Seek clarity on remote work in a job search

Little boy spending time in his dad's office

As COVID vaccines ramp up and infection rates decline (knock on wood), the question of when to return to the office — if at all — is top of mind for employees and employers alike. This can be an especially tricky consideration for those applying to a position with a new employer or recent college graduates trying to land their first job.

I recently met with a client who works in a limited-term appointment and is looking for a permanent position. He has health issues and is not comfortable working in a space where there are lots of people around, at least not until most are vaccinated.

April McHugh UW-Madison career counselor

At the other end of the spectrum, another person explains that she’s ready for a job change, but is dismayed by the number of positions listed as “fully remote.” She prefers separation between work and home and is eager to return to an office environment.

As if searching for a job wasn’t complicated enough.

In addition to evaluating pay, benefits, professional duties and company culture, today’s job seekers must consider issues surrounding personal safety and whether they’ll be required to work in the office, at home or some combination of the two. Here are a few things to consider:

Know what you need. Assess your work requirements in terms of health and safety as well as personal preference. Do you have a health condition that puts you at greater risk in a group setting? Do you need the flexibility to care for a child or loved one during particular hours? Do you prefer the convenience of remote work? Whatever you need is the right choice for you.

Ask about expectations. It’s reasonable to want to know an employer’s expectations for where you’ll work before you apply. But you may worry that by inquiring, you’ll put yourself at a competitive disadvantage. Try this: Instead of asking, “Can I work from home?” say, “What are the expectations for this position in terms of working remotely, in person or hybrid?”

Verify vaccine requirements. Currently, employers can require employees to get the vaccine, though there are ongoing debates about how to handle those who are unwilling or unable to do so. If the organization requires the vaccine and you have a reason not to get vaccinated, you may want to wait to have this conversation until you’ve received an offer.

Do some sleuthing online. Check the employer’s website for information about how they’re dealing with COVID. If they don’t have policies posted, you can always ask for specifics when you get an offer. You don’t have to take a job if it’s not the right fit.

Feel out flexibility. We’re not out of the pandemic woods yet, and things could look very different in six, 12 or 18 weeks. All of us, including employers, need to remain flexible as we continue to navigate the pandemic. If an organization’s work requirements seem unreasonably inflexible, take note! This might be a red flag that this is not the best fit for you.

Return to what’s most important — such as family and those around you — and ask good questions of potential employers. It’s always better to know sooner than later whether the values of an organization match your own, particularly when it comes to your health, safety and happiness.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Career and education counselor April McHugh can be reached at april.mchugh@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on May 9, 2021.