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Monday, March 09, 2009

Telecommuting Bosses

I’m interested in your thoughts on management by telecommuters. I worked for 10 years for a large non-profit organization in DC. About 2 or 3 years ago, they began to allow more people to telecommute. My much younger, green director worked from home 2 or 3 days a week. Her immediate boss (the dept. head) lived out of state was only in the office 2 weeks of the month. I could have opted to work from home (WFH) myself, but I was in a “body-count dependent” carpool, plus I would be bored and distracted at home all day.

I had been friendly coworkers with my boss for several years before she became the director. She had 4 children under the age of 7 and a long commute, so I completely understood her desire to WFH. Therefore, I was shocked one day on a con call when I told someone I couldn’t talk to them that afternoon at 1:00 because I had a doctor’s appointment, but could we do it later in the afternoon. My boss, who was also on the call from her home, caught me completely by surprise when she called me out about going to the appointment that she knew nothing about. Mind you, this organization was pretty laid back about these types of things and it had been close to a decade since I had to get prior permission to visit a doctor, particularly since I was going during my lunch. Also, the topic to be discussed was not of a timely nature.

One hour, 15 minutes later, when I returned from the doctor’s, I had waiting for me both an email and a VM informing me to code my time as PTO and, in the future, to always let her know when I was going to be out of the office. This from a woman who could be getting a pedicure at that very moment for all the rest of us knew. I always just assumed that during her WFH time, she was caring for her children, taking them to the doctor, picking them up from school, etc. It certainly did not bother me because it’s a new world, right? It’s all about results and not so much about bottom-time-in-the-chair, right? Well, apparently not for the daily schleppers.

Every morning I fought traffic to meet my carpool at 7:30. We then jumped from one car to another, in all weathers, schlepping bags, laptops, coats, etc. Then we fought traffic again to get to DC. In the evening, we did it all over again. I did this five days/week for years only to be called out on a doctor’s appointment by someone wearing a bathrobe?? I was livid. What a ridiculous (and hypocritical) double standard. Needless to say, a huge row ensued. I decided right then I was leaving the organization. I stayed there until I found another job (about 3 months) and have now been happily employed for 16 months, with another telecommuter for a boss. However, he has never treated any employee this way. He is older and more seasoned and -- I suspect -- knows how to pick his battles.

I’d be interested in your comments on this situation and how telecommuters can successfully manage daily schleppers without such hypocrisy.

I think you've mistaken telecommuting for not working.

That bugs me.

If your boss, with 4 children under 7, has them home with her while she's working, she's remiss in her duties. Yes, yes, I'm all about results, but you cannot effectively put in an 8 hour day with 4 little helpers. Sure, keeping an infant nearby is one thing, but 4 is impossible.

My bet is that your boss had them in daycare. Or she had a nanny. I'm sure she occasionally picked them up or took them to doctor's appointments. She undoubtedly told her boss she was doing so as well.

I agree with you that your boss over-reacted about your doctor's appointment. But, why didn't you talk to her about it then? Instead, you had a huge fight with her where you probably made comments about working in a bathrobe. This is what we like to call foolish.

You could have apologized and explained that your previous boss hadn't required prior notification for short amounts of time out of the office. She probably would have accepted your apology and life would go on.

You pointed out that she used to be a peer. She probably felt like her new underlings weren't respecting her and chose to assert herself in this situation to "show who is boss." It was a foolish and inexperienced thing to do. But, it had NOTHING to do with telecommuting.

I'm a fan of telecommuting. Ideally, I like to see partial telecommuting and partial in office time. I think that is the best solution for team cohesiveness and work-life balance--for those who desire to work from home. Not everybody does. I telecommute because of commuting distance, but if I lived close to the office, I'd prefer to work in one.

You decided you couldn't work for this woman, so you found a new job. Yeah! Many people would suffer and moan and complain. You actively sought work elsewhere and found it. It's possible you could have salvaged the relationship, but you chose not to. This is fine.

