my boss is revoking my full-time telecommuting arrangement

A reader writes:

I accepted a job February 2012 as a home-based employee managing a virtual team of developers. My job offer specifically mentioned being a home-based employee. The company is global and we often meet early in the morning and late at night to accommodate the various geographies. I have had many successes in this position and at my last performance review was given an outstanding rating.

Recently, my boss has asked me and a few other coworkers who were telecommuting, but without official agreements in place, to be office-based in order to help with collaboration. Collaboration has never been a problem or a concern that has been raised before and this is not a corporate wide policy. Do I have any recourse?

Legal recourse? No, probably not, unless you have a contract that specifically says that you’ll be able to work from home for the duration of the contract with no escape clause for the company — which is very unlikely.

However, you can certainly talk to your boss and see if you can reach a compromise.

I’d start by finding out more about what what she hopes to change by having you begin working from the office. What concerns is this meant to address? And talk in more specifics than just “collaboration” —  in what areas is she seeing a lack of collaboration and how is it impacting things?

Once you know that, you can see if there are other ways to address her concerns. If people aren’t sharing information about projects that affect others or she wants more group brainstorming, for instance, would a weekly conference call address it? Would a weekly in-person meeting that you’d come to the office for address it? Could you work one or two days in the office and the rest at home?

I’d also point out to her that this is a significant change from the job you were offered last year, and that being able to telecommute is a significant benefit to you, one that you’d be concerned about losing.

Of course, you might hear that it’s simply too bad; the job has changed, and that’s the way that it is. And if that’s the case, then you’ll have to decide if this is a job that you still want under these new conditions. But before you head down that road, find out if there are other ways to achieve your manager’s goals and whether she can offer you any flexibility after hearing what a concern it is to you.

Good luck.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. Esra*

    OP, I feel for you. In my mind, wfh is all unicorns and rainbows.

    My last wfh position, we had a couple days a month we could come in and meet, other teams had one day a week. It worked well to keep an in-person connection, but still let us all live the beautiful, beautiful dream that is working from home. Can you tell I miss it.

  2. PPK*

    A few years ago working from home was “in” — the new global workplace where anyone could be anywhere. And it was “green” and “saved money” because there wasn’t a commute and the company didn’t have to maintain office space.

    Things seem to be shifting back. Being in a physical office is in vogue again. Some big companies have done it…so I assume more companies will think they should too.

    I guess I didn’t have much relevant to add — only that maybe OP is great working from home, but the company is jumping on the “back to the office” bandwagon.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      That’s what I have seen here, too. We didn’t have many wfh people, but there were a few due to the company letting them move with a spouse and wfh at their new location or people who were orphaned when their function moved from a regional office to corporate. They were working with people to accommodate them, but now a lot of them either have to relocate to work from a specific office or leave the company.

    2. Esra*

      I’m sure why being more green and saving money are in quotes, as wfh is both of those?

      1. PPK*

        It was an acknowledgement that those things are relative. They certainly can be true for work from home. Or the costs just get rearranged. If you don’t have a commute, but you always did your grocery shopping on the way home…you still have to drive to the store (okay, you could order on line, but someone’s gotta drive somewhere). Work may have to spend more money on phone services because you are on more phone meetings than if you just stopped by someone’s office. And the cost of office furniture…can go either way. Either the employee gets stuck furnishing their home office or the employer still has to buy an office chair, internet provider, etc.

        1. Esra*

          But in your examples it’s still more cost effective for the company and greener. Even if you picked up groceries on the way home, it would still be less driving than commuting to work. And even if the company supplies your laptop etc, it’s still cheaper than them having space for you at the office.

          So as far as most companies are concerned, it’s virtually always greener and most cost-effective. I think the two main things that get in the way are 1/ positions where there is some genuine need to be physically present or 2/ for whatever reason (lack of trust, understanding, or other) someone in management just doesn’t like remote workers.

          1. Unsan*

            The truth is the company is not saving much money by allowing employees to WFH. Unless ALL workers are wfh then they still have to have a physical office which still has all the network/office equipment/supplies etc.

            1. The B*

              But the physical office can be a lot smaller, which can defray costs, and maybe you don’t need all those extra desks and chairs and phones, etc.

              1. Sabrina*

                Or to rent extra parking spaces or build an ugly parking garage to accommodate growth.

  3. Liz in the City*

    OP, I hope it works out where you don’t have to be in the office full time. Hopefully, some sort of compromise can be made.

    I have a friend who WFH 4 days a week, with one day in the city. When her company asked her to come in more often, she pushed for extra money to cover her commuting expenses (since she’d taken a lower salary in exchange for WFH). And they gave it to her. In case it gets to that point, it can’t hurt to ask. You have wear and tear on any vehicles you use, any mass transit tickets you may have to buy, plus wear and tear on yourself when you can’t wake up 10 minutes before a conference call (I used to have a 3-hour round trip commute, with 1 WFH day. Oh, how I don’t miss that commute, but miss those PJ days!)

