Management

The American View: Shirking from Home

Working from home is likely Business Reporter’s resident American ‘blogger’s favourite perqs. It’s liberating, making everything more productive and less stressful. It’s also stressful in its own right thanks to poor workers who made the entire WFH programme synonymous with slacking off.

I have reservations about Work from Home (WFH) programmes. To be clear, mine aren’t completely rational reservations. I freely acknowledge that. I do recognize the benefits that WFH can have for team morale, employee empowerment, and productivity. It’s just … there are undeniable negative factors that I feel must be addressed in any WFH scenario.

Before we get to that, please understand that I’m not suggesting that companies forbid or shut down their WFH programmes. I know I’d hate to lose mine; most of the work that I do involves creativity, contemplation, and coordination. These activities are made unnecessarily difficult when working in a cubicle farm.

For example, I take a lot of online training modules. Not for my own professional development, but to deconstruct how other course designers built their training. To learn how other artists engineered effective lessons, I need to analyse their product’s design elements. That requires concentration and contemplation – two activities that are impossible to achieve in an environment saturated with background noise. Every interruption breaks my focus and forces me start over. It’s infuriating.

There there’s contemplation. Maybe other writers can simply sit down and start churning out fully-formed text. I can’t. Take this column: I spent an hour thinking through story structure, key phrases, and sources before I was ready to open a new Word doc. This is why most of my columns are written early in the morning before my household gets active. I need the quiet to think.

Thinking is greatly enchained by petting my dog. Be honest: could you really walk by this little woofer and not give her a head pat? Of course you couldn’t. No one can.

Interacting with my colleagues is also essential. It’s darned hard to have a candid conversation about sensitive issues when there are dozens of ears listening in. In one place I worked, I’d have to book conference rooms in other buildings on our campus just to take a meeting, since all the team rooms on our floor were perpetually reserved. I don’t have that problem when working from my home office. I just shut my office door and speak freely.

Hopefully it’s clear that I’m not at all opposed to WFH. If anything, I’ve found that it’s one of my favourite perquisites. WFH is better for my productivity and sanity than all the free coffee in the company canteen. I don’t want to lose it, so I make a point of being more accessible and responsive when WFH than I am when I’m in my fabric pen at the office. That’s because I’m haunted by the legacy of ‘Water Heater Lady.’

Here’s what happened. Many years ago, I did some business consulting work for a huge American company. One of my projects involved setting up a new tech support centre in Eastern Europe. As with most things assigned to me, the job had to be done yesterday. I was subject to lots of pressure to deliver by a boss who was … let’s be charitable … less than helpful. [1]

As you’d expect, trying to replicate an existing corporate function in another country involved tons of paperwork. This was made needlessly complicated by the fact that our American-based company frequently assumed that everywhere that wasn’t America was identical to the US (e.g., same laws, same regulations, same cultural conceits, etc.). Our processes were designed based on the premise that what’s done in Cleveland could be duplicated exactly in Calcutta. Sure.

While it’s true that Cleveland and Calcutta have far more in common these days than they have differences, those differences matter. Blindly assuming that American regulations and work processes are identical can be every bit ethnocentric as assuming that Cleveland is a third-world cesspit.

One of the major obstacles we had to overcome involved getting legal permission for scary foreigners to use our company’s proprietary software. We had to submit mountains of paperwork on everything that the new centre staff might be expected to touch. It took weeks to get everything catalogued since there were only two of us assigned to the effort. Nothing could be enabled for our newly-hired European staff until we received ‘permission’ for them to start work.

Once that was done, we submitted our papers to a committee of ‘experts.’ These obscure sages would decide if our project would be allowed to proceed. Never mind that upper management had already rented a building, hired dozens of new workers, and had laid off all of the American workers whose role these new European techs were expected to replace. Nope! We had to wait on people who were in no hurry whatsoever. Not exactly a recipe for timeliness.

Eventually, after many rejections and re-submissions, we made it to the last internal gatekeeper. This ‘expert’ – let’s call her Bob – had to bless off on the new hires’ access control measures. Specifically, Bob had to observe the new scary foreigners go about their job so that she could be sure they weren’t able to access US-restricted data. While understandable, this became a Catch-22; we couldn’t grant the new European techs access to our networks until Bob gave us her blessing. And we couldn’t get Bob’s blessing until she watched the new computer-less techs do the work that she hadn’t approved them to do yet.

