Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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As many offices consider — and in some cases reconsider — their plans to return to the office, those on the job hunt may be feeling apprehensive about expectations for their environments and circumstances should they land that coveted new role. It’s natural to wonder how the employer will adjust to the next phase in the pandemic. Will you be expected to work at a physical office, or will work be conducted entirely remotely? Or, will there be a hybrid workplace?

Trickier still is figuring out how to ask this question gracefully in an interview. We checked in with hiring managers and HR professionals, who shared their thoughts on the topic.

“Turn the question into a positive,” Meghan Titzer says. “Something like ‘I'm really excited to meet people in person and get to know the team in my new role at this company. What are your plans for people returning to the office and facilitating teamwork after so long at home?’”

Titzer is the director of product development for an insurance company and has interviewed candidates for several remote roles recently. Every interviewee, she says, has tried to explore this question — some more gracefully than others, according to Titzer.

“This way, the interviewer can be comfortable saying ‘We're going to be 100% in the office after the pandemic,’ if that's the case, rather than trying to fudge and say ‘Well, we're not sure yet…' and will believe you're excited about that prospect. If you don’t want to join a company that’s 100% in the office (or whatever they say the going-forward plan is), then you can conduct the interview just like you would join the company and decline if you get an offer.”

“Keep in mind that really anyone who answers definitively is probably not "in the know" or fudging to say what they think you want to hear since we're all trying to muddle through this anyway!,” Titzer adds.

Ashley Cheretes, marketing director, Prudential Advisors and co-host of Power Girls Podcast, suggests keeping it general. 

“Ask a more general question about the overall transition with a sprinkle of empathy in there,” she says. “Something like, ‘Now that things are beginning to stabilize somewhat, how has the transition back into the office been for you and the team?’ You're hitting on two big things here: gauging the hiring manager's own perspective on the change and also getting a feel for the culture of the organization.”

Meanwhile, Kelli Muller, vice president, Permanent Placement Services, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, advises candidates to wait to ask this question, at least until the second interview or at the time of a job offer. 

“This has become the new ‘work/life balance’ question,” she explains. “Without context, asking the question can be negatively perceived.”

“When asking about their return-to-work policy, be matter-of-fact and unemotional,” Muller adds. “It’s more fact-finding. If you’d like to work a schedule outside of their policy, it’s best to go into specifics at the time of offer. By that point, you’ve developed a rapport and demonstrated you are the best fit for their organization.” 

But according to Jacquelyn Lloyd, an HR consultant, you should “just ask. This is a perfectly reasonable and timely question to ask a prospective employer about their plans. If I were job hunting, I would be asking about vaccination rates, social distancing — what’s the office setup — and general leadership ideology.  I would be impressed if a candidate dug into what the employer had done to pivot.”

“Candidates often forget that interviews are a two-way quest for fit,” Lloyd explains. “It’s completely appropriate to be concerned about and want to discuss changing expectations and workplace safety.”

About the Career Expert:

 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.

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