How to approach management about long-term remote work?
May 12, 2020 12:55 PM   Subscribe

One or both of my partner and I would like to approach our respective management about continuing to work from home, remotely, in perpetuity. Any advice on how to approach management for the best likelihood of success?

I am a software developer at a hardware startup, but the software I write is not tightly coupled to hardware, so I don't need physical access. My partner is in procurement at a medical company. Both of us have been very successfully working from home while sheltering in place together since early March.

My partner's office is starting to make noises about bringing people back into the office next month.

The complication is that her physical workplace is located in southern California. She drove up here to work from home with me the weekend before the bay area SIP was announced, as both our companies had already gone WFH, and we just decided to stick with it when the SIP went into place, first for my county and then for the state. Her management doesn't know where she physically is -- it hasn't mattered! Given the current situation, neither of us is excited about her going back to her rented room in SoCal, where she shares common areas with several people, including one who is an essential worker and has continued to work in a place with a very high risk of exposure.

So: She approaches her management about WFH/remote indefinitely, and/or I approach my management about WFH/remote indefinitely, and we either stay here or move to SoCal depending on the answers we get. She's been looking for jobs here but the economic downturn is making getting offers challenging. I'm open to looking for jobs in SoCal, but the logistics of me getting a job there is challenging. We both like our jobs but want to be together for whatever happens in the future, so ideally one or both of us would negotiate some extended remote/WFH situation. The safest thing from a public health standpoint is for both of us to stay where we are and not move, but that may not be possible from a "keeping jobs and health insurance" perspective, which is scary, but these are scary times.

I've never had this kind of negotiation before. Both of us are in a strong position because we've been performing well while WFH, but in both cases it would be an unusual arrangement for our respective companies, compared to the before times. Then again, everyone's WFH now and it's worth a shot before one of us quits/gets laid off in this rough climate. Ideally I'd like to minimize the potential downside risk (i.e.: our management deciding we're unreliable and laying us off anyhow). Any ideas how to do this and win?
posted by Alterscape to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure loads of people will have great ideas but one point worth adding is that your girlfriend should tell her employer she is unable to return home -- because she is -- and ask for permission to continue to work from home.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:10 PM on May 12 [11 favorites]

I would do my best to document extremely clearly all the things she's been able to accomplish while WFH. "We got the X project out ahead of schedule, call times are down 10% YOY," whatever objective metrics you can point to to show that she is not merely keeping up, but actually thriving, in a WFH environment. If those don't exist, get to work on manufacturing them--getting expectations articulated, making sure to meet them. Some companies just aren't interested and won't budge, and this approach won't help with them, but for a number the issue is more of inertia and perceived lack of feasibility, and the more you can show you've been functioning well under very stressful circumstances while WFH, the more persuasive you'll be.
posted by praemunire at 1:23 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Seconding DarlingBri. My husband has been WFH for 13 years now. It started because I had to have surgery and we had small kids and his job was in another state, a two-hour drive away. He had been four days on, three days off but with the surgery, we needed someone to be home who could take care of the kids. He asked for permission, performed well, asked for permission to extend, kept performing well, and then asked for it to be permanent. Since your partner is already performing well, she should document the metrics, explain the situation (she relocated when the pandemic hit and she's not able to safely go back), and ask for permission.
posted by cooker girl at 1:26 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

I did this 13 years ago. I work at a software company, so probably not that dissimilar to you. I just went to my manager and said "Hey, I'm getting married and moving to where my new partner is. I love my job and will gladly continue to work remotely, or I can give notice and find a new job. Just let me know which I need to do." I'm still at this company and have worked from home for 13 years now.

But I had a lot of history with that manager and with various higher ups at that company at the time, having helped them through a startup at an earlier point in our careers. You emailing an ultimatum to your manager may not go as well. Also, do not do this unless you're willing to quit if the answer is not what you want, obviously.
posted by cmm at 1:33 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Well, first of all, I know this is stressful and anxiety-producing not to know, but I think it makes sense to wait a bit, even a week or two, before making any requests. You're saying that your partner's employers are talking about bringing folks back in June? A lot could happen between now and then. For example, we're starting to see headlines like "New clusters emerge in countries praised for successful coronavirus fights," which I think will, over the next few weeks, mean that employers might not really end up wanting to bring folks back so quickly after all. And we're seeing tech companies extend WFH through the end of this calendar year and longer.

I think all the re-opening has companies feeling some pressure. But the reality of bringing people back when they might have to majorly shift office work space and figure out how to ask parents to return to work even if day cares are still closed and how to let folks with certain medical conditions continue to work from home while asking others to work ... I think going back is going to take longer for companies where most folks are working from home. The reality hasn't quite set in yet, though, for employers.

It's also good that you're in California, which has been proactive and on top of this.

So if you can at all sit on this for a week or two, I think this problem might get kicked down the road a bit by the current situation and trends in business overall (I think other companies will follow tech). That doesn't mean you all will be able to work from home indefinitely, but I think there's a good chance that even if you didn't approach your company about this right now, one or both of you might end up working from home for several more months.