After weeks of negotiation, we persuaded Bob to let us demonstrate the access controls from one of our South Asian tech support centres since the new European site was intended to be structured, equipped, and managed identically to our existing Asian facilities. Bob eventually relented and asked us to schedule a video call with an engineer … for noon, her time.

Bob initially refused to work late because it infringed on her personal life. Therefore, someone else should work late because their personal life was unimportant.

It took quite a while to explain to Bob that our Asian centres were eleven and a half hours ahead of US Central Standard Time (CST). Other side of the globe and all that. Bob could have Googled the difference and realized that demanding a midnight teleconference wasn’t going to be received well. Still, Bob insisted that her schedule was simply ‘too packed’; she also wasn’t going to wake up early or stay late and she couldn’t free up time on her calendar.

We eventually convinced Bob to accept an 8 pm CST call so that she could work with the early morning Asian contingent. She grudgingly relented … and then didn’t show up for the call. It took us days to get her back on the line. Bob claimed to have had a conflict and simply didn’t show. We tried again. She failed to show. Again. Finally, after weeks of pleading and some not-so-subtle hints about invoking the dreaded executives, Bob grudgingly agreed to do her danged job. We coordinated the 8 pm meeting, got the video chat working, and Bob showed up. Victory! … Except that twenty minutes in to a 90-minute demo, Bob abruptly left the call. ‘Oh, I have to drop,’ she said. ‘The repairman for my water heater just arrived. Bye-ee!’

Stunned, furious, and confused, my partner did some digging. We learned that Bob was a fully-remote employee. That is, she WFH’d [2] every day from her home office. There were no company facilities in her state, let alone her tiny rural town. Bob was on her honour to perform like a normal corporate employee: attend all meetings, be responsive to all calls, etc. Instead (her peers confided), Bob had made herself indispensable by taking over a niche function and then accepted a pay cheque for doing pretty much nothing. Bob was her division’s shining example of why people on WFH status couldn’t be trusted to put in an honest day’s labour. Without the threat of consequences from her equally fully-remote boss in another state, why bother?

What really stood out to us was how much Bob’s peers held her in contempt. They had their own methods for getting results from her, all of which required measures of flattery, bribery, and the occasional application of intimidation. Bob was universally considered to be a blight on her office and an example of how badly the company’s culture had devolved.

After laying off half of the American tech support staff, morale was at an all-time low. It was worse for those of us who knew that most of the rest of the American staff were going to be laid off once the new European tech support centre was declared ‘fully operational.’

From that night on, Bob was known throughout our team as ‘Water Heater Lady.’ Her antics became a sort of short-hand for everyone about how not to behave while WFH. We used Bob as a cautionary tale; if you got caught shirking your responsibilities like ‘Water Heater Lady,’ you’d have your WFH permissions suspended by management. Possibly permanently.

I’ve always remembered Bob’s antics. I vowed that I’d never be perceived by my peers as we’d perceived her. Most of our colleagues at the time agreed. Productivity on our team improved after that as people began to appreciate just how much they might have been letting our team down by slacking off when WFH. Sure, the lack of anyone watching meant you could get away with some sloppier work habits. That said, the condemnation that came from being judged a slacker like ‘Water Heater Lady’ was more shame that our people could live with.

So, yeah. I understand and agree with the utility and value of a WFH program. I want and need to use it. That said, I’m probably always going to be skittish about participating in it. I know it’s better for me (and, in turn, both better and cheaper for my company). I just can’t stand the idea of letting my team down because I took a five-minute break to pet my dog or greet the mail carrier.

That’s the thing about anxieties, though. Even if they’re not necessarily rational, the can be useful for inspiring greater productivity.


[1] Shameless plug: more stories about this adventure appear in my book Office Cowboys: Cautionary Tales from the Cubicle Frontier, which will be coming out in audiobook format later on this winter.

[2] Pronounced ‘whiffed,’ referencing the sound a baseball bat makes when missing a pitch. Also used in US slang to refer to any embarrassing failure. Apropos twice over, I think.

Pop Culture Allusion: None this week


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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