have we changed our views about working from home? — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’d love to have your take and the readers’ take on whether society as a whole has changed its view on working from home.

Most of last year, I was job searching, and something an interviewer said once has stuck with me. I was in a second interview for an office job in a non-customer-facing role. When it was time for me to ask questions, I asked if the team was usually fully in-office, hybrid, or remote. I added that I didn’t have specific expectations around remote or office work and was just curious since the job description didn’t say.

They said they do allow remote work upon approval for specific circumstances, like being sick or needing to stay home to let in a repair technician. One of the interviewers said, “But it only takes one missed phone call when you’re working from home for your colleagues to lose all trust in you.” They agreed that the first time that someone isn’t immediately available, the privilege of working from home would be taken away. And then they bashed the former employee in this position because he once let an unscheduled phone call from a colleague go unanswered during work hours and didn’t call back for a couple minutes. A couple minutes. They also implied that that contributed to him being let go because, based on that one missed call, he clearly wasn’t working when at home (they said this with eyerolls and attitude). I was taken aback and said something like “oh, maybe he was just in the bathroom?” and tried to lightheartedly move on. But they responded that even if you’re just stepping away for a quick bathroom break when working from home, of course you’d need to communicate that with all staff first via chat. It was a small number of staff — I think 10 or so — but still.

They continued harping on the point that it was a “trust issue” (implying that people at home can’t be trusted, and I guess also that no one in the office steps away from their desk or goes to the bathroom?). I nodded and smiled but I was confused on why they spent so much time reiterating that when working from home you need to prove every second that you’re working, when it didn’t sound like they worked from home much, if at all, to begin with.

I still wonder about this. I’ve only had office jobs that have been quite flexible (still true with my new job, thankfully!), where bathroom breaks weren’t micromanaged or timed and taking small breaks and pouring another cup of coffee during the day were usually encouraged — regardless if your work location is at home or in the office.

I’ve worked on hybrid teams since 2020. The occasional missed phone call would be a non-issue in the places I’ve worked, so I don’t have a frame of reference for this. The need for WFHers to be always immediately available (when you’re probably not always immediately available when you’re in the office either) seems to come from the now-outdated stigma that “all people who work from home are slackers” or whatnot. Or at least, I thought that view was outdated … Is it more common than I think, even now in 2024, to expect more from people who work from home than people in the office? How evolved are we? I’d love your take.

There are indeed still places like the one you interviewed with. But they’re in a shrinking minority, as they should be.

The people you interviewed with weren’t giving you data about what’s reasonable in the work world — they were telling you about themselves and their dysfunctional culture. It’s a good thing that they did, so that you knew not to accept a job there.

The idea that someone working from home needs to announce their bathroom breaks is absurd. The idea that someone taking a few minutes to return a call is clearly slacking off and unresponsive is absurd. As you point out, these wouldn’t be the expectations if everyone were in the office. Both of those statements betray a mindset that anyone working from home will slack off at the smallest opportunity and therefore we must subject them to excessive pressure to “prove” they’re working. They also betray a lack of ability to actually manage people — because effective managers know that the way to spot someone who’s not working is to look at people’s work output, not to ask them to log when they pee.

We saw a ton of this in early 2020, when so many employers switched to remote working overnight and managers who had never been expected to manage remotely before (and who maybe never managed all that well in person either) suddenly had to figure out how to do it. Witness the slew of 2020 letters here about bosses who wanted everyone to stay on video all day long, panic-buying software to spy on remote workers, demanding three check-in’s a day, and so forth.

But it’s been four years. Most companies have figured it out. You just ran into a crappy one.

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