But don't let her inexperience put you against telecommuting. And don't let your pesky gender bias get in your way either. I noticed you haven't accused your new, male boss off extra-curricular activities during the day. Be careful what you assume. It can come back to bite you.


The Engineer said...

I suspect that the 'Daily Schlepper' has forgotten about the difference between exempt (most managers) and non-exempt (hourly staff like the writer) as well.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary. I am the Daily Schlepper and I was also an exempt employee; in fact, every person she managed (but 1)was exempt.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary. I am the Daily Schlepper and I was also an exempt employee; in fact, every person she managed (but 1)was exempt.

Anonymous said...

Our Flexible Work Approach Program (which telecommuting falls under) requires an acknowledgement that it will not be used as a substitute for daycare and that children will be in proper care during the work day.

I have 2 young children and I work from home 2 days per week, but the kids wouldn’t know that. Their schedule isn’t any different whether I’m working at home or in the office, they still go to daycare. I work at home because sometimes it’s the only way I can focus and get big projects done. We have a very “loose” office culture and interruptions are par for the course in the office.

It is insulting that the original poster insinuates (or heck, outright states) that someone working from home is getting pedicures and sitting in her bathrobe. I work longer hours on the days that I work at home, and fully dressed since I get up and shower and everything, just like a regular day in the office. My clothes may be a little more comfortable, but that is the only difference.

Don’t assume that a bad management practice means that telecommuters aren’t working. The original poster just comes off as bitter and uninformed.

Anonymous said...

Daily Schlepper here: I was indeed bitter, but not uninformed. I was bitter about my *former manager* and, as you infer, what I saw to be her bad management practice.

I am not at all against telecommuting or working from home. I am in favor of this in principle. (I had the option to do it myself but could not because of the carpool that depended on me for the HOV lanes here in DC.)

jaded hr rep said...

Wow, so many egregious assumptions about telecommuting, or at least about her then new boss. Most of my telecommuting employees work 70+ hrs a week, so if they happen to need 10 mins of Facebook time in between, go right ahead. I'd rather keep them sane.

EHRL is far gentler than I would've been. The manager may have over-reacted to the dr's appt, but so didn't the employee in her response to the situation. Seems like there were many more latent issues in the relationship than this situation alone.

Anonymous said...

One the other side of things, our managers are having trouble managing telecommuting employees. How do you know if you get an honest days work out of them? Is it solely based on trust? Do Companies have policies on this?

another anony said...

How do you know if you get an honest days work out of them?

I'm not sure I even understand this question. You measure their performance just like anyone else.

Are they getting their work accomplished within company deadlines? Are they responsive and available when people need to call or email them for last-minute help? Are they cooperative and professional when dealing with colleagues and clients? When they complete projects, does the work meet managerial standards?

I understand that it's human nature to assume that telecommuting is so good that the employee must be "getting away with something" without constant supervision. But if an employee does his job properly and to his supervisor's satisfaction, then you've gotten an honest day's work out of him. End of story. Someone who chronically slacks off is going to get "caught" at home just as well as he'd get "caught" at the office, because his work isn't going to be up to snuff.

There's nothing magical about being in the office that ensures you're getting an "honest day's work" out of an employee, either. No manager is going to sit over an employee's shoulder the entire day and make sure he isn't making personal calls, taking 30 coffee breaks, chatting with co-workers...

If a manager's idea of measuring employee competence is merely to have the employee facing his computer for 8 hours a day, even then you can't win. Even if the employee is sitting at a desk right next to his manager all day, said employee could be surfing the internet most of the time. How does the manager know if he's gotten an honest day's work out of this employee? The manager assesses the employee's work output. Same as with telecommuters.

Confused Recruiter said...

Am I the only person out there who has no interest in telecommuting? Recently, I've noticed a huge influx of resumes literally begging for work-from-home jobs. I have absolutely no interest in working from home and I'm someone with a fast computer and comfy home. You lose a lot when you're working from home (we have a few people on our team who do so). You miss out on team building and creating relationships (relationships that could help you in the long miss out on face time and last minute meetings. Granted, you get to cut out the commute, but my commute of 45 minutes (each way) isn't that terrible that I'd want to spend 7 days a week at home. I'd lose my mind!

