Over the last year and a bit, most of us have been given a crash course in working from home. Upsides? Pyjama bottoms are now an all-day option. Downsides? The current climate may make it feel hard, if not downright impossible, to advocate for yourself, with millions of frontline workers still going outside of the home to work and unemployment numbers skyrocketing. But Megan Karsh, founder of the (em) Collective and lecturer in negotiations at Stanford Law, offers another way to think about your career if you’re indefinitely WFH. If there’s something you want, like flexible hours, time off, a promotion or even a raise, it’s still possible to advocate for yourself right now. Ahead, Karsh shares her tips on negotiating remotely. And most of it happens before you ever hit that “Join Meeting” button.
A lot of negotiating tips we get from the internet, well-meaning friends, or even self-help books focus on the room itself: how to start talking, what you say, and when you say it. Karsh says this isn’t particularly helpful. The most important part of a negotiation happens before the meeting itself, during the preparation stage. She is a big advocate of collaborative negotiation, where you align your needs with that of the company’s. Now more than ever, you are going to have to make a case that your ask can also benefit the company. So, if you are in a business that is essential right now, that might mean thinking about how to position your contributions to ask for a raise.
That might feel like it leaves a lot of us out in the cold. After all, as Karsh herself says, in negotiations, information is power. Right now, no one has a ton of information about what the future will hold. But if you can, think about what you know the company’s immediate needs are, and how your own needs might align. So, for example, if you want more flexible hours to tag-team childcare with a partner, or want more mental health days, think about how that would positively affect not only you but also your company in terms of productivity. Karsh adds that, considering how unprecedented things are right now, it’s also fine to decide to gather information for a bit before deciding what your ask is going to be.
Set The Stage
Karsh recommends that people she coaches practice first before going into a negotiation. This can be especially important during a time when negotiating looks and feels so different. Again, here, she also bucks against common wisdom. Women are often told to go to a male friend for advice since men are thought to be better negotiators. But that’s only part of the truth: Studies have found women are actually better negotiators when they’re advocating for a friend. So think of a female friend who is good at sticking up for herself and set aside a time to talk (Zoom happy hour?) about your case. Talk through what you’re planning on saying and get her feedback.
Next, you need to set aside some time to talk with your boss or hiring manager. This is a place where a lot of hardball negotiators might advise something akin to an ambush. While Karsh doesn’t think you should show all your cards, she does think it’s wise to give your boss a heads up about what you want to talk about. A Slack or email alerting your boss you want to talk about job responsibilities or workflow can be enough.
Now here’s the big question: Do you do it over a video platform like Zoom, or over the phone? Karsh offers this advice: know thyself. Video offers advantages in a few ways: it will humanise you, and it will also give you a chance to read your boss’s cues. You can better advocate for yourself if you’re able to read facial cues and even body language as you talk. But, if video is going to make you more anxious, it’s okay to go with the phone. At the end of the day, you need to pick whatever will make you a better advocate for yourself.
And, Not But
Karsh recommends opening the conversation by acknowledging how unprecedented a time this is. You may be stressed and overworked, but chances are your boss feels that way too. Starting with an empathetic statement makes the other person feel understood and acknowledged. But, too often, we will then follow with a “but” when we should go with an “and.” As in:
“I know you’re under an immense amount of pressure and I know the company is facing XYZ, but we’ve been talking about all the responsibilities I’ve been taking on...” might put someone on the defensive. Swapping it for “and we’ve been talking” helps you avoid setting up a binary, as if “the two are in tension,” says Karsh. When you go with “and,” you are making it seem like the ideas are aligned: your needs and the company’s.
If you don’t feel like you know enough to empathise with your manager, it’s also okay to start by asking about where the company is and what their priorities are in the next few months. If you find out they aren’t as aligned with your asks as you originally thought, it’s fine to end the conversation there and go back to the stage setting and research part of the negotiation.
Look To The Future
You might feel like a “no” or a “now is not a good time” ends the conversation. But Karsh encourages you to not let an answer like that stand indefinitely. It may be that a company can’t offer you more money right now. So ask to revisit it down the line as offices and businesses re-open. Instead of simply saying that you’ll revisit it, however, set a date. Karsh recommends saying something like, “Okay, I’ll send a Google Cal invite now for January so we can revisit it then.” It may seem like talking about something like an in-person meeting in January seems absurd, but you can always bump that meeting till later if you need to. It’s a bigger mistake to just leave it at “we’ll revisit it someday,” leaving room for it to punt down the road further and further until it’s 2022 and you’re still waiting to have that conversation.
Even by staying collaborative, leading with empathy, and preparing and researching, you may not get the answer you want. But, as Karsh says, the worst that can result is you get a “no.” You are also setting yourself up for conversations down the line where “no” could be turned into a “yes.” And after asking for a title change while your roommate tries to make a green smoothie in the next room, your next in-person ask is going to seem a lot easier.