It's really hard to sit tight in situations like this. But can you hold off on asking? I think this is going to become an easier ask with time (and, for what it's worth, I thought some folks at my organization were making noise about folks returning to work, and I totally read that wrong).
posted by bluedaisy at 1:42 PM on May 12 [7 favorites]

In addition to all the suggestions I would have your partner ask for details about what steps your employer is taking to ensure worker safety. My workplace is starting to talk about a return to the office, but they are detailing how many people can be there at any one time, plastic guards to further protect people in cubicles, one-way halls, adjusting the ventilation, rules for kitchen use, etc.

Asking for clarification might help your partner's employer see that they have more work to do before people can safely return to an office space.
posted by brookeb at 2:25 PM on May 12

In your partner's shoes, I'd wait until she is actually recalled to work and given a date to come back. At that point, she'd reach out to her manager via phone to say "Due to circumstances beyond my control during the pandemic, I had to leave my home and I am unable to go back. It didn't impact my work in any way and I have still produced X, Y, and Z for you. I'd like to continue my high level of productivity working for you, but at this time I need to remain remote because I am currently decamped six hours away in a safe location and don't have any place to live near the office anymore." Don't even phrase it as a question, just as a statement, and wait for a response. Let there be some silence after the statement. Let her boss respond by saying something like, "I'm sorry that happened to you, let me look into it" or "That won't be possible, so you'll need to take leave until you can come into the office again" or something else. This is your girlfriend's boss' problem to solve.
posted by juniperesque at 2:35 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]

I agree that you should wait until someone actually asks in any kind of serious way.

First off, Los Angeles just extended Stay At Home through July at the least, and there's no way that'll actually be the end of it. We're nowhere near ready. Southern California in general is not moving aggressively toward this yet.

When offices start trying to open up, they're going to get *substantial* eyebrow-raises from everyone who is at risk in any way. My company has already released their (date to be determined but there's not a lot of optimism it's going to be this summer) Phase 1 reopening plan that already states if you are vulnerable or have vulnerable people in your vicinity, you must remain WFH indefinitely at least until vaccination is a thing. This is the kind of wording and guidance that is coming from big accounting/consulting firms as their own policies and what they're advising for their customers. Deloitte specifically is using verbiage around a whole new paradigm of employee trust, basically saying you're not going to have an easy time keeping/hiring skilled staff in the future if you're not keeping them safe.

Basically, when your employers start creaking the door of opening up, you and your partner are going to be part of a stampede of "are you shitting me? no". Ride that wave. Definitely keep your list of talking points updated ongoing until that time, so you can whip it out, but sit on it until you actually need it.

It is entirely possible that informal conversations will start percolating in advance of actual re-opening plans, and it's probably not even a sneaky thing, just everyone kinda curious what everyone else is thinking right now. At that point I think it's fine to cast your vote in a general way, ie "I'm not interested in going back into an office until I can feel comfortable going back into a grocery store or doctor's office." I think there may be a time where your partner can casually say "I'm currently living out of the area where I can be safe" but again, no rush.

This isn't normal Before Times negotiation for WFH, and we won't be back in that atmosphere for a year or more, if ever. You're already doing it, which is a bird in the hand, and there is no clear path at this time for any other option to even be on the table.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:30 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

The one thing I've seen come up on Ask A Manager recently is that there are special rules, and potentially special tax implications for the company, if the work-from-home employee is physically located in a different area. All her examples are state-based (for instance, Florida to California) but if you guys have locality tax withholding or local employment law that differs between SoCal and the Bay Area, that might make it harder for your partner's employer to accept that she is working from a location different from whatever it says on her HR form.

(I am, of course, not a lawyer.)
posted by basalganglia at 4:35 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

The Cal State university system just announced that classes will be online for fall term. I don't think there's going to be any push in California (well, beyond a few entrepreneurs) to go back to in-person work if you can work from home.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:36 PM on May 12

If you have to go job shopping do look for remote positions as well as the area specific ones. There are plenty of software companies that care about time zone more than they care about you being in the same office, and a good few that don't even care about that. They may fit your salary to your area's cost of living, mind.

It does vary by team within some of those companies, so don't assume that for a larger company an advert for an in-office position means they're all like that.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 11:25 PM on May 12

Absolutely sit on this until somebody actually asks one or both of you to return to the office at a specific date. At this point just ask general questions about safeguards they are looking to implement when people come back.

Technically my employer has reopened my office as of Monday - at a maximum occupancy of 25% which includes people like IT and the mailroom who actually had access throughout and who do need to be there. Return happens only with advanced approval and desk assignment to facilitate social distancing and without facilities like the coffee shop opening. I personally don’t expect to be allowed back until the end of the summer. And they have locked our badges so we physically can’t go in unless we are approved. My friend in our LA office tells me she’s not allowed in at all atm, her client has informed her they don’t plan to be back in the office until September.

In the meantime they have also started to make noises about do we really need people to come back to the the thinking here is evolving rapidly
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:56 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

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