIX reported in sick, on Discord or elsewhere. One of the ones was the teacher in the hardware lab, and another was the TA, who both unmask during class so they can be heard better when teaching.

            (The bug put dad down for about two weeks since he never slows down until he has too. I stayed home once symptoms hit, kept warm, drank lots of Earl Grey and jasmine tea, and was fine within five days. Teacher was sick for about ten days, TA and classmates hit about 4-6.)

        2. Zombeyonce*

          While I agree that COVID isn’t going away, until everyone can be vaccinated and regularly is vaccinated (there’s still a huge population of children that aren’t able to be yet and plenty of adults that refuse to be), we can’t begin to move toward a return to a life of no masks and no distancing. There are still far too many people at risk of serious illness for us to treat this like the flu.

          I’d love to not spend a second Christmas away from my family, but my toddler can’t be vaccinated yet so I can let him near his uncle that refuses to be vaccinated. Yes, it’s really tough on my mental health and my extended families’ that this is the case (and that I’ve only gotten to see them a couple of times, distanced and masked, over the past 2.5 years), but this isn’t the flu yet, and while psychological harm is horrible, it’s not as bad as death. We’ll be there eventually if people get vaccinated, but we’re not there yet. We’re still experiencing over 1,000 deaths a day in the US. This is not the flu and treating it like it is does exactly what I said, drag out how long we have to wear masks and distance and avoid our families and travel.

          1. Critical Roll*

            Finally, “won’t someone think of the children” applies, and it turns out a lot of people won’t.

        3. Your local password resetter*

          Actually people who are vaccinated can still get killed and maimed, especially if the virus mutates.
          And the sheer infection rate and death toll means we’re not acting as if this is normal until it’s actually safe to do so. Once the virus is actually controlled and stops killing tons of people, we can scale things back.

        4. Imaginary Friend*

          I’m totally on board with “endemic like the flu and something we live with” but 2 things: (1) a lot of people haven’t actually had the flu, even if they think they have; (2) I think that covid is still pretty dangerous.

          And I think a lot of people have missed this memo: “mild” is one of those words that is very different in medical use and general use. Medically, a “mild” case just means you didn’t have to go to the hospital. And people can be REALLY sick and not need to be in the hospital. I remember having strep throat with a fever so high that I slept for 18 hours and then dragged myself into Urgent Care (exposing everyone there). I was nowhere near needing the hospital and I was so, so sick.

          1. Ori*

            The last time I had the flu, unvaccinated, I was delirious for days. I was dangerously ill. It shocked me into getting the vaccine every year since. I don’t know if I should have been in hospital, but I was not lucid, and that’s an extremely frightening place to be.

            1. allathian*

              Yup, I had the same experience. Fever-induced delirium is no joke.

              Thankfully my employer provides free annual flu vaccines, and it shocked me into getting mine every year since (except last year, when they ran out of vaccines, and I was mostly at home anyway, and masked up if I went to any indoor public spaces).

            2. quill*

              Yeah, the last time anyone in the family had the actual influenza my brother had bronchitis for a month. (We weren’t eligible for free flu shots anymore despite my mom being a teacher and required to have them…)

              IIRC he was out of school for two weeks. The flu is no joke, actually, though some years/strains are worse than others.

          2. Never Boring*

            And you can have a “mild” case with extremely severe aftereffects. Someone I know died this weekend of liver failure that she didn’t have until she got a “mild” case of COVID. She was never hospitalized for the COVID itself, but was in and out of the hospital constantly afterward when she never had been before.

            1. Nikki*

              This. My physical therapist said they’re seeing tons of patients with Long COVID which has, among other things, permanently damaged their autonomic nervous system.

          3. HigherEdAdminista*

            Not to mention, people misunderstand what endemic disease means and use their misunderstanding (willful or not) to advocate for removing all precautions.

            Endemic diseases are not rampaging out of control amongst the populace, ignored by health professionals and having little impact. Endemic diseases are diseases that can crop up at any time because they circulate, but where outbreaks are not widespread.

            The flu is endemic, and yet several years ago we had a severe outbreak that killed a lot of people and required increased precautions. If you don’t work in public health or medicine, you might not have noticed these, but they were there. If you went to the doctor that year, you were screened for flu symptoms before arriving and given a mask upon arrival. These were the reasonable precautions to take at the time to keep people safe. There was also a huge campaign to get people to get their flu shot.

            For COVID to become endemic in the way of the cold or flu means that a) mutations need to reduce disease severity and b) there needs to be extremely low transmission via vaccines and other precautions that remain in place for a short while after transmission has dropped low. There also need to be plans in place to catch infections early and support for people needing to quarantine in the future. That is how we can live with endemic COVID. Right now, we are not at all close to that. Hospital systems are overwhelmed or getting there. Many places are unwilling to enact mask mandates. There has been no governmental level push for improved ventilation indoors. Mandatory paid sick leave is not guaranteed. Tests are not free and abundant. High quality masks are not free and abundant (in terms of not being able to walk into any place and be handed an N95). Anything less than this, means that what we have is a widespread, out of control pandemic, not an endemic disease.

        5. Teagan*

          Yes, COVID is not going away ever. But it is not endemic yet and it’s not okay to pretend like it is. We are still in an active pandemic which means precautions like mask wearing and some amount of distancing are going to be necessary based on changing conditions at certain times and in certain locations to protect others. It’s not just people who have chosen to be unvaccinated who are at risk – it’s young children who can’t yet be vaccinated and immunocompromised people who can’t get vaccinated or aren’t well protected by them compared to others.

          1. allathian*

            Yeah, this. I admit that I’ve run out of spoons to give for people who get sick when they’ve refused to get the vaccine. I worry about ICU capacity, the workload of health care employees, and kids who are too young to be vaccinated, or who have the misfortune to be born to anti-vaxx parents, and immunocompromised people who can’t get vaccinated or aren’t as well protected by the vaccines they do get as others. But I couldn’t care less if every vocal anti-vaxxer got sick and died.

          2. Nikki*

            I look young and healthy, but I’m actually high risk. It’s really awkward when people pitch TO MY FACE that we should just let all the high risk people die so “we” can go back to normal.

  12. Ori*

    The thing that drives me crazy about the arbitrary and dangerous ‘back to work’ mandate? I am high risk; I was keen on WFH due to lack precautions at work and a risky commute. During (legally mandated) WFH, I successfully pitched and gained new clients. I increased spend. I mentored colleagues. I provided training. I was objectively successful at it.

    And when I resigned, during the GR, (for multiple reasons), they repeatedly asked me what it would take to get me to stay, but refused to consider WFH. I don’t get it.

    1. allathian*

      I don’t get it either. I wonder what sort of magical thinking they were engaging in, when they were refusing to hear you on the WFH. Oh well, I hope you’re in a better place now.

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