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5 benefits to negotiate for at work (when a raise is off the table)

“Right now, you’re probably very grateful to have your job. But you can be grateful and still negotiate,” says Alexandra Carter, a professor at Columbia Law School and a negotiation trainer for the United Nations.
Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.
Alexandra Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations.Target Marketing Digital/Gonzaga Romero

If you’re working for a company that has announced layoffs or a salary freeze amid Covid-19, now may not be the best time to ask for a raise. But does that mean there’s nothing to negotiate? Far from it.

People often make the mistake of thinking that tough economic times mean you shouldn’t raise any of your needs with your boss. But this simply isn’t true. Negotiation isn’t just about money conversations. In fact, advocating for benefits other than your salary can yield benefits for you and your organization.

Here are five things to consider negotiating for right now and strategies for how to achieve them!

1. Work-from-home arrangements

Right now, many professionals need work-from-home benefits for health reasons or to supervise their children’s remote learning.

For example, one of my clients, Heather, who requested that her last name be withheld, is an architect who has been nervously watching the calendar tick closer to Oct. 26th ― the day her CEO says she must be back in the office of their small firm. Her boss has felt unable to work at home, so he wants the whole team back in person, reasoning that they’ll be more productive.

The problem? Heather is concerned about safety – as well as the academic and emotional health of her two young children, who are schooling from home. She also has a long commute, and knows that like many employees, working from home would be better for her productivity as well as her overall well-being. She just needs a way to get her CEO on board.

RELATED: Mika’s Know Your Value pandemic reset: How to successfully ask your boss for what YOU need

2. ‘Deep work’

"Deep work," a term coined by Georgetown professor Cal Newport, means long, uninterrupted time where one can concentrate intently ― without meetings, administrative tasks or other disruptions. Deep work allows people to get beyond their day-to-day surface tasks and plug in to do the innovative thinking companies need to thrive.

Many of the professionals I've trained tell me that pre-pandemic, they could block off time to problem-solve on the company's most important matters, as well as design new business development initiatives. But with back-to-back virtual meetings and the demands of home, it’s never been harder to get that time. Companies who allow for a meeting-free hour or two of the day give more of their employees a chance to do the deep work that will allow their organization to thrive through the pandemic. But managers tell me they need a designated meeting-free hour each day to do it.

3. Training or mentorship

Recessions are a great time to focus on training and mentorship. Whether it’s specific skills that you’ll need to be successful ― like sales, negotiation, technology ― or ways to affect company-wide transformation, training is a great way to equip people and teams during the pandemic. And one-to-one mentorship helps employees feel more connected at work, reduces the silo effect and fosters development. Kate Buchanan, a senior insurance professional, had long wanted sales training to grow in the business development aspect of her work, and during the pandemic she successfully lobbied her company to support it.

4. Mental and physical health benefits

Many Americans have suffered mental health effects during Covid-19, like depression and anxiety, and physical activity is critical to maintaining long-term health. When companies support their employees’ well-being, their bottom line often benefits, too.

Many of the professionals I counsel want to know how to negotiate with their companies to provide more health benefits. They have heard of companies expanding their Employee Assistance Programs, providing remote fitness or yoga classes, or offering their employees free or discounted mental health care, whether provided by therapists or available through apps. They know that when they and others feel more supported they will burn out less ― and they want to advocate for everyone.

5. Your career path

You don’t need to wait ― and you shouldn’t ― until you can have the “money conversation” to talk to your manager about your career path and where you’d like to go at your company. In fact, the pandemic is a great time to reiterate your commitment, share your goals for the future and ask for help and advice. In doing so, you demonstrate initiative and commitment ― which can only help your career trajectory.

When management puts raises back on the table, you want to be one of the first in line. My client Tiffani (last name withheld) is a graduate school administrator who occasionally teaches a highly-rated class at her school. She has been told a raise is off the table this year – but she loves teaching and knows if she gets more experience, she might be marketable as a professor and can leverage offers for more salary. She needs her department head to approve a new course she has designed.

Tips to make your negotiation a success:

Once you’re ready to negotiate, here are two simple tools you can use to improve your chances of success.

First, ask an open question to get your manager talking about their views and goals. Great open questions start with “What,” “How,” or “Tell me.”

For example: “You’ve said you need us all back in the office. What are your biggest objectives for us this quarter?” “How do you think we might support employees’ well-being at this time?” “Tell me where you see me growing at the company.” Your first goal is to get to know them ― the manager, the company, the decision-makers ― and their thought process as well as possible.

Second, once you have an idea of what your manager’s priorities are, make what’s called an “I/we ask” ― “Here’s what I’m requesting and here’s how we all benefit.” In other words, frame your request to show how it actually helps them, too. For example:

“Employee health has a direct effect on business health, and so our bottom line will benefit when we offer more wellness support.”

“I’d love to enroll in that sales training program, and when I do, I’ll be even better able to deliver on our business origination goals for this year.”

“You’ve said you want 10 percent increased productivity this quarter, and here’s how working from home allows me to save at least 15 percent of my day that would otherwise be spent commuting.”

Right now, you’re probably very grateful to have your job. But you can be grateful and still negotiate. When you advocate for the things that matter ― the things that make you a happier, healthier and more effective leader for the long term, everybody wins ― including your manager and your company, too.

Alexandra Carter is a professor at Columbia Law School, a world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations, and the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of "Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything."