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Secrets Exposed: How Did You Convince Your Employer To Let You Work Remotely?

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So you have a job you love, but your significant other lives in a different city and you’re sick of the long distance thing. What do you do?

If you’re Alex Field, you hold onto the job, make the move and work with your employer to find a good arrangement for working from a different city.

Field, 27, has been working at Burness Communications just outside Washington, D.C. since 2006. After his girlfriend was laid off from her job in 2008, she found a new gig — in New York. So Field went back and forth between D.C. and New York for two years. But just as he was getting involved in some super exciting things at work and moving into a new management role, the weekly D.C.-New York weekend trek was really starting to get to him.

In this interview, he explains the process of making the move without taking a step back from a job and company he loves.

When did you start working at Burness Communications? How did you find the job?

I started at Burness in the summer of 2006 and I came on as an entry-level coordinator on the health policy team. I found Burness through a nonprofit I was working for in Chapel Hill that was a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The communications director I worked with there knew Burness well. I wanted to move to D.C., and so he helped connect me with Burness.

How did you go from your entry-level position to your current role as a strategist and manager for the company’s digital branch?

Every project I touched [when I first started at Burness] ended up digital. Whether it was their website or helping them start social media, or webinars. Any time there was a project related to digital, I ended up doing that piece. I was also doing traditional PR at the same time. I was reaching out to media and doing blog lists, clips — all those things you do when you’re 22 at a PR firm. I quickly saw a need to do more digital projects, and loved doing it so I did as much as of it as I could and I tried to get myself on to the projects where I’d have the most opportunity to do it.

A lot of people at the company started having conversations [about digital]. People were coming and saying: we need more of this. We’d have our company retreats and a close colleague and I would lead sessions on digital and social media. I was still on the health policy team, but I was thinking about more and more of this. Andy [Burness, the president and founder of the company] and I said, this should happen, what would it look like? And I went off and wrote a plan that said what it would look like: These are the clients we think we could do digital for, this is what the team could grow into, this is why we think we need it. We worked on the details and then we started it [officially in 2010].

Alex Field of BurnessDigital

How did the topic of moving cities and working remotely first come up?

So in October of 2010, Andy and I are driving through rural Pennsylvania in a snow storm. We were returning from a client meeting. We’re driving along and talking about the fact that I’m going back and forth [to visit my girlfriend in New York] and what that was like. He said to me: well what if you moved to New York and came here a couple of days a week? He just proposed it. I said, that sounds complicated! But promising, and I feel like there is a nugget of a solution to the problem of long distance. So he said we’d keep talking about it.

Wow, nothing like the boss suggesting it! It’s like that hard part was already done. Before that car trip, had you spoken to your boss about wanting to move?

He and I talk a lot and he knew that I wanted to be in New York somehow. We had talked about it in a “it’s a pain to commute and wouldn’t it be nice if I lived in New York” kind of way, but not in a constructive, “how would we make this happen?” kind of way. This was the first conversation where we talked about how it might work.

Between that conversation in the car and when I actually made the move, I worked remotely a few times when I went into New York for the weekend. So I’d work remotely on a Monday or a Friday so I’d have an extra day there and we could try this out.

So what happened after the conversation in the car?

Shortly thereafter, I hired two new people for the BurnessDigital team. One person was leaving, so I was really trying to get the team together and get everything organized. And then I started planning. I wrote up a plan for him of how it would work. I’d be in the office as much as I could. I’d be in D.C. three days a week. I’d leave on the train [from New York] on Tuesday mornings, I’d come back on Thursday nights, so I’d spend five nights in New York. I’d be totally flexible. If I had a client meeting, I could stay an extra day or whatever. And I’d also work it out so that I was totally accessible. We’d figure out the technologies so that I could be easily accessible via Skype. I’d have a work phone [in New York] set up with my office phone — they both ring at the same time.

How did you go about putting together a plan for working remotely?

We have a bunch of people who work remotely for Burness, even one of the people on my team works full-time remotely from Philadelphia. So I got their tips, which was: make sure you’re responsive, make sure you’re accessible. So I talked to them and I also started reading Lifehacker-type blogs and things about how people have successfully worked from home [ed note: here's a great Brazen post on the topic] and what makes them successful at it, and I incorporated some of that language into the plan I wrote.

We also had to work on the finances. I did research on how I could take the train. There’s a 10-trip Amtrak pass you can buy, which would not only bring the cost down, but would also give me the flexibility to just get on any train any time without making a reservation. It would save a lot of money if I just needed to hop on it to go to a client meeting I didn’t expect … so all that cost information was included.

How long did the research take? Was it longer than you expected?

No. I had total support from Andy and I really just needed to get something down in writing. I think the slowest part of all of this was me just getting my act together, and making sure for me — for my relationship — for my team, for everything, just making sure it was the right move. It was a big move for me. I wasn’t trying to move as fast as possible — I was trying to be really thoughtful about it. I wanted to keep momentum with growing my team, have a good clean break with the city I’d been in for five and a half years — so I took my time. It took about a year from the conversation in the car until this new arrangement started.

Did you consider looking for another job in New York?