    1. Chinook*

      I think that moving from WFH to in-office is one of the only times when you can ask for a raise to cover commuting costs because, most of the time, that just goes with the cost of being an employee (just like have work appropriate clothing and haircuts). But, since you agreed to a salary based on a certain set of working conditions (WFH) and now they are being considerably changed, it seems to be a good reason to renegotiate since your work related expenses went up.

      The only other time I would use commute time as a point of reference is if the office changed locations in a way that drastically changed your commute.

      1. sm*

        Chinook: Agree. Agree. Agree. I roll my eyes when I read someone complain about vehicle wear and tear, and commuting expenses.

  4. Cube Rat*

    Does being in an office together really foster collaboration? I think that is a myth. Most of the time, phone calls and emails are how we communicate even if we are in the same building.

    I would suspect that if you and your boss can’t compromise on the work from home issue, you have some leverage since you are such a good worker. It would be better to have a good worker that is working from home, than no worker at all.

    1. RG*

      I imagine it depends on group dynamic and the specific personalities involved. I hate talking on the phone, and would not see it as a good brainstorming/collaboration medium for me, but it might work well for others.

    2. Cat*

      If you have people you collaborate well with it certainly can be easier to bounce ideas off people in person. If you don’t have a good work dynamic it’s probably a wash. The best work I do is done very collaboratively with certain colleagues and involves a lot of in-person collaboration. I can and have done the same work remotely and I can do my job but I don’t do it as well.

    3. Rob Aught*

      It doesn’t foster collaboration per se, but face-to-face communication is actually the most efficient form of communication. There are cues you don’t get from email or IM. Voice communication is also better, but not as good as face-to-face.

      Which doesn’t mean you can’t work around the limitation of remote work. Most offices I’ve dealt with in the past decade have had teams spread across locations, so daily face-to-face just can’t happen.

      However, yes, physical presence does make collaboration easier. Easier being the key. Just having someone come into the office does not mean collaboration will improve.

    4. PPK*

      Like most things, I think it depends. Sometimes its really handy to put stuff on a whiteboard. Or look at the same screen together. Or follow along with someone’s hand gestures. You can also read when someone is confused easier or definitely understands. Its not that you can’t do this over the phone — but people have to be willing to say, “I’m confused, can you explain again” and so on.

      We have a split team and we have a weekly meeting where some of us are in a conference room. It’s oddly easy to forget that the people on the phone can’t see you. Once in while someone will make a gesture and someone else will pipe up and explain it to the people on the phone. Like, “Jane just about feel off her chair on that suggestion” or “Lucy is nodding yes to that.”

      Of course, sometimes being on the phone or working via email has the benefit of not being seen. You can fake hitting your head on the wall and then answer politely and no one is the wiser.

    5. Girasol*

      I went from WFH at one company to “there’s no such thing as telecommuting!” at another. The funny thing was, I was way closer to my manager and team working from home than in the office. My remote manager met with me and the team often. Team members pinged back and forth in IM like you might chat in the office and held industry brainstorm sessions with netmeeting remotely over lunch. We were a tight team. My in-office manager met me and the team much less frequently. Email was expected to be kept at a minimum and IM was only for rare emergencies. Sometimes we didn’t communicate for months. Team members often stuck to themselves and generally took lunch at their desks alone. It seemed a waste of two hours a day commuting to be so isolated in an office.

  5. Sterling Hanenkamp*

    I work from home and it is super. I currently work form home 100% along with almost 50% of the company and my employer is based in an office 1,200 miles away, so this kind of action is unlikely for me now. However, I was in a similar position to OP at my previous job.

    Based on my own experience and others I’ve spoken with on the subject (one I care about very much), this may happen when just a single manager or executive in the chain does not understand the benefits of telecommuting and how it works. Sometimes they have the false notion that telecommuting is just a perk and not something that really improves productivity for some workers. Sometimes they aren’t good written communicators and have a hard time keeping track of what’s going on when they can’t grab you by the hand every day. Sometimes, they are extroverts that think it’s unhealthy to work away from the office. Sometimes they just can’t imagine doing it and have trouble with others doing something they can’t imagine. Or something else?

    The problems of telecommuting aren’t any different in kind from problems in office and the solutions for this kind of problem are the same. You need an honest dialog with your manager. You have to keep a short account of grievances. You have to find out what’s changed in this case, what management means with their blanket collaboration remarks? What is the special case for your team?

    In my case, I don’t have an immediate happy ending to report. The communication process broke down when we started talking about this. However, it ultimately led me to this employer, with whom I am happy and have been with for 5 years now.

    1. Rob Bird*

      It could very well be that the manager saw an article about Marissa Mayer and thought that was the way to go. Or it could be that there were problems the OP didn’t know about that caused this to happen.