As per the OP, while I do think that this manager decided to show her power in the wrong way, I would have probably reached out to her immediately (not on the conference call) and explained that since it was your lunch hour, you didn't think there would be a problem. I would have asked for more clarification on best practices for such things and let it go. But the fact that you clearly are positive that she was getting mani/pedis and lounging in her robe shows that you have absolutely no respect for her. So it's best you quit your job once you found something you knew you couldn't get over - that was the mature and adult thing to do.

But I honestly think that there is a lot more animosity and garbage beneath the surface here, because your disgust for your previous boss is tangible and I doubt that's as a result of this one event. My guess is you got passed over for her promotion.

Anonymous said...

The poster made a good observation. How can someone at home -- whether in a robe or a business suit -- make such a gigantic deal out of a doctor's appointment?

To recap: Poster was questioned about it on a con call, then in a voice mail and then with an email. THAT, my friends, says volumes to me.

Poster -- Be glad you got away!

class-factotum said...

How do you know if you get an honest days work out of them?

Gee. I don't know. Have you given that person objectives? Is he meeting them? Seems pretty simple to me. Are you managing or not?

Anonymous said...

Why is an exempt employee being charged PTO for a partial day? That's not right.

Sadistic Manager said...

Oh, my. From the bottom up:

If your performance metrics for in-office staff don't stretch to telecommuters, don't offer telecommuting. But as previous comments point out, if you're managing right, your telecommuters will be fine.

I don't like telecommuting, only because I hate the phone. If I need someone for something, I want to be able to show up at their desk and talk to them. Likewise, if someone cracks wise, I like to be able to lob a paper clip.

That said, yes, the manager was wrong to handle things in this way. But the employee who left in a huff amid all sorts of accusations against her manager is the bigger sinner, here. To her I say, grow up.

Anonymous said...

let's be honest most people that take advantage of telecommuting are women because they stay at home and think they can now take care of their Nadya Suleman size litter and not do actual work.

Stella Commute said...

Wow. Talk about conflating things that have nothing to do with each other. The fact that the manager telecommutes really has nothing to do with the fact of the case at hand, which is your new manager would like to know where you're going to be during the day so she can plan accordingly. I could see telecommuting being a factor if the manager was not available on a normal schedule or otherwise exercising flagrant abuse of the arrangement, but she sounds like she's knuckled down in her home office. I'm not an HR type, so I don't know what the laws are with regard to taking PTO for appointments, but I do know that as a telecommuter, when I have doctors appointments or have to mind my children because they're sick or whatnot, I take PTO. And I'm way exempt. So there.

Anonymous said...

Whew, tough crowd, tough crowd. Daily Schlepper here. I am a full 6 inches shorter than this morning when EHRL told me she had answered my query. I may have deserved some of what came my way today but my retinas are scorched. No, I wasn't passed over for a promotion; I'm not against telecommuting; her 3 preschool aged children were indeed at home (not with a nanny or at daycare), and no, she & I really didn't have any issues, which is why I was so gobsmacked. Well, never mind.

But my original question, which still has yet to be really answered, even by our hostess, is how does a telemanager manage people in the office on the day-to-day stuff? I'm not talking about work product, mind you, but housekeeping/administrivia like arrivals, departures, appointments, etc. There is a wealth of information on how to *manage telecommuters*, but a dearth - as far as I've been able to determine -- on how a tele-manager can manage in-office staff. If Dave the Director calls Ann the Associate at 4:45 three days in a row and gets no answer, what then? There are some "Daves" who would let is pass unremarked, but other "Daves' who might call her out on this. Ann the Associate might squawk about many of the things I did. It may not rise to the level of HR for response, but don't kid yourselves that it's not in the ether among the office staff.

