Main image of article Don't Want to Return to the Office? Here's How to Negotiate.

If you’re considering pushing back on your company's return-to-office (RTO) plans, you’re not alone. According to one 2022 survey, three in five hybrid or remote technologists say they’re not interested in returning to full-time in-person work. Companies across the country have done their best to negotiate with workforces that simply don’t want to come back to their old desks.

Why are companies pushing for a return to the office? Can you refuse to go back to the office? These are pressing questions at the moment. For those who want to work remotely, what’s the correct way to push back if your company wants you to return for either all or part of the workweek?

Why are companies pushing for a return to office?

Even companies that once embraced remote work are coming around to the idea that having people collaborate in-person is better for office culture, morale, and project outcomes. For example, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was once a huge advocate of all-remote work; now he’s complaining that a lack of in-office culture might be translating into lower productivity among newer employees

“Teams tend to be better connected to one another when they see each other in person more frequently,” Amazon CEO Andy Jassy wrote in a Feb. 17 memo to employees. “There is something about being face-to-face with somebody, looking them in the eye, and seeing they’re fully immersed in whatever you’re discussing that bonds people together.” (Amazon and other big tech companies have also spent billions of dollars on corporate real estate, so it’s no surprise they actually want employees back and using it.)

At many companies, it might also be about control. Managers want to see their team members face-to-face, to ensure that productivity remains high and everyone’s actually attending meetings and company events. They might be frightened that teams working remotely will be less productive.

Can I refuse to go back to the office?

The short answer is “maybe.” Most companies have a policy, and if they’re willing to enforce it, noncompliance could result in you losing your job.

However, there’s some room for negotiation here. Depending on your position, your deliverables, and your relationship with management, you can potentially negotiate to only come into the office a few days per week—or never come back at all.

See yourself as an internal change agent, advised Keith Ferrazzi, CEO and founder of Ferrazzi Greenlight. If you advocate correctly, you can push for remote policies that assure managers work is getting done—the very definition of a win-win.

Before having a conversation with your boss, get straight about what you want, what you need and why, advised Patricia Omoqui, senior executive coach, leadership development and resilience trainer.

This isn't about getting what you want—it's about getting what you need to be successful, Omoqui explained. That’s a big distinction, and one that requires the right frame of mind.

Your boss wants the best version of you, someone who feels good enough about their job to perform optimally, so make a bulleted list of exactly what you require to meet those expectations.

Then, come up with a clear narrative or set of talking points to outline your goals. Practice delivering the message with trusted friends or colleagues. For example, you could emphasize how working from home, and thus eliminating a commute, will translate into more working hours and energy to focus on the company’s biggest projects.

Think through your communication strategy and what is likely to move the needle with your manager (and your manager’s manager). Most likely, this is not going to be a one-and-done conversation. You need to communicate to your boss that working from home for at least part of the week will result in boosted productivity and other benefits, making it a win-win for both you and the company.

Always consider the other side

“The first rule of persuasion is never try to convince anyone by telling them they’re wrong,” Ferrazzi said. The better approach is to anticipate and acknowledge your boss’s concerns and suggest ways to mitigate those problems while retaining and highlighting the best aspects of remote work.

If your team has been stuck in a creative rut, compare your performance to the best practices of companies that have discovered new ways of innovating in a remote-first or hybrid setup, such as virtual brainstorming.  Or review the benefits of asynchronous work.

Explain to your boss that collaboration or team creativity doesn’t start with a physical meeting. In fact, a meeting should be the last step in the process, following attempts to collaborate asynchronously.

The problem is that, despite the newfound popularity of remote and hybrid work, many companies haven’t bothered to adopt new work practices and cultures that fit this moment, Ferrazzi said. The debate shouldn’t be about going back to the office—it should be about reengineering work practices and proving that remote work can produce superior outcomes when compared to the old in-house model.

Support your case with facts

Make clear that you’re basing your pitch on data.  

For instance, numerous studies have shown that working from home can lead to boosted productivity. Moreover, in companies that have implemented new tools and processes to facilitate remote collaboration, 62 percent of their employees say their team’s creativity and innovation either maintained or improved.

Bring copies and examples of your personal performance and results while working remotely, and project how those can improve going forward. Sharing that kind of data with your boss proves that remote work can be reimagined for better outcomes and can be so much more than a temporary substitute for “real work” at the office.

Propose a pilot or A/B test

Still not sure if your boss will embrace your ideas? Ask for the opportunity to run an A/B test. For instance, hold an all-team meeting to address a single, business-critical question. Then, break into small groups of three or four people to discuss a similar problem remotely, and ask the groups to report back or record their ideas in a shared document.

Compare the results between the in-office and remote workflows. Which problem-solving approach and structure produced the best results? Which approach produced a solution more quickly with less disruption to daily activities? Did the remote meetings encourage greater participation and candor?

Use the same testing methodology to measure remote work communication protocols, new formats for daily stand-ups, different blends of on-site and remote work and so forth. The overall goal is to prove the notion that remote work can produce superior outcomes.