      1. Cat*

        I don’t know if it’s the case here but in my experience it’s – if not common – at least not uncommon for telecommuters not to realize that it’s causing problems. In law firms, at least for the kind of law I practiced, there’s a lot of long term projects but there are also a lot of day-to-day tasks that come up that are often done much more easily from the office. These naturally fall on the people in the office. Meanwhile the telecommuters blissfully work on their long term projects; make amazing progress; and never realize that other people are shouldering the constant press of tight-deadline interruptions. There are ways to mitigate this but I’ve seen it happen enough that it makes me wary about assuming every telecommuter has a perfect picture of what’s happening in the office.

        1. former consultant*

          This happened quite frequently at a consulting firm I was with several years ago. One of the owners went on and on about how “productive” the telecommuters were, how nearly 100% of their time was billable. Those of us in the office were left shouldering the administrative burden of running a consulting firm and responding to fire drills, so of course were less “productive” and a lower percentage of our time was billable. Those who were out of the office and showed up occasionally for all-hands meeting were shocked at everything the rest of us were doing. I was so secretly jealous …

  6. anon o*

    What’s with all the collaboration concerns this week? Isn’t that the reason why the person from yesterday’s letter was being moved to a workbench? Maybe we should all try to work together better before everyone’s working on benches in offices hours away from our homes.

  7. Brett*

    While this is jumping the gun a bit, what happens if the OP asks for flexibility and none is given (or worse yet, it simply is not physically possible for the OP to work, e.g. a situation like Sterling above where the physical office is 1200 miles away)?

    Does the OP simply quit, or wait to be terminated? Is there any possibility of UI in that situation, or would it almost certainly be a quit without cause/termination for misconduct?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      At that point, there would probably be a mutual conversation about how to move forward — which could include things like setting a last day, potentially.

      In most states, I suspect you could get UI in this situation, since the terms of the job changed considerably — especially if the office is far away.

  8. workinmom*

    Everywhere I have worked.wh has been dished out 2 favorites…or..based on the whim of a manager. There has never been a policy. I don’t think wh folks realize office staff do stuff like.copy for them not to mention the commute costs etc.

    1. FD*

      That is annoying, and it’s frustrating to feel that others are getting favors that have a negative impact on you. However, it’s not really fair to paint all people who work from home with the same brush. In the OP’s case, this wasn’t given as a favor; it was part of the job offer, and she accepted it with that in mind.

      1. workinmom*

        I didn’t paint ALL wh folks that way- I said where I have worked.
        I think it can work, but unless the entire office is virtual others do pick up slack, pay more to commute and have to wash regularly :-)

        And I am not against wh, I’d love it but I have never seen it applied in a fair manner.

        1. VintageLydia*

          It’s probably most fair when entire job catagory is wfh/remote. My husband works primarily with outside clients and if the client is far away and the project is slated to last more than a week or two, he usually works from home. Hell, some local clients are OK with him working from home (DC metro area, so he’s had nearly 2 hour one way commutes to sites less than 20 miles away.) But that’s the case for everyone who does his job. They have an office with open cubicles (“hot desks” according to a previous post here!) but there isn’t much privacy and some clients pretty much require you to be on conference calls 50% of the day. So working from home really does make him more productive even with our 8 month old and me in the house.
          The only people who actually work at their office regularly are project managers, resource managers, HR, the C-suite, and the receptionist. Everyone who does the grunt work works remotely.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          I keep reading WFM as WTF. :P

          What VintageLydia says. Some jobs are just not amenable to it. And some require a bit more concentration than you can get in an open office with people yammering all day.

          The consultants I work with do it most of the time, as most of their work can be done by phone/WebEx/screen sharing. I usually just go in. After a year of unemployment, I can’t stand to be home all day!

  9. HarryV*

    The ‘cool’ factor in wfh is definitely losing its steam. I recall when HR called me one day and asked if my team would lose its productivity if we lost our desks. I had to stop and think hard to see if it was a trick question! They eliminated our desks so our telecommute is probably safe for a while. You do start to long to socialize and have actual face to face with professionals though.

    1. Windchime*

      Yeah, this. Most of my immediate team, including me, works at home on Monday and comes into the office the rest of the week. None of us has terribly long commutes, but fortunately our workplace supports the idea that occasionally working from home can be super-productive (and it is for me, because it’s quiet and I can focus). But last winter, there was a period of bad weather where we were all advised to just work at home rather than coming in, for a full week. It was kind of nice, but by the end of the week I had a terrible case of cabin fever and that helped me to understand that I probably wouldn’t do well with a full-time work-from-home situation.

  10. Helen*

    Hey, OP! Do we work for the same company? I’m serious. Waltham, MA? Then again, the no telecommuting mandate at my company IS corporate and company wide and all they talk about is COLLABORATION! COLLABORATION! COLLABORATE! COLLABORATE! **sigh**

    1. Meg*

      Off topic, but hey Boston-area resident! I used to work in Watertown, and work in Boston proper now.

    2. FD*

      I can’t be the only one who just heard that in a Dalek voice. “Collaborate! Collaborate!”

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