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Work Advice: My employer is reneging on its remote-work promise

Is this ‘remote first’ company changing its business model, or just ‘quiet firing’ workers in lieu of a layoff?

5 min

Reader: I got a new job last fall at a tech company that aggressively marketed itself as a “remote-first, globally distributed company.” I have been in the workforce for a decade, and I am good at what I do.

Things had been going great until leadership announced last week that all employees — even those hired to be remote — will now be required to go in to the office three days a week. Currently, this applies only to employees at their West Coast headquarters, but they are planning to open an office in my East Coast city in the next month or two, which would give me a 45-minute commute. Employees in smaller cities will be able to continue working remotely. They have provided us with no additional information. It seems to have been a very haphazard decision.

My offer letter clearly says that my position would be remote, and this is nonnegotiable for me. I was only interested in positions that were permanently, 100 percent remote, and I would not have considered this role otherwise. I suffer from severe anxiety and OCD, which are significantly exacerbated in an office setting. My mental health and performance have vastly improved during the past three years of working remotely.

This feels like a bait-and-switch. What are my options? Am I entitled to severance? I would be eligible for unemployment benefits if I were laid off, but not if I quit, right?

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Karla: It is baffling that a company touting itself as remote-first would backpedal on that business model in a matter of months. Either your employer miscalculated how well it could operate with an all-remote workforce, or remote-first was a promise it never intended to keep long-term.

A third possibility is that your employer is facing economic pressures similar to those cited by Amazon, Google, Microsoft and other tech titans as reasons for recent massive layoffs. But technology observers at the Verge and the Los Angeles Times, noting that tech companies seem to be as profitable as ever, have suggested that the general “cost cutting” rationales for layoffs don’t seem to add up and that other motives may be at play, such as reclaiming a measure of power against employee demands.

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Fortunately, I’m not responsible for monitoring economic trends and real estate patterns while nudging workers around in some giant game of 4D Monopoly. I just have to look at options for playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

First, I wouldn’t rely on your offer letter for protection. Depending on how it’s written, it probably isn’t legally enforceable the way an actual employment contract would be.

Second, you are correct that you probably wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits if you quit, unless you can show that working conditions were so bad that they essentially forced you out. And since this isn’t a layoff, your employer is unlikely to offer severance pay unless it urgently needs people to leave quietly.

Third, with the aforementioned tech layoffs numbering in the thousands, competition for new jobs in your field is much stiffer than it was a year ago.

Tech workers had their pick of jobs for years. That era is over now.

The good news is, the return-to-office mandate applies only when your employer has an office for you to return to. That leaves you some time to strategize on how to keep your paycheck coming at least a bit longer.

The first thing I’d recommend is to talk to your immediate supervisor(s) to get a sense of whether they think this new policy is a true sea change or a teapot tempest, and whether they may have discretion in applying it. A number of companies that initially attempted to impose blanket return-to-office mandates have had to walk them back somewhat in the face of forceful objections from employees; Twitter CEO Elon Musk, for example, ended up agreeing to let workers stay remote if their managers vouch for their work.

You can also build a case for allowing you to work remotely as an accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. If you haven’t officially been diagnosed with anxiety and OCD, now is the time to find a medical professional who can provide that diagnosis and document the benefits of remote work for your mental well-being and performance. I realize you’ve only been there a few months, but if you have any evidence from previous jobs to show the difference in your performance between in-office and remote work environments, it might help your case as well.

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Here’s the bad news: I suspect these steps will only buy you time to see whether your employer’s new policy is going to stick. In the meantime, you should be warming up your networking contacts and following up on leads you may have let drop when you landed this job months ago.

If your ADA request falls through and your employer follows through on its return-to-office mandate, you’ll have a head start in a tough job market. Even if you’re able to keep working remotely under your initial agreement, you may want to preserve the option of choosing a new job offer over staying with a company that makes “haphazard” decisions about keeping promises to its workers.