Work

There’s One Major Reason Remote Work Can Go Horribly Wrong

It’s true whether you’re in the office or on your couch.

Man working on a laptop next to a palm tree
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Remote work is increasing, and that’s a good thing—mostly. It means employees are regaining time they used to spend commuting, fewer drivers are on the road, companies are better equipped to attract and retain employees for whom remote work is a significant draw, and more people can work in sweatpants with cats by (or on) their keyboards.

But for teams that allow remote work, good management is imperative, and all too often missing. Without strong management in place, you can end up with managers who, lacking the ability or training to effectively oversee remote staff, resort to micromanagement or onerous restrictions on the practice—which makes good workers feel distrusted and demoralized. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, you end up with people who say they’re “working from home” when in reality they’re utterly inaccessible or unproductive, while their managers either don’t notice or won’t address it.

Good management is always important. But when it’s absent, remote work can go spectacularly wrong, as this person’s account illustrates:

I once worked in a trade organization with an assistant for a VP. She claimed to be so busy all the time, but doing what? No one ever knew. She’d claim she was working from home, and the email time stamps showed that she did. But one Friday, I had a flex day, and I went to the grocery store. She was a cashier. She never said anything to me nor I her.

Here’s another account of someone defining “working at home” very loosely:

My former boss would leave every single day around 3 or so, and he claimed to his boss and sometimes to us that he’d be working from home. Other times he would plainly say, “I want to watch a football game tomorrow night, so I’d better take my girlfriend to the movies this afternoon” as he was walking out. Or he’d say he was taking his daughter to the mall. One time my coworkers and I caught him in a lie because he told the folks in the office one story and he told the folks in the field a different story.

Then, when I’d work from home due to a snowstorm, he’d constantly call and email, and I knew it was to make sure I was actually working … I don’t miss that job at all.

Yet despite these flagrant abuses, plenty of people who work from home—in my experience, the majority—aren’t misusing the privilege. They’re just as productive from home (if not more so, given that it’s often easier to focus outside your office) and resent being treated with suspicion by managers who assume working from home means slacking off:

I recently petitioned, and was eventually granted, to have one telecommute day per week. The whole process made me feel like a suspected criminal. … I find myself feeling like I’m suspected of being lazy or wanting to sit around watching TV all day by asking to work at home, since I don’t have “good reasons” like kids to care for. They did grant me the day, but I am explicitly on probation and need to do all sorts of extra check-ins and will have this aspect of my work evaluated separately. It feels like they don’t feel like they are getting their money’s worth unless they can see me to make sure I’m not overly enjoying myself.

Some managers take their distrust of off-site employees to truly absurd levels. I’ve received more than one account of managers who insist on watching remote workers by video while they’re at home:

I’m a 100% teleworker in the research field, which I love. The problem is my boss believes mentoring me means watching me via video call as I work. I’ve asked my boss to stop (firmly but nicely) and reported it to my boss’s supervisor, who was horrified. Even our supreme boss stepped in, but not much has changed. She has lessened up slightly but now complains she can’t mentor me right because of my “complaining.”

All of this could be fixed by putting stronger management in place. Managers who set clear goals for what employees should accomplish in a given time period (whether it’s a week, month, quarter, or year) and regularly check in on progress against those goals don’t need to be suspicious of what remote workers are really spending their time on, let alone watch them by video while they work (!). They don’t need them to account for every hour of their days, because their focus is on work outcomes. And if remote workers aren’t accessible enough, good managers lay out clear expectations around that too, like that all phone calls and emails will be responded to within a day or that employees will set up “away” messages on office chat programs if they leave their computers for lengthy amounts of time.

This kind of clarity around expectations is something managers should do with on-site staff as well, but it’s particularly crucial when people are remote. It’s also what’s at the root of why remote work sometimes goes wrong: Too many managers don’t know how to manage well regardless of where their staff is located. They don’t know how to delegate effectively, set goals and hold people accountable to meeting them, give useful feedback, or stay connected to their people or the work. Bad management mixes with those problems in a particularly disastrous way and makes management deficiencies that otherwise might have flown under the radar exponentially more visible.

Companies should always prioritize hiring and training strong managers. But it will get even more critical—and lack of management strength harder to ignore—as remote work increases.