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What to say if a job interviewer asks: "Do you want to work from home?"

Hybrid work models could create divisions
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Many Americans have come to enjoy the perks of working from their homes, which became makeshift offices during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the unplanned experiment in telecommuting is turning a corner as more people get vaccinated against the virus and companies gird for the new era of hybrid workplaces.

Now, job seekers must weigh how important retaining the ability to work remotely is to them against more conventional attributes, like pay or corporate culture. Indeed, in preparing for job interviews, it's wise for job candidates to plan their response to what in the post-pandemic landscape has become a standard interview question: "Would you rather work from home or from the office?" 

Will employers ask where you want to work?

Most candidates these days should expect to be asked about their location preferences in job interviews, experts said.

"Our world has changed and this will be a topic employers do need to ask about, and candidates should feel empowered to be honest about their preferences," said Amy Lui Abel, vice president of human capital research at The Conference Board, a nonprofit research organization.

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"It's not unreasonable to think that's going to be a question," added Katy Tynan, a "future of work" analyst at Forrester Research. 

It's a perfectly legal interview question, too, provided that employers don't ask follow-up questions that are too probing and could be deemed discriminatory, according to workplace attorneys.

"You want to be asking applicants questions for legitimate business reasons and to communicate expectations and needs. But you also need to be careful that you're not discriminating against individuals, and you're not imposing requirements for the sake of imposing requirements when it's not something your business needs," said Michael Schmidt, a labor and employment attorney with Cozen O'Connor.

Trick question or legitimate discussion point?

Some interview questions are designed to force candidates to reveal unflattering information about themselves. (Think: What are your greatest weaknesses?) One workplace expert said that asking about a person's attitudes toward remote work could be another trap set by some employers. 

"It reminds me of the question that was popular for a while — 'Do you work better on teams or independently,' and you're like, which one is better for this position?" said Brie Reynolds, a career coach at FlexJobs, a career service that specializes in remote jobs. 

But employers now also have a legitimate reason to ask where a potential employee is most comfortable working. 

"It's not necessarily a trick question. Do your research ahead of time to see what the company is doing and that can guide your answer," Reynolds said. 

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If a company is adopting a flexible, hybrid work arrangement and wants to accommodate employees, an interviewer could be surveying folks "to get a sense of employees' desired schedules and not using it as a means to rule people out," added Amber Clayton, a human resources expert at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Similarly, if a role is designed to be performed remotely, an interviewer could be asking the question to assess whether the candidate will be successful working from home. 

"Era of the employee" 

Still, workers should feel emboldened to be forthright about their preferences, particularly if they can show how they'll be productive under such an arrangement. 

"Be aware about how you're most successful, supported by examples of being productive working remotely. The more self-aware you are about what works, the more an employer is going to feel confident putting you in an environment that reflects what you're describing," said Karin Borchert, the CEO of Modern Hire, a hiring platform. 

Given the tight labor market, many employers will have to be flexible, and even look beyond their immediate geographies for qualified talent to fill roles. 

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"Right now, all the data shows we are right back in a tight labor market shortage. It's a job market in which employees and candidates have an advantage," Abel of The Conference Board said. "I call it the 'era of the employee.' Unless employers are willing to be flexible and adapt, they may have an even harder time than they are already having to find qualified, talented workers."

It's also helpful for employees to look at employee reviews of a company to understand how flexible an organization really is. 

"They might be looking for someone who is adaptable when it comes to hybrid situations. If you are the type of person who thrives in both environments, it's not a cop out to say that if you focus better at home but like the collegiality and collaboration of an office," Reynolds of FlexJobs said. 

Finding the right match

Job candidates should research a company's remote work policies before applying and interviewing for a position to be sure their prospective employer's stance aligns with their own. 

For instance, someone who wishes to work remotely forever would clash with a hiring manager at Morgan Stanley, where CEO James Gorman, has publicly said the company does its work "inside Morgan Stanley offices."

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"If you do a quick search, lots of companies have said mandatory return to work, and if your preference is to be remote maybe don't apply to those jobs," Abel said. 

Other times, a candidate might have to interview to find out more.

"Flexibility works on both sides — it can't just be the employer or the employee being flexible. We need to come together and find out what works for both sides. You might have to go into an interview to find out where we're both willing to be flexible," Abel said. 

It's also fair for the candidate to flip the question on the interviewer. 

"Sometimes you need to answer with another question. Say, 'Help me understand where your organization is in terms of policies related to hybrid work. How are people working, what are expectations and what is the culture as it relates to being in the office?'" Tynan, the Forrester researcher said. "I might prefer to be fully remote, but if this is a culture where in-person is really valued, I need to know that before I say, 'I love working from home!'"

"Impermissible interview questions"

Companies could run into trouble if they probe candidates too hard about their location preferences. For example, if a candidate expresses interest in working from home, it's inappropriate for an employer to ask about an individual's medical state, familial obligations or parental status.

"How you as an employer ask the question and what follow-up questions you ask need to be carefully considered because you don't want to run into discrimination issues," Schmidt said. 

Companies could make themselves vulnerable to claims that their interview process is discriminatory if at the end of the day they don't hire a woman who wants to work from home in order to balance job responsibilities with child rearing.

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Same goes for senior candidates, if a company assumes older individuals won't want to report to the office given the health risks of COVID-19. 

"Companies could be basing decisions on presumptions or assumptions that might be wrong or discriminatory, so the questions you ask and the level of detail you get into is something you want to be careful about," Schmidt said.

Questions that are asked of applicants or current employees must be business-related and be posed only in order to understand and communicate a company's expectations or needs.

"The employer has to focus on the job, position, responsibilities. We can't ask interview questions like, 'Do you have kids, are they in school, will you find a babysitter? Those are impermissible interview questions," said Carol Goodman, an employment lawyer at Herrick Feinstein. "They want to be careful not to stray into an area where the answer is, 'I do need to work from home two days a week because I have little kids and I want to make sure they have coverage,'" she said. 

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