Change is in the air, with employers wanting staff back in the office. How can employees who are working from home negotiate this new environment? Louise Rodgers makes some helpful suggestions. 

Louise Rodgers crop 2

Is it just me or does this September have a particularly strong ‘back to school’ vibe?

 As a consultant and now a coach, I am used to people getting back to their desks in September full of good intentions and picking up projects that ran out of steam as the days got warmer and were finally shelved in late July. The result is a flurry of emails, and you just know that people are crossing off their to-do lists by adding to yours.

 But this September feels a bit different. There is definitely a sense that some leaders are taking another big step in putting the pandemic firmly behind them by being more prescriptive about where, and when, people work. It’s almost as if the scales, which have been firmly tipped in favour of the employee for a long time now, are tipping back in favour of the employer.

One of the emails that arrived in my inbox this week was from someone who responded to Building Design’s invitation to send their questions direct to me and, if some of the coaching conversations I have had in recent days are anything to go by, it seems a not uncommon dilemma.

We are still living in a very uncertain world

 “I moved out of London during the Pandemic”, it read. “And I changed my life, and got a dog, and a daily commute is no longer an option for me. It’s expensive and the journey is too long and, anyway, I think I work just as effectively at home.

“But my boss is now asking everyone to come into the office for a minimum of three days a week. I have to talk to him about it this week and I don’t know how to approach the conversation. Should I just look for another job?”

Regular readers of this column will know that I have previously suggested that changing jobs should be the last, and not the first, resort, and is only something to be considered when all other possibilities have been exhausted. We are still living in a very uncertain world and this advice would seem to be more relevant than ever.

So, assuming that is not a sensible option, what should this person do?

Be prepared to compromise

My advice would be to approach it like you would a negotiation. Be prepared to compromise. Accept that you are unlikely to come out of the negotiation without making some concessions. Consider in advance what your “good, better, best” outcomes will be from the conversation, and prepare for it just as you would any other negotiation.

In my experience managers and leaders don’t respond well when they sense that they are being presented with a problem, rather than with a range of possible solutions. Simply winging it or sticking to a “I can only come into the office for two days a fortnight” position is unlikely to cut it.

Preparing for difficult conversations is something that my coaching partner Rachel Birchmore and I almost always cover during our Step Up programmes. We ask people to think about a conversation they need to have and then work through a series of questions as part of preparing for it. One of the most important of these is the one about outcomes. Another is to consider the benefits to the other person of having the conversation (the WIFM or ‘what’s in it for me’ factor).

Using a little empathy to see this dilemma from the point of view of the person who is paying for the office and concerned about maintaining office culture and keeping a business going through what could be a difficult time for the economy, is likely to go a long way.

Part of your negotiation may be to trial something for a period of time

In the case of the person who reached out to me, I would suggest that it is not enough to say that “I work better and more effectively at home” without providing evidence of this, or without specifying some tasks that can be accomplished in the home office environment without the need to mentor or collaborate with others.

You can even use the conversation as an opportunity to showcase just what you have achieved since relocating, and what contribution you have made to the business from your home office base.

I would also develop a plan that demonstrates that you have thought things through; for example, when you do come into the office, how you will use your time there in a more focused way, and what degree of flexibility you can offer.

We are all still experimenting with this new way of working and bearing this in mind, nothing needs to be set in stone. Part of your negotiation may be to trial something for a period of time and then set a date on which you will both review the arrangement to see how it is working, and whether it needs to be adjusted.

Of course, with rising energy costs and a cost-of-living crisis, returning to the office may be a more attractive proposition for many over the winter months. At least you won’t have to worry as much about heating your home or boiling the kettle.