A Reality Check on That Remote-Only Siren

Monday, May 18, 2020

One of my favorite business writers, "Evil HR Lady" Suzanne Lucas, has long been one of my go-tos for advice on working from home. She has been doing so herself for years, and yet has the business knowledge that her pen name implies. This combination of experience and perspective practically makes her required reading on that subject, and that goes double now.

This is because she sees this situation from the eyes of both workers and managers at once. If many businessmen now at least better tolerate the idea of people working from home, some see dollar signs and have become a little too eager to go all in. This is where Lucas comes in, as we can see from two of her recent columns on the subject. As usual, she has things to say for employer and employee, but I think employers are more in need of advice by this time.

For example, in a piece at AIHR, Lucas notes that "It's okay to hate working from home," and reminds bosses that, "Not everyone lives in four bedroom houses." Working from home has gotten pretty old pretty fast for lots of people, and even for those of us who liked it before the pandemic, it's not so great now:

The in-home commute has its hazards, too. (Image by Markus Spiske, via Unsplash, license.)
All of this doesn't mean I'm not a champion for working at home. I am! I love it. Or at least, I did love it, and I'll love it again when my children go back to school, and my favorite cafés re-open. But, if you have found that you hate working from home, there's not something wrong with you.

If you're a business owner that is tempted to go to a 100 percent remote model, think about how that move will impact your business and your employees. It may be fantastic. It may not be. Talk with people before you make final decisions. [bold added]
All I can add to that might be to do a thought experiment about what remote working would be like after we reach herd immunity. The upside of this being a way to avoid illness would obviously go. On top of that, while some would be able to thrive again, others might find that they lack the discipline to work away from an office.

Lucas underscores this point in another piece at Inc., where she helps bosses realize that every apparent new advantage of this situation comes with tradeoffs they may not be aware of:
I had a boss once for whom everything was an emergency. She would often call me at 4:30 and say, "[Super important executive] needs this report tonight!" At first, I stayed late and did the reports, and noticed that the emailed reports remained unopened for days. Then I got smart. She would tell me it was an emergency, and I would then call the executive's admin and say, "I understand Jane needs XYJ report. When does she need that?" The response was never tonight. Frequently, it was many days or even a week away.

I would then pack up my things and go home, and do it the next day.

But I had the advantage of a long tenure and a good relationship with tons of people within the company. Your employees may not have that. Don't use the word emergency unless it truly is one. And keep in mind what a real emergency is. That varies from business to business, but not everybody who says they want something immediately actually needs it immediately. A little pushback can be a good thing for maintaining healthy boundaries.
I like how Lucas reminds bosses about boundaries, while also giving employees of clueless or indifferent bosses an idea for how to work around them. (Elsewhere, she offers the following admonition: "Don't reward people who are constantly working -- they are going to burn out. Instead, tell them to take a break.")

If statewide closures were a blunt response to the pandemic, permanently making every office worker remote would be equally ham-handed. If there is anything the pandemic should have taught us by now, it's that one-size-fits-all, top-down initiatives are problems disguised as solutions.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus

Evil HR Lady wrote:

Don't use the word emergency unless it truly is one. And keep in mind what a real emergency is. That varies from business to business, but not everybody who says they want something immediately actually needs it immediately. A little pushback can be a good thing for maintaining healthy boundaries.

When I was working my way through college, I had a boss for whom everything was "An A-Number-One-Priority." Everything. I was more or less the facilities manager, without the title, as I was responsible for everything except accounting and sales. He was the sales manager and the owner had given him 'priority'.

I finally pointed out to him that if everything was "An A-Number-One-Priority" then nothing was. I should have pushed back sooner, and on more fronts than that. He was constantly sabotaging my inventory control efforts; about a year after I quit, I found out why. He'd taken upwards of 100 computer systems out of the stores and set up his own 'Computer Camp' on the sly. At the time, that was well over a quarter million dollars in inventory.

Apparently my quitting was fortuitous; the owners thought I was the culprit, but when the depredations continued after I left, they got wise to the real thief. They recovered the computers but, as far as I know, never had him prosecuted.

Sometimes what looks like incompetence is actually malfeasance.

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


"[T]he owners thought I was the culprit..."

I wouldn't be too surprised if he had been deliberately cultivating that impression.


Dinwar said...

One problem with working from home is getting workload. Many offices adopted the "matrix management" method, which removed managers and left employees essentially on their own looking for work. It was done under egalitarian premises; we're all equal, so no one should have authority over others. Never mind the fact that there is a division of intellectual labor, and that a new employee--even one that's been in the industry for 20 years at other companies--cannot rationally be expected to know the company systems, the major players in their departments, and specifics of how tasks are done.

The company I work for had such a management structure. They realized it was stupid a while back (and we were bought out by a company with a more rigid hierarchy), but the ghosts remain. To give one example: my official manager is also one of the folks working under me in a number of cases--we've had calls where we gave each other negative feedback, which was...weird. What this means for work-from-home is that while it's easy enough for someone with my seniority, who's built up a network and has more than ample workload, someone who hasn't worked here for five years or more isn't going to be able to maintain enough of a workload working from home to stay employed. I've seen several new people try it and most leave after a year because they don't have enough work.

If a company has managers coordinating work between people this may not be an issue. But the remnants of bad management practices can still hurt new people.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for bringing that up: It's something anyone on either (or both!) ends of the managerial relationship would want to be aware of.