If people reading this are HR professionals or interested in HR issues, I think this is something that has to be talked about. It's not going away. If office staff are managed by 20th century norms, while telecommuters are managed by 21st century norms, then buckle your seat belts because it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Anyhow, thank you to all who responded.

llamaface said...

I would imagine that managers who telecommute are in touch with people who are physically in the office to help get the correct picture of productivity.

My supervisor is in the same building as I am, but we are on different floors. Generally I see him once a week when I hand him my time sheet to approve. For all intents and purposes, he could be in another state, yet he knows my productivity because we stay in contact, and he communicates with people I work face to face with, and it works well for us.

Anonymous said...

I don't really see the difference between telemanaging and managing from a remote location, which is nothing new. I manage people at two different locations, and my supervisor has people at 6 or 7 locations. How do we handle appointments, arrivals, departures etc.? Communication. I email my supervisor my schedule once a week- which days I will be in each office, when I have outside meetings and when I am taking time off. My staff have stable schedules, so they just let me know by email or phone if they are taking time off, scheduled for training etc. We've got this odd thing going on - they don't assume I'm getting a pedicure when I'm not in the office, and I don't expect a phone call or email upon their arrival (which I have required from people known to have attendance issues)

The issue with the doctor's appointment would have come up with me although I wouldn't said anything while on the conference call. It seems that you expected at least to extend your lunch break, and I would expect notification that you were not going to be in the office- which is not the same as expecting you to request permission.

Anonymous said...

Daily Schlepper, I hear you. There's a weird pro-telecommuting hysteria, the proponents of which claim any difficulties with or questions about the practice mean that one is a paranoid Luddite. (When it was introduced in my deparment, it was the employees that were universally acknowledged to be the worst and laziest who jumped at the chance to take it!)

class-factotum said...

When I was working, we had Lotus Notes calendars. My boss, who was officed 12 miles away from me in another building, could see my calendar. All my meetings were on it. If he was interested in talking to me (which he never was, but that's a different issue), he knew when and where to find me.

Jo's Outlet said...

I think Daily Schlepper's main question really was answered earlier. A good telecommuting/telemanaging relationship will be one where the telecommuter and the telemanager communicate with each other on the arrivals and departures when it is necessary (for appointments, etc.) EHRL and some other commenters also stated that micromanaging is not the goal in a telecommuting/telemanaging relationship. However, it is the telecommuter's responsibility to communicate - maybe even over-communicate with the manager. The telemanager then must look at work results, goals achieved, professional demeanor, etc.
I was very impressed EHRL picked up on the gender bias (even if Daily Schlepper had reason to assume) because the bias was definitely there.

Mike said...

You don't manage people, you lead them. You "manage" things.

Anonymous said...

I am a manager in an office where most people do a significant amount of WFH. I also supervise a smaller number of employees at another site, about 60 miles away. I'm not sure I understand the issue being raised here, given that it involves exempt employees. From a manager's perspective, what is the need to differentiate the exempt lots-of-WFH people, the exempt mostly-in-the-office people, and the exempt 60-miles-away people? And when I work from home, as I do maybe 10-15% of the time, am I any less able to keep track of them than I would be in the office? Mostly I rely on trust, email, and rigorous performance review. If this involved non-exempt employees, the situation would be different, because then one would be accounting explicitly for seat time as well as for quality and completion of work.

PE Mommy said...

They manage like they do any other employee. I worked from home fulltime for two months due to bedrest and part time for several months due to pregnancy complications. My boss had my hours 6-230. If he called at 630 I better be picking up the phone because I was expected to be WORKING. I think she had a right to be upset. It's not that hard to say hey, I have a dr's appt at one. Do you mind if I take a late lunch and possibly work later so I don't have to use PTO? She's upset because you just took the time for the appt without discussing it with her. Plus they could see me working from emails back and forth on whatever.

You measure performance like anyone else. You know it takes x amount of time to complete task a b and c. If it isn't done, WHY? They should have a reason.

