Employers now expected to be much more flexible and adaptable

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employers to grapple with all sorts of new and old issues:

  • Should employees be allowed to work from home? If so, who, how and when?
  • How should we handle the increased number of requests for family accommodations?
  • What policies will we adopt now and in future to protect our workforce?
  • What will be the impacts on our next round of collective bargaining and how can we be ready?
  • How should we deal with conflicts between employees who are working remotely?

Whether the topic is working from home, a request for accommodation, or a discussion around policy, any time two or more people are having a conversation to reach an agreement or resolve a conflict — it is a negotiation.

Therefore, while the questions above and the contexts in which they are asked may vary, the similarity is that all of these issues require skillful negotiation to achieve an optimal outcome.

So, how can we be better at negotiating?

The first step is to recognize that all of these situations are, in fact, negotiations and then bring your negotiation skills to the table.

Separate the people from the problem

Too often, negotiations and the solutions can become personal.

Maybe you really dislike the person seeking accommodation, or the colleague making the suggestion is someone you find very annoying.

Alternatively, perhaps you really like the person making the request and are empathetic to their position. In either case, the risk is the same.

How you feel about the person or the issue may impair your ability to rationally resolve the problem and this may lead to a result you will come to regret.

Roger Fisher, formerly of Harvard Law School, taught his negotiation students to “separate the people from the problem. Be soft on the people and hard on the problem.”

This is not always easy, but it is important if your goal is to achieve a rational and durable solution.

Given the length and uncertainty of the pandemic and the desire to maintain a loyal and productive workforce, being able to find solutions that fit while maintaining the relationship with your employees and colleagues is a critical goal.

Use objective criteria

Another tool to allow us to negotiate effectively is the use of objective criteria.

Objective criteria are external standards, policies, benchmarks and precedents which can guide us in our negotiations.

When you consult surveys regarding salaries in your industry, research how other companies are approaching working from home, or consult with your legal counsel about other cases dealing with accommodation requests, you are using objective criteria.

The skillful use of objective criteria can help you to persuade the other side that what you are suggesting is fair and reasonable, because it is consistent with how others are approaching the same challenge.

To enhance effectiveness, it is important to try to ensure your objective criteria are obtained from a credible source, are up-to-date and clearly similar to your context.

When someone is asking for something you are not inclined to give, one of the most effective approaches can be to ask them for the basis for their request. That is, you are asking for them to provide objective criteria to support their request.

Consider the interests behind the positions

People often take positions such as “I need to work from home.”

When that position is met with an opposing position of “No, you have to start working from the office again,” a conflict arises.

You have a much better chance to resolve the conflict if you can identify the underlying interests that support the position. That is, why does the employee want to continue to work from home? What needs, goals, concerns does the employee have that he/she is trying to meet by working from home?

Once you understand the employee’s interests and the interests of the employer (maintaining productivity, avoiding a bad precedent, etcetera), you may be able to come up with an option that satisfies the interests of both sides.

Shy away from ‘me vs. you’ situations

Anything you can do in a negotiation to move away from a “me versus you” approach is going to enhance the likelihood of achieving a good result, while maintaining the relationship with the other person or group.

For example, if an employee wants to continue to work from home after the pandemic and the employer would like the employee to return to the office, this could quickly look like “me versus you” or “employee versus the company.”

If you can change the discussion to focus on “how can we provide the flexibility you need for your child care arrangements while ensuring you meet our productivity requirements”, you have changed the conversation from “me versus you” to “us against the problem” and dramatically increased the likelihood of a positive outcome for all.

Any time you are working to reach an agreement or resolve a conflict, you are actually negotiating.

The pandemic has required employers to be much more flexible and adaptable regarding many issues.

In essence, the pandemic has required us all to have better negotiation skills.

Learning to separate the people from the problem, identify underlying interests, use objective criteria and focus our collective energy on resolving the problem will help all of us get to the other side. More information about our negotiation training can be found on the Become A Powerful Negotiator webpage.