You Don’t Have to Work All the Time Now

Employers relying on a newly remote workforce should be offering maximum flexibility in these difficult times.

A woman sits at a desk working at a laptop, with a child by her side.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, samantha-gades/Upsplash and gpointstudio/iStock/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.

The coronavirus has turned millions of office workers into remote employees overnight. Companies are sending workers home with laptops and a prayer that business will be able to continue as usual, but things can’t be business as usual. Employers will need to adjust their expectations of how much can truly get done in these circumstances.

Just because workers’ laptops are now nearby on their kitchen tables doesn’t mean managers can expect their workforce to be available 24/7. In fact, employers need to allow for the opposite: maximum flexibility in difficult times.

One problem people are already encountering: A lot of managers have no idea how to manage remote workers. As a result, they implement bizarrely tyrannical restrictions—telling their staff to leave their webcams on all day, for example, or instructing people to alert their manager every time they leave their desk for a bathroom break. (Witness this leaked Wall Street Journal memo.) The underlying message is clear (and insulting): We don’t trust you to work when we can’t see you.

All of this pressure can make people feel like they’re expected to be working every minute of the day—in ways they generally wouldn’t be expected to do when they’re in the office. When we’re in our offices, it’s pretty normal to get coffee, chat with colleagues, check the news or otherwise take an occasional break, and, yes, use the bathroom, all without feeling guilty or reporting in to our managers first. We also leave the office each night, physically distancing ourselves from the day’s work. People should continue to do those things when they’re working from home, and managers should expect them to. Remote workers aren’t on a chain gang; they’ve just temporarily relocated their workspace.

If managers have done their jobs correctly, they’ve hired competent people who aren’t going to slack off just because they’re at home. If a manager has an employee on their team whom they don’t trust to work when they’re not being closely watched, that’s a failure of the manager’s and something that should have been addressed long before this crisis hit.

Ideally, managers have also established work goals that are based on output, not activities. The way you assess whether someone is being productive is by looking at what outcomes they’re achieving, not by monitoring how they’re spending each individual minute of the day. And when it comes to those work goals, priorities will naturally need to shift for now. Things that can be pushed back should be pushed back.

Moreover, employers will need to extend grace to employees who are working at home under difficult conditions. Many employees will be working with their kids around because schools have closed. With young kids at home, those parents may be significantly more limited in what work they can complete, which is why, of course, in normal times most employers don’t allow parents of young children to telework unless they arrange separate child care. But that’s not practical right now. There’s no ideal solution here; the reality is employees in that situation probably can’t get as much done as their colleagues who aren’t simultaneously juggling child care. In normal times that wouldn’t feel fair—and yet it’s the situation right now. We certainly shouldn’t just fire everyone with kids or cut their pay dramatically. Instead, we’re going to have to recognize those constraints and be more flexible.

It’s important, though, that that flexibility extends to everyone. My inbox is full of accounts of employers who are letting parents work from home but keeping everyone else in the office. That’s not right, safe, or good for morale. Nonparents deserve the same flexibility for their own needs, whether that’s caring for other loved ones or just being able to take reasonable breaks for their own sanity.

In practice, whether or not employers are offering this kind of flexibility varies widely. This person who wrote to me is representative of much of the mail I’ve received:

Our leaders have been pretty callous about it. The only email guidance we got was a reminder that we can’t care for kids while teleworking, and suggesting that if people don’t want to burn through vacation time, they can telework before their kids wake up or while they’re taking a nap. There was also a super condescending reminder that older kids don’t need to be supervised by parents during all eight working hours.

On the other hand, I’m also hearing encouraging reports like this:

Our company is telling everyone that we will be as flexible as possible. They’re saying people can flex their working hours as much as they need, and that they understand people will probably not be as productive as usual, and if you need help getting things done, reach out to your manager. We understand of course that we all need to get as much work done as possible, because that’s how we all get paid.

Employers also shouldn’t assume that people who started working from home overnight can easily jump into it. They may not have ideal work setups at home or might be sharing crowded space with others who have been sent home as well. Companies can ameliorate some of that by explicitly asking each person what they need to be productive; they might discover people need different equipment, more flexible scheduling, fewer hours, or other accommodations managers haven’t considered. But again, flexibility will be key. Expecting a workforce to become remote almost instantly means that some efficiency will probably be lost. There’s no way around that.

Perhaps the best model I’ve seen for managing this period comes from Wikimedia, the company behind Wikipedia, which has closed its offices and moved to remote work, deprioritized all nonessential projects, and—most importantly—implemented a half-time work expectation for all staff and contractors while paying them for full-time work. “We knew schools would be closing around the world,” wrote CEO Katherine Maher in a Medium piece explaining the move. “It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect someone to be fully present, eight hours a day, when they have a three-year-old with crayons drawing on the wall, or an elderly parent who needs help navigating the stairs. We all have loved ones who need care, groceries that need purchasing, doctor’s appointments to keep, neighbors who need a phone call. And you know what? We trust our colleagues. People will work when they can, and when they can’t, we trust they’ll be right.”