I have three children now (2 when I was pregnant). Their day was the same as any other day with school and daycare. The only exception, I let my 9 year old daughter walk home from school instead of go to afternoon care. She would go to her room and do homework while I finished up my day.

I honestly think the original poster is overreacting as the boss had a right to know where she was.

Olivia said...

I think I can understand what Schlepper is trying to get to, and it's a interesting issue:

Even with exempt employees, who are supposed to be judged by output alone, we usually establish a schedule for them to work which assumes a minimum of 40 hours. For those who actually work in the office, we usually have policies about being tardy, etc. Even though they may routinely only need 35 hours to accomplish all their goals, we generally expect them to be physically present for 40, unless there's a reason they can't be there.

However, with the telecommuter, it's harder to hold them to the same standard, because we don't have visual clues (or gossipy co-workers) to monitor them.

To me, this raises an interesting point - is it appropriate to expect an exempt employee to adhere to an hourly schedule when our pay and performance assumptions have nothing to do with hours put in?

Obviously, if job duties include answering phones, etc., this is more reasonable, but otherwise, wouldn't it technically be more appropriate to indicate something to the effect that they must make themselves available for meetings, calls, etc. during certain timeframes, but not specifically state HOW MANY hours they must work?

Sorry if I'm throwing a wrench into the works, but I find it an interesting situation from an FLSA standpoint. There's a lot of gray in this situation.

As an aside - there lots of ways one could monitor the "desk time" of WFH employees - time logging into the company network, etc.

Charles said...

Wow, a lot of assumptions being made.

One thing is clear to me (if I can also make an assumption in that a "con call" means a conference call with others on it) - the manager reprimanded an employee in front of others; then proceeded to "follow-up" with two more reprimands. This is beyond way over the top; especially doing so in front of others over a new, unannounced (or uncommunicated) policy.

I don't see reprimanding in front of others as simply a mistake or over-reacting. It is not only unprofessional, but downright rude. Such behaviour would most likely not be tolerated by management if the tables were reversed, why does management tolerated it when a supervisor/manager behaves this poorly?

I wonder (not quite assuming!) how many others left this organization after daily schlepper because of this person's unprofessional behaviour?

It reminds me of a non-profit organization (should I start making assumptions about non-profits now?) that I worked for in NYC where the one supervisor in her 12 years with the organization had 14 assistants all the while complaining that "good help was hard to find." When I questioned the HR manager about this situation the response was "well, we all know that she has troubles, but she will just have to learn how to treat people." What?! And let 14 people be put through her nonsense?! And if she hasn't learned how to be professional in 12 years when will she?

I guess there is some truth to the old saying that management always supports management.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholly with Charles. Reprimanding in front of a client (that's what it sounds like to me) was inappropriate and controlling. Sending the "I'm gonna show her who's boss" message was inappropriate and controlling. Daily Schlep, I applaud you for leaving, especially in an environment in which many people would tell you to "take it" because of the economy.

I have worked for my fair share of of what Dr. Bob Sutton from Stanford University calls "A-holes" in the workplace. In fact, I still work for some and preparing to escape with other valuable colleagues who've already left. Take it from me: your boss was on her way.

The reality is most people don't know how to manage, lead, herd or whatever euphemism you want to call it. And really, deep down, most people don't WANT to lead. They think they do, but their actions tell something different. First, managing isn't a stepping stone with pictures of your subordinates attached for ritual shoe-wiping. (That's called sociopathic behavior.) Nor is it some kind of Marquis de Sade-Kakfa-Orwellian prison in which you must tighten the screws on your workers just because you can. That's where micromanaging comes in.

It also isn't adbicating your responsibility for not leading appropriately when something goes WRONG. These types indulge in the "let's see who I'll blame and flame" documentation game rather than first asking staffers what happened (within reason) and pursuing a course of action together, as a team. Better yet, how about assessing your workers' strengths and weaknesses so YOU can better manage the *team* you want to see? Oh, and making sure you don't fall into the trap of surrounding yourself with self-serving sycophants who are more interested in covering their tails than getting real work accomplished.

