when my coworkers “work from home,” they’re not really working

A reader writes:

Many of my colleagues have an agreement with our boss that they can work from home on Fridays. All of them happen to be moms of young children. I am married but do not have children.

I am all for a flexible work environment, but I feel that they take advantage of the situation. They constantly post on Facebook that they are at karate tournaments, music class, etc. or tell team members they can’t participate in client calls because they have to pick up their kids at school. I realize I am not a parent so I don’t understand the balance or struggles of being a working mother, but I am expected to be in the office five days a week, while they essentially work four.

I don’t want to be the group tattle tale but it’s really starting to affect the morale of those who are childless when we see empty offices on Fridays. Thoughts on how to approach this, or do I just suck it up and deal with it?

Well, first, you want to make sure that you’re right that they’re not working much on their Fridays at home. It’s possible that they’re simply working flexible hours that day. For instance, if someone worked from 7-11, went to their kid’s karate tournament from 11-2, worked more from 2-4:30, and then put in another hour and half over the weekend, that would total eight hours of work.

And to some people, that’s the point of a flexible schedule and working from home: It allows you to fit life in, and schedule work around it.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that that’s not how your coworkers are using the flexibility. Maybe they’re working 9-5 from home but taking tons of time off in the middle of the day that they never make up. But do you know that, or are you just assuming it?

And if you do know that they’re abusing it, then what you have is a management problem, because no good manager is going to neglect to notice that hmmm, the people who work from home on Fridays seem to produce less work than everyone else. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating — in fact, it makes it more frustrating — but it’s worth being clear that that’s what’s going on.

Of course, the one thing that you do know for sure is that these coworkers are at least sometimes missing client calls on those days, and that’s potentially a legitimate issue. But even there, the question is how much that matters. Are they missing these calls more than someone else might miss them for occasional dentist appointments or other conflicts? And what’s the impact on their work?

If there is an impact and you’re concerned about it, then you should handle that just like you would any other concern with a coworker’s work that impacts you: First talk to the coworker, and then to your manager if the problem remains. In this case, that might mean saying to the coworker, “I’ve noticed you often can’t make client calls when we schedule them on Fridays, and I know that Client X really likes having you there. Is there a different time we can schedule them so you’re able to call in?” Or, depending on the situation, “I know there’s not much notice, but they’re usually in the afternoons. Is there a way for you to keep that time free?”

And if you remain concerned, then you’d talk to your manager, just as you would about anything else that was affecting your work. For instance: “I love that we have schedule flexibility, but I’m having trouble getting what I need on Fridays from people who are working at home and often can’t get people on client calls when I need them. I wonder if we could give people clearer guidelines on how accessible they should be when they’re working out of the office.”

But overall, you want to (a) keep the focus on the impact on your work, and (b) assume that if these are otherwise good coworkers with a strong work ethic, you have no reason to think they aren’t putting in a full day’s work even if it’s spread out in an untraditional way — unless you really know for sure that that isn’t true.

And last, I’m assuming that this benefit isn’t just offered to parents in your workplace, so there’s no reason you couldn’t responsibly take advantage of the flexibility too, if you want to.

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