What can you do when your company reverses on remote work?

If your employer announces a return to the office while you'd like to continue remotely, you may have leverage to negotiate. Here's how.
Making the trek.
Making the trek.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)
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If your employer says you have to return to the office, do you have any leverage?

A growing list of companies—including Disney, Apple, Starbucks, Google, and Goldman Sachs—are rolling back their remote work policies or tightening hybrid work options to compel workers to spend more time in the office. In the US, Congress is is trying to end covid-era teleworking options for federal workers. And online, some speculate that even remote-first companies are looking to get people into the office organically.

But despite increasing interest in getting workers through the office doors, their desire for remote work isn’t disappearing. According to Pew Research, among people working from home full-time or most of the time in early 2022, 78% say they’d like to continue doing so.

Plenty are resisting return-to-office orders. As of last summer, just half of workers who had been called back to the office full-time were actually reporting in as much as required. Some are wondering if they can simply refuse the mandate. And others are leaving their no-longer-remote jobs for new ones that offer more flexibility.

“Getting to work remotely [and] getting to have a hybrid work arrangement gives employees something incredibly important, which is autonomy,” says Melanie Prengler, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business who studies changing work arrangements. “It has a positive effect on our routines, our family relationships, productivity, creativity. And having that taken away is painful. I would not be surprised if people felt a loss of trust and respect in their organization, or if they felt like their organization didn’t have trust and respect in them.”

Workers who aren’t ready to give up remote work just yet may be able to broker an arrangement that works better for them. Here’s where to start.

Check your contract or collective bargaining agreement

With a few exceptions, says Jeff Hirsch, who teaches labor law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, employers can indeed compel employees to work in a specific location. Though it varies by state, undergirding much of US employment law is the notion of at-will employment, or the idea that either party can terminate the work relationship for any reason and without notice, and this means an employer can make location a condition of employment.

There are two exceptions. The first is that your workplace is unionized, and your collective bargaining agreement gives you the ability to negotiate work location. “Even if there’s not a collective bargaining agreement or it’s silent on that, that would at least be an issue that the employer would need to negotiate with the union over,” he says.

A week after the Alphabet Workers Union filed for its election with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this year, employees at YouTube Music were told they would have to report to the company’s office in Austin by February 6. But according to Samuel Regan, a representative for the union, the mandate applies to employees who live outside of Texas and were hired to be remote workers. “It’s effectively a layoff,” he says.

Since February 3, members of the union have been picketing outside of Google’s Austin offices, and 40 members of the YouTube Music team are on strike. “We’re just asking for them to delay [return to office] until after our election when we can collectively bargain,” says Regan.

If your workplace isn’t unionized, you may be able to point to a contractual agreement in which your employer allows remote work. Keep in mind that an informal agreement to work remotely, like an email from a manager, a company memo, or public announcement isn’t likely enforceable. “Employment law cases tend to require, in most states, much stricter, more explicit promises from the employer, especially when you’re talking about a termination,” Hirsch says.

The second exception is that an employee qualifies for reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But those cases are very context-specific.

“For telework to be a reasonable accommodation, it has to be related to the disability, not just a mere convenience,” says Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network. “Not every person with a disability would be entitled to telework based on their disability.”

The ubiquity of remote work has been transformational for people with disabilities who now have access to more employment opportunities than in the past. Bates-Harris believes employers are far more likely now than they were in the past to allow people with disabilities to continue working remotely.

To those who want to negotiate for a reasonable accommodation, she says, approach with care. “Honey gets more flies than vinegar,” she adds. “Know what your rights are, assert your rights, but be assertive, not aggressive.”

Negotiate compensation

If your employer insists on a full return, you can revisit the money on the table. “Negotiate,” says Keirsten Greggs, founder of the recruitment consulting firm TRAP Recruiting. She recommends making your case in detail. Here’s a script she recommends: My commute is this long and it costs me this much money to commute. I’ve got to pay for parking or public transportation. Would you provide me with a stipend or relocation?

“Commuting to the office costs money,” says Prengler. “It costs money for gas, wear and tear on your car. You’re also having to wear work attire, which can be expensive, and so you can ask for additional compensation.”

If you’re a caregiver, bring up your care needs in the negotiation. “It’s very much like when you get a job offer and you want to negotiate salary or some other component of the benefits package,” says Amy O’Donnell, who teaches career development at the University of Toledo.

Workers can take the productivity and mental health angle as well, according to Greggs. “[Flexibility is] going to put me in a better state of mind. I’m going to be more productive. I’m going to be happier at work. My performance is going to stay at the level that it’s been at when I feel like I’m not giving up everything.”

Many workers may find that some form of hybrid work is the compromise that comes out of the negotiation. “Hybrid is the most agreeable option, for both the employer and the employee or prospective employee,” says Greggs.

Ask for flexibility in new ways

Working remotely affords employees autonomy, and when that’s lost, workers really feel it. If your employer isn’t willing to increase your compensation or provide new transportation benefits, you can press for new kinds of flexibility in your in-office work.

“There may be ways, if you come back to work, that you can carve out a way to get that same sense of freedom,” Prengler says. If you have to work in the office full-time, reclaim some autonomy by negotiating more comfortable deadlines or asking to be put on projects you want to work on. Take back the free moments of your day by taking a walk or rearranging your office.

She urges employers and managers to consider the repercussions of what they’re asking their workforce to do. “If you have to take away your employees’ choice about where to work,” she says, “you have to balance that out by giving them abundant choices in other areas.” That includes when they work, how they work, and what priorities are on the table, she adds.

Walk away

Some workers who are unable to reach an agreement with their employer are choosing to walk away.

Some are left with no choice. Stephen (whose name has been changed for privacy) worked remotely as a manager at a fintech company until he found himself in this position in 2022. That’s when his company told him that he had to return to the office full-time, five days a week or leave. He tried to negotiate, but the company’s position remained firm. Stephen had a 10-month old son at home, and no childcare lined up. So he walked.

“The childcare situation is very tough right now,” he says. “Everything in the area is waitlisted, so it’s impossible to find anything on that sort of notice, so I didn’t really have much of a choice but to leave.”

Despite corporate calls to return to office, it’s unlikely this change will end remote work. The appetite among the workforce is just too strong. O’Donnell’s students at the University of Toledo, for example, expect flexibility when they enter the workforce.

“I think [remote work] is going to have to be something that employers are going to have to make a part of their offers and their contracts,” says O’Donnell.

If employers want to roll back remote work plans, they should expect pushback. “Just like you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, you can’t demand remote workers return to the office,” says Prengler, “at least without making a big mess.”