Last but not least, if worker camaraderie (not goofing off) unnerves you, and you're taking active steps to squash it, you shouldn't be managing.

Schlep, you did what you had to do. Don't let anyone here try to make you feel bad for it. Evil HR Lady, I like what you do here. I just hope that HR professionals in the new postmodern management landscape we're being forced into because of "the smartest guys" perfidiousness and arrogant ineptitude will be more empowered to see what really happens to good workers in bad situations. Many of us are demoralized by places that don't see us, even when we do speak out.

Kelly O said...

The last two comments have been directed toward the reprimand on a conference call. What is missing from that assessment is the fact that it appears the first time the manager knew about this appointment was on that same conference call.

Whether you are in or out of the office (and whether that office is at home or not) it's your responsibility to let your boss know. "Hey, boss, I wanted to let you know I have a doctor's appointment today at 2:00, and planned to just take my lunch during that time. I might be 15 minutes or so late getting back, but will stay a little late tonight to make that up." (Granted, if you are part of this super-exclusive carpool that cannot replace you, I don't get how you're getting the extra 15 minutes in.)

That simple communication gives your boss the opportunity to say "okay, thanks for the heads up" rather than getting blindsided during a conference call. No matter whether or not you were peers before, during that call she was your boss, and needs to know when you will be out of the office, particularly if it's deviating from your normal schedule. If your appointment was during your regular lunch hour, it might not be such a big deal - I would still mention it, because that's just me.

I know part of the things you said in your original message (and subsequent comments) was venting frustration, but if you came across with the same tone in your conversations with your manager, I can understand why she might be upset and take action.

There is no hypocrisy in being a manager who works from home, with staff in an office (particularly when those staffers have options about whether or not they can also take advantage of the work from home option.) You can only make assumptions about what her day is like, however she was your manager and to a certain extent it's not your concern - she's in the position of management. However when you have a manager, it's important to keep that person in the loop whether you're in the same physical office, both working from home, or on the other side of the world.

(Think about this - how many people do you know who work from home and wind up sending emails at midnight? I know lots. How many of them are up at 4 in the morning checking email? I know lots. Working from home is not a cakewalk, and most people wind up working more hours, because it's always there.)

I just rankle at the idea that a woman with small children working from home is somehow living a laid-back, luxurious lifestyle while you're slaving away, acting the martyr over your carpool and commute (because honestly, that's the impression I get.)

Anonymous said...

The bottomline is how valuable you are to the management. If you are difficult to replace, the management will bend. In my previous job, I used to come into office at my own sweet time. My boss told me several times, I need to come "a bit" early. Every time I replied, "I won't!" Not that I couldn't, but I wouldn't. Yeah, just those two words while I lived just two blocks away from my work.

workerbee said...

An inexcusable amount of extra work is piled on those who work in the office from those who work from home. It's the reason I left my last job. I suppose the WFH person that I used to most often cover for couldn't cut the mustard when she had to show up to work in the office each day since I was no longer there to cover her ass -- nary a few short months after I left, she was fired. Just to set the record straight, she didn't have children.

another evil HR lady said...

There may be an FLSA exempt worker law at issue here; by demanding that an exempt worker must clock an hour and a half of PTO time in essence reduces that exempt worker to an hourly worker. Big problem legally. However I always do give my boss a heads up about appointments that take me away from my work.

Terri said...

I don't have to use PTO time if I go to the doctor on my lunch hour and if I am not mistaken, exempt employees cannot dock by the hour but rather by 4 or 8 hour increments.

While I do feel that a "Hey, I have a doctor's appt. at 1 and I may run a little longer than an hour" could be called for, I do not feel that the backlash from the manager was acceptable.

I am a firm believer in telecommuting and would love to work from home a couple days a week, but I learned quickly that it is quite difficult to effectively manage staff and/or a department when you aren't in the office.

Anonymous said...

Daily Schlepper Update: Boss in question fired 6/3/09. Am now experiencing a bit of schedenfreude. Ha ha.