7 things you should do when negotiating a work-from-home agreement with your boss – and 4 things to avoid, according to a negotiations expert and MBA professor

Leigh Thompson.
Leigh Thompson.

  • Leigh Thompson is an author, a professor at Kellogg School of Management, and a negotiations expert.
  • As offices reopen, many people who prefer to continue working from home will need to negotiate this with their employers.
  • Thompson shares the most tactful ways to approach what is likely an unprecedented negotiation.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The news filled Lisa with dread.

A digital-marketing senior account manager, Lisa was nervous when she heard her employer was issuing a “back-to-work” order: everyone was to be back in the office by July.

The problem was that Lisa, my past student, had flourished during COVID. She’d transformed a utility closet into a state-of-the-art home office: external monitor, high-resolution camera, standing microphone.

Lisa also began her days hours earlier, interspersing meetings and client calls with “focused time” on creative solutions to multiple challenges. “My new mental sharpness has tripled my productivity,” she said. She’d also enjoyed seeing her young children more often, and working out more regularly.

But now the dream seemed to be ending, as schools and camps reopened (no more childcare excuses for working parents) and management sought a return to business-as-usual. For example, Lisa mentioned a recent meeting where senior leaders talked about the importance of “hustling” – which they viewed as possible only in face-to-face work.

Lisa sought my guidance on negotiating a remote-work arrangement. The advice I gave, reflected in the do’s and don’ts below, can serve you in similar, critical post-pandemic negotiations.

Do these:

1. Write the script

Many negotiations follow a standard procedure: buying a home, negotiating compensation, others – “scripted” negotiations, where both parties know what to expect. But a remote-work negotiation is largely unscripted, with no unwritten rules. So, rather than “ambushing” your manager about working from home, do the homework to understand why the request makes sense (see Do Your Research below), then suggest meeting to go over things at the right time/place.

2. Go synchronous

COVID made many formerly synchronous (real-time) things asynchronous, such as college classes. Similarly, it may be tempting to send your manager a long email about why you should work from home, in part to avoid face-to-face discussion. Instead, schedule a call or Zoom meeting. My research shows people behave more contentiously in asynchronous communications. Moreover, real-time communication enables you to read the room, react, and refine.

3. Frame the conversation

This is likely an unprecedented negotiation. So it’s important to provide a “frame” for the conversation including: (1) plural pronouns (“We” not “me”); (2) emphasis on alignment (“It’s about how I can maximize my productivity to help the company meet its goals”); (3) open-ended approach (“This is a starting point in a plan that will evolve”).

4. Do your research

Nothing speaks louder than data. One manager presented her productivity by month, highlighting that her post-COVID performance was superior on every metric, bolstering her case for remote work. Also, consider what management cares about – it’s probably not just money, so don’t lead with “I’ll take a 20% pay cut to work remotely.”

5. Put skin in the game

The initial answer to your work-from-home pitch will likely be “no.” Be prepared, and use the skin-in-the-game strategy from my book “Negotiating the Sweet Spot“: suggest working from home temporarily, and agree on performance metrics to hit to finalize the arrangement.

6. Plan your Plan B

Think carefully about options if work-from-home simply isn’t possible. Talk to family members (and yourself) about the “what thens.” It may mean returning to traditional work – long commute, slow elevators, and all – or submitting a thoughtful resignation letter and searching for remote-work opportunities. Knowing Plan B helps you pursue Plan A.

7. Do the hustle

Recent evidence suggests that when it comes to professional motivation, we judge a book by its cover – meaning, if someone’s not physically present, they must lack “hustle.” My work with Sarah Townsend on “personal work ethic” shows hustle is not about physical presence but the intrinsic motivation to work hard “when no one’s looking.” So hustle remotely and measure the results to prove it.

Don’t do these:

1. Don’t assume opposition

Most people assume others have interests diametrically opposed to theirs. This often yields a self-fulfilling prophecy approach: “I know this is probably not possible, but …” Instead, use the framing advice above: “My aim is to continue my high level of productivity as we move toward key organizational goals. I have some concrete ideas for how to do that.”

2. Don’t threaten

Any reference to your Plan B, no matter how subtle (“I have other options”), is a threat. The research suggests any threat leads to a power escalation and suboptimal outcome. Don’t go there.

3. Don’t play the pity card

Don’t lead with emotion (“My children need me”) because people generally don’t respond well to negative emotions in negotiation. Instead, lead with perspective-taking; the best way to get them to see your perspective is to take theirs, which is likely about achieving company objectives efficiently.

4. Don’t think in “Yes/No” terms

Best not to think of the conversation as leading to a yes-no outcome. Rather, pursue a “hot-warm-cold” conversation: come prepared to discuss your ideal scenario, but ready to present alternatives – such as hybrid work. In my book, I call this “bringing out the dessert tray.” Often, success is piquing their interest in one or more options to be discussed in a subsequent meeting.

Lisa used much of the advice here to argue her case for remote work. She achieved a win-win where she will continue to work mostly remotely, delivering strong results for the company while enjoying a high level of autonomy. Harness the ideas here to negotiate your way to your own best-case scenario.

Leigh Thompson is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the author of the new book “Negotiating the Sweet Spot: The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table.”