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Bidding as a tandem couple II: the telework option

The past month has been all about bidding—in other words, we’ve been looking for jobs. Not for me, obviously, because I’ll be assigned to Berlin next year, but for the other FSO in our household, aka my husband.

Last year, I wrote in my post Bidding as a tandem couple I: factors to consider about the long list of factors diplomats must consider when they want to work in the same embassy. What I didn’t write, however, is that my husband failed to get a job in any of the big embassies he applied for. Instead, he got a job at a relatively small mission that had no job opportunities for me. So when I got assigned to Berlin this summer, he had to back out of that commitment.

I’m not sure why I didn’t write about it. I guess it would have been more honest to admit that our master plan had failed and that we were bummed. The problem, however, was that he was assigned to Prague--one of those wondrous posts everyone wants!--and I didn’t want to complain about that on the Internet.

Once we moved to DC my husband negotiated a one-year stint at Main State (State Department headquarters in Washington DC). The idea was that next year he’ll come with me to Berlin no matter what. If necessary, he'd take unpaid leave for the duration of my 2-year tour.

Obviously, that would have been bad for his career and our finances. Fortunately, there was another solution. He could--if he wanted to put in the effort--convince the good people at the State Department to give him a domestic assignment job but allow him to work from overseas (from Berlin, in this case), which is called a Employee Teleworking Overseas (DETO) position.

Teleworking: increasingly common?

As you can imagine, getting a DETO position approved within the State Department bureaucracy isn't the easiest thing in the world. There’s only a limited number of jobs that qualify for telework and many bosses are reluctant to let their employees work in another time zone, forever unavailable for a face-to-face meeting. So at first we thought it was a mission impossible.

During the search, however, we heard many stories from fellow diplomats who had experience with telework, and some pointed out specific bureaus within the State Department that are particularly open-minded about it--the The Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) being one of them.

What also increased our optimism was that the current Director General (who is the head of State Department HR) actively encourages the implementation of new and existing policies that give employees with changing circumstances options to balance work/life by staying gainfully employed, and motivated, through flexible work arrangements.

It didn’t take long before my husband identified two jobs that fit with our requirements. Both jobs focused on Africa, and he tried to make the case that living in Berlin would be advantageous because Europe is in the same time zone as Africa and it’s much easier to travel there from Europe than from the U.S.

Next thing you know: he gets offered both jobs! The conditions were not equally good, and fortunately my husband opted for the job that basically allows us to be together with a 2-month interruption at most (which is about all we can bear at this point, because our kids are still too small to understand why mommy or daddy is gone the entire summer).

The Catch…

So, we’re pretty happy and grateful. We’ll both be employed for the foreseeable future and we’ll be working in the same place. That said, I can’t say the process was easy.

One of the problems you run into as a new tandem is that “the system” makes it nearly impossible to plan ahead. It’s like pregnancy: it’s an important and life-changing event, but you have almost no control over it. I mean, when lining up his next job my husband had to pretend that my career didn’t exist until I got hired, which is when he “suddenly” had to break his assignment and look for a new one—even though we knew when I was going to be hired two years in advance.

The other problem is timing. No matter how you do it, timing is always off when you become a tandem. We’re lucky that I have to stay in DC for a year of German language training, because that gives my husband the opportunity to work in his new job for a while before he takes it overseas: a common requirement for telework jobs. FSOs who don’t have time to spend in DC before they move overseas with their spouses don’t have that luxury and, as a result, are less likely to get a telework job.

For my husband, the “catch” is that he has to quit his current one-year assignment short to start his new one, which is always unpleasant. It leaves a bad impression when you walk back on your promise to stay for a year to work on a project, and it hurts the Department’s productivity when gaps are filled by creating new ones.

As usual, though, I see more positives than negatives in our situation. We asked to go to Berlin because we figured we’d love to live there under any circumstance, whether we'd both be earning money or not. So we couldn’t lose. Now that we’re over the hump of “synching up” our careers without being separated we’re satisfied—not bitter.

And it has to be that way, because that’s how we live: we make peace with whatever the hell just happened in our careers—usually caused by infuriating bureaucratic rules—to make space for the future, where unknown jobs, indecipherable languages, and many other surprises, that for some reason are extremely appealing to us, await.


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