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Deciding what to do when your employer changes the rules on remote work

by Jamal Harris
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Originally Published: 09 JUN 23 08:57 ET

Updated: 09 JUN 23 09:33 ET

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN

New York (CNN) — If you’ve organized your life around a fully remote or highly flexible hybrid work schedule over the past three years, it can feel jarring if your employer decides to change the rules on remote work and require or enforce more on-site attendance.

When that happens, employees face a tough decision.

In May, AT&T announced it is consolidating offices and requiring managers to come in to the office at least three days a week, according to a Bloomberg report. That decision means some managers who live near an office that is closing will have to relocate or quit.

“If they want to be a part of building a great culture and environment they’ll come along on these adjustments and changes. Others may decide, given the station of life they are in, that they want to move in a different direction,” AT&T CEO John Stankey said.

Meanwhile, the new CEO at Farmers Insurance Group told employees that he no longer wants them working remotely full time; rather, he would like a majority of them in the office three days a week. This, despite the company previously telling staffers most of them would be working remote full time, according to the Wall Street Journal.

And this week, Google (which laid off 12,000 employees rather unceremoniously in January) indicated it may consider an employee’s persistent failure to comply with its three-days-a-week-in-office mandate as a strike in their performance review. In addition, according to CNBC, it also said it hopes that employees working remotely full time will consider working a hybrid schedule instead if they live near a Google office.

Unpopular policy changes may exact a cost

The rationales most CEOs offer when requiring more onsite face time is the need to maintain culture, spur collaboration and better mentor young employees.

Even if data-driven research supported those claims wholesale — it doesn’t — those rationales can fall on deaf ears with employees who have been performing their jobs well since working remotely full or part time since 2020.

“There’s a big paradigm shift that’s difficult for a lot of leaders to embrace because that is not how they grew up in the work world,” said Caitlin Duffy, an HR research director at Gartner Consulting. “If you take flexibility away and do it for reasons that don’t make sense for employees or the business, they won’t give you their best and it may damage their trust in you.”

Gallup sounds a similar caution.

“We have seen some employees feel like their employer pulled the rug out from underneath them when they expected more remote flexibility than their new policy is offering,” said Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy for workplace management at Gallup.

In that situation, miffed employees may leave — if not immediately, then sooner than they would have otherwise.

“Changes in remote work policies can certainly create significant risk to employee retention and engagement, depending on how drastic the changes are and how effectively they are executed by managers,” Wigert noted.

What to do if you’re faced with a tough choice

Some employees who object to their company’s changed requirements for on-site work may talk about protesting or unionizing.

But for pragmatic reasons many won’t do either of those things. Instead, they will view a new edict as presenting an unwelcome choice: Comply or quit.

If you are in that situation, career coach Octavia Gordema, author of “Prep, Push, Pivot: Essential Career Strategies for Underrepresented Women,” suggests taking a beat before deciding anything.

Try to figure out two things, she said: First, what will best serve your and your family’s interests? And second, can you make a business case to your manager about why both the company and you might benefit by letting you continue to work on a more flexible basis?

“Use your business intelligence and your emotional intelligence,” she said.

To suss out what your true non-negotiables are in this situation versus your nice-to-haves, Gordema recommends asking yourself a series of questions:

  • What does your current job represent to you?
  • Given all that has changed in your life since 2020, is your role still the best fit for you?
  • How long have you been in your position at work?
  • Based on feedback you’ve received, how would you assess your performance?
  • What do you need to do your best work?
  • Is your current job a stepping stone to something else?
  • Are you the chief breadwinner at home?
  • What are the best- and worst-case scenarios if you comply with the new policy? What are they if you quit? Is there an in-between outcome?
  • How is your employer performing financially?
  • Is there a chance the company may embark on a merger or cut costs and lay people off in the months ahead?

If you don’t want to quit, talk with your managers. They will have the best sense of which of your responsibilities can best be done remotely versus on site, Duffy said. They also may know how much latitude each company division will have in implementing the new policy.

With that information, make a proposal that benefits the company while still allowing you some if not all of the flexibility you’ve enjoyed to date.

“Present a really strong case focused on your efficiency, productivity and deliverables. Keep it focused on the work,” Gordema said. “As with everything, it’s always smart to be a problem solver. Make it a positive conversation.”

– CNN’s Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report

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