As Offices Reopen Amid Coronavirus, Workers Clash Over Masks, Cubicle Barriers and Lysol
By Sarah E. Needleman
When Matt Wells returned to the office in mid-April, he was surprised to see a note pinned to a colleague’s cubicle urging people to keep their distance.
“I thought it was an overreaction” to the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
Now he has a note just like it on his cubicle. He also has strung a chain of paper clips across the opening to discourage visitors from stepping inside.
Mr. Wells, a 33-year-old civil servant in Phoenix, took the measures after another coworker barged in and leaned over his shoulder to peer at his computer screen. At the time, face masks weren’t required in their office and neither had one on. “She was so close I could smell her gum,” he said.
As lockdowns lift, employees returning to the workplace—as well as those who never left—are clashing over different views of the pandemic. Some say their colleagues aren’t taking it seriously; others say their co-workers are going too far to stay safe. The disconnect, often freighted with election-year politics, is creating tension as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases continues to climb.
“Just as we might have friends or family with views that are the polar opposite of our own, the same can be expected of the workplace,” said Katie Brennan, an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, an advocacy group. Be prepared for potential conflict, she said, because feeling safe or comfortable at work “isn’t something that most people are willing to compromise.”
Lori Webb, 61, has butted heads over coronavirus with a colleague at the Salt Lake City manufacturing plant where they work. This person told her that he doesn’t think it’s a big deal, Ms. Webb said, and she disagrees. She worries that her colleague’s stance means he doesn’t practice social distancing while off the clock and is jeopardizing her health and that of her 86-year-old mother, with whom she lives. “I don’t want to bring anything home,” Ms. Webb said.
For the most part, employees have no legal recourse against colleagues who they feel aren’t doing enough—or the opposite, going overboard—to prevent the spread of the pathogen, said Stanford Law School professor Alison Morantz. But that could change, given that the pandemic is an unprecedented modern-day event. “Maybe new state laws or creative legal theories will emerge,” she said. “This is uncharted territory.”
For now, some workers are taking matters into their own hands. Ushyra Raymond, a University of Oklahoma student, recently found herself sharing an office at the school with another student who was spraying Lysol and disinfecting surfaces every five to 10 minutes. Even with a mask on, “I was breathing in the Lysol,” said Ms. Raymond, who is 20 years old.
The same colleague displayed on her computer screen a website with the latest tallies of coronavirus infections and deaths, Ms. Raymond recalled. The grim drumbeat of the pandemic’s toll, combined with the frequent cleaning, “made me very aggravated,” she said.
Eventually Ms. Raymond asked the colleague to cut back on the disinfecting, explaining that she suffers from asthma, and the colleague agreed. She chose not to mention the website, though, to minimize friction. “If I didn’t have to see her constantly, the tone I took might have been different,” Ms. Raymond said. “I want to keep things cordial.”
Some workers don’t hesitate to confront colleagues whose approach to the pandemic they deem unacceptable. “If someone’s not wearing their mask, I’m the person who says: ‘Put your mask back on, please!’ ” said Yaniz Seeley, a 27-year-old nurse practitioner in Chattanooga, Tenn. Most colleagues comply but a receptionist at a clinic where Ms. Seeley sometimes works refused, saying “If it’s my time to die, it’s my time to die,” she recalled.
Ms. Seeley said she reported the receptionist to her supervisor. “For me, it’s say something or go crazy,” she said.
Not everyone is comfortable speaking up. Steven Hunnell, a grocery clerk in Indianapolis, doesn’t like that some coworkers remove their masks when customers aren’t around, but he doesn’t intervene. “People would look at me like I’m some kind of stool pigeon,” he said. “There would be recrimination.”
Mr. Hunnell, 51, instead focuses on staying safe—and hopes others will follow his lead. “Everybody should be looking out for each other,” he said.
Some workers say the best solution is steering clear of colleagues with whom they disagree. Warehouse worker Tom Whaley of Northfield, N.J., tries to stay at least 6 feet away from his colleagues at all times. “If they walk too close, you take a couple steps back and talk louder,” he said. “I try to do it subtly because people get weirdly offended.”
The 28-year-old said he took up the strategy because even though he wears a face mask while at work as required, many of his coworkers keep theirs below the chin. Asking them to wear their masks properly or complaining to a supervisor wouldn’t be worthwhile, he said, since many supervisors don’t comply either. “People have their minds made up,” Mr. Whaley said. “You kind of just have to pick your battles.”
How to Handle Office Clashes Over Coronavirus
Dealing with a colleague whose response to the pandemic clashes with yours is challenging because the relationship is continuous, said Kirk Snyder, a communications professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “We’re talking about the workplace and not the supermarket,” he said. “It’s a thorny situation.”
Mr. Snyder recommends first trying to understand your colleague’s perspective rather than demand a change in behavior. Some people might be taking a lax approach because they don’t know anyone who has been infected by the coronavirus, while others may be extremely cautious because they have a health condition that makes them more vulnerable to it than others. “Raising your voice, or having a dismissive or condescending tone, is going to be counterproductive,” he said. “You want to let the tool of listening be your guiding principle.”
Ground yourself in facts to avoid falling prey to hyperbole and emotion, and consider talking to your manager or a human-resources leader if having a rational discussion with the co-worker just isn’t possible, added Mr. Snyder. Failing that, consider looking for a new job where you feel valued and in the meantime try to bond with like-minded colleagues. “Having emotional support at work is critical, especially in these times,” he said.
SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL