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Being Summoned Back to the Office: How You Can Push Back

“I have been asked to go back to the office for three days and my heart sinks”, a mother in a senior role told me last week, “I  am so sad to lose the life quality I have gained working from home”. Employers would rarely lower other benefits such as pay, pension contributions or health insurance but right now many of them curtail the working-from-home benefit. 

Working from home is especially valuable to those with caring responsibilities – it can help you be more present with your children by being there at pick-up and it can make your day start in a more relaxed manner because you have time to go for a quick walk after dropping your children off. 

Do you need to pack your backpack immediately?

No. When you receive the summons to go back, take a deep breath before you respond. You don’t need to say yes immediately even if you are told “it is a company-wide policy”. In my experience of supporting working parents through Leaders Plus I know of plenty of people who negotiated a unique arrangement even if there is a company-wide policy to be in the office for 3 days.  It is in your employer’s interest to look after working parents, as 4 in 5 women have children by the age of 45 and employers in most sectors still find it hard to recruit great people. 

Does your boss know that working from home has been a lifesaver?

Decision makers probably don’t realise how important this is for you. Communicate to them briefly what a difference it has made to you. Avoid lengthy discussions, just say something like “Being able to pick up my son after nursery has made me feel like I can have a big career with young children despite most of my peers giving up work, and it is one of the key reasons why I feel so looked after as a working parent at [insert company name]. I am extremely passionate about my career development and adding value to our work at [insert company name]”. Then highlight how working from home benefited the organisation e.g. “

Have the conversation in person ideally – I know it is counter-intuitive, especially with what I am writing here but there is research such as by Professor Vanessa Bohns shows that asking for things in person is more powerful than not. If in-person isn’t possible, do it on the phone or over video conference. You can follow up with an email but don’t make email the first approach. 

What is your boss worried about deep down? Why do they want to have you back in the office?

If they want a sense of control, then propose a way of updating them such as a weekly email at the end of the week with what you have achieved and what your priorities are going forward. 

If they are sociable and miss you, suggest that you have a working lunch virtually as a team. 

If they are implementing this because they want to hone creativity and random ideas that emerge around the water cooler, suggest that you implement processes that enable serendipitous moments to emerge. Professor Christian Busch suggests we cultivate serendipity and creativity by asking team members routinely at the start of meetings about unexpected things that have happened to them. Alternatively, have facilitated conversations that create deeper but random interactions. Take, for example, Theodore Zeldin’s conversation dinners for inspiration or the Thinking Environment methodology for running meetings.  

Employers usually look to their peers for inspiration, so consider giving examples of well-performing organisations that are fully remote first, such as Dropbox or Airbnb.

Some questions you might ask:

  • What specifically do you need me in the office for that can’t be handled remotely?
  • How will my physical presence directly impact operations or outcomes?
  • What risks do you see to productivity, collaboration or company initiatives if I’m not there?

 Your boss may appreciate your proactively addressing their concerns, and helping find a compromise that works for everyone. 

Bosses sometimes make decisions to avoid perceived risks. You can reduce the perceived risk by saying that you will trial an arrangement for six months or by consulting your peers if your boss is worried about how it will be perceived. 

It’s an illusion that company-wide policy is followed by everyone

Don’t assume that what is official policy is implemented by everyone in the organisation. Don’t resign or suffer in silence without having spoken to your manager about it. In my experience of supporting working parents in hundreds of organisations through the Leaders Plus Fellowship, a large number of them have unique arrangements with their managers that don’t reflect company-wide policy. Research by Iris Bohnet shows that women have been socialised to negotiate less, don’t fall into that trap if you identify as a woman. Instead, take steps to negotiate a unique working pattern arrangement for yourself.

Find a senior ally 

Have a look at the senior leadership team: is there anyone who enjoys working from home and does so secretly even though the policy is to be in the office a certain number of days? Have an informal chat with them and ask them for their advice in finding a solution that allows you to see your kids more. You could frame the advice as a general “working parents advice” discussion.

Do you want to be more fierce?

If you want to challenge a bit further, you could consider speaking to a headhunter to get a sense of what other options are in the sector and see if any other organisations are remote first. As long as you are being factual and reiterating your commitment to your current employer “I see myself here long term and would like to progress my career here but the situation forces me to start looking elsewhere” this shouldn’t hurt.

It’s possible

My experience of supporting working parents in the Leaders Plus Fellowship is that it is possible to find an arrangement that works for you. But, in a system that isn’t set up for working parents, there is extra work involved in negotiating and crafting a solution that works for you. Good luck!


Download Leaders Plus Fellowship BrochureFind out more about the Leaders Plus Fellowship, an award-winning 9-month programme to support senior leaders who are also parents. Download the brochure.


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