I love my job at Burness. I said to my girlfriend, the only way [moving] is going to work for me, is if I get to stay with this job that I really love. That’s the honest truth. I was in the middle of building a team I was really excited about and doing work that was challenging to me, so the time was definitely not right to make a move [to a new company].

How are things playing out? Has anything unanticipated come up since you moved?

I’ve been in the office a little bit more than the plan spelled out. I think that’s natural. I think I was more worried about not being around, and the plan reflects that. I thought there might be a little more negative reaction to it, but everyone has been super supportive, and it has gone smoothly. From a work perspective, I feel like I’ve been able to be more effective. It gives me a chance two days a week to do the writing and the thoughtful work that I need to do and I pack my three days in DC with meetings and the face-to-face stuff. It’s a nice balance for me.

For someone who is thinking about approaching their employer about working remotely, what would you advise?

Just like when you’re trying to convince someone of any idea, I think you need to find out what it is that is going to motivate [the decision maker] to be on your side. And what are the potential issues and questions that they may raise? You need to think it through. In my case, it was telling my boss — who knows me and my girlfriend really well — that I need balance in my life. I really love this job and this company and I need to figure out a way to do this, and that was the motivator to have him help me. With other companies, it might be much more about cost and hours and productivity.

You also have to be blunt that this is an experiment. That’s what I did. I said if it doesn’t work in six months, let’s get together, and if we need to pull the plug on the whole thing we can.

You need to stick with it. You have to believe yourself that this is the right move.

Keep in mind, if you do this and you have a schedule that fluctuates all the time and people never know how to find you, that can be frustrating for people. But as long as you’re upfront about what it is going to be and you do your best to stick to it, I think it can really work.

Do you think you need to be with a company for at least a certain period of time before working something like this out with an employer?

It’s one of those “you’ll know it when you know it” sort of things. It’s about relationships and your role in the company. I wouldn’t do it in the first year or two, but it totally depends on the size and scope of the company and your roles there. You just need to be passionate about the company. You need to feel like you contribute enough to the company that it would be worth it for them to make sacrifices themselves to keep you on board. In my situation, it costs Burness money, it would certainly be easier if I just stayed in D.C. and kept coming to the office each day.

Any final thoughts for the people reading this who want to set up a similar arrangement with their employer?

Buy good slippers if you work from home [laughs].

If you do it the right way and you make the effort to get buy in from everybody, you’ll be surprised how supportive people can be of making a move that is important to you in your personal life and finding balance. People appreciate that. If you do it the right way, you’ll be surprised at the support you will get.

Jaclyn Schiff is managing editor of Brazen Life. When she’s not Brazenly thinking about careers, she can often be found writing or tweeting about obscure diseases or media trends.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Jrandom42

    This only works if your job lends itself to working remotely, Many jobs don’t.

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      True, good point, but I think this is applicable to many regular readers of this website.

  • Roy

    Working remotely only works for certain jobs, mainly those which are supervisory in nature or purely administration although even these need scope definition to be clearly defined.

  • Guest

    I appreciate this article. I realize this applies to the masses but I am personally very motivated to find a flexible work arrangement due to a not-so-obscure disease. I don’t have a year or two to see how it plays out before I can suggest a flexible schedule nor should I disclose my illness–feeling quite stuck about finding whatever work happens to be available in my zip code. I hope that more and more companies realize people can be trusted to work from home and that it isn’t just a perk.

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Thanks for your comment and glad this interview was helpful! It definitely seems like more companies (especially smaller, younger ones in my experience) tend to be open to this sort of thing. Good luck!

  • Jrandom42

    If your job requires you to be hands on with stuff and/or face-to-face with the customer or colleagues, there’s no way you’ll be working remotely

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Good points, but I think the notion of “face-to-face” is changing in some industries — companies are conducting meetings that traditionally took place in person via Skype or Google Hangout.

      • Jrandom42

        Very slowly. Even in technology, doing things by web conferencing still doesn’t replace the face-to-face. I remember one CIO telling me, that he doesn’t trust anyone he can’t meet and speak to face-to-face, especially if they’re working on a critical infrastructure project. It may make sense for those intercontinental team meetings, but for direct customer projects, most want you there, on site, and handy to talk to, as things arise. Attempting to do it remotely won’t cut it.

        • Alex Field

          Thanks for the good thoughts here. As I said to Jacci, it’s all about balance. I do as much as I can via Skype, but I will travel to do in-person meetings without hesitation. Emphasizing that it’s not a burden on me to travel frees my colleagues and clients up to help me decide when I should be there face-to-face and when video will suffice.

  • http://twitter.com/AdamBritten Adam Britten

    Great interview. Very interesting and helpful!

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Thanks Adam!

  • Alex Field

    Curious if there are others out there who have made this move. If you have, what’s the main obstacle you overcame to make the change happen? And if you want to do it but haven’t started, what’s holding you back? Sharing advice is key, I think.

  • Lady Gaga Alejandro

    it’s great, that i’ve found this article… i’m planning to move another city, not far from my present, but i have no idea what to do with job.. i like my employer and am satisfied with all conditions… so the way out is to work remotely! http://lady-gaga-alejandro.org/