Working from home is a privilege, not a right
*Note to reader, please see the publish date of 2016 and know that this post was very much pre COVID-19 where working from home was mandated for health reasons. This deals with discretionary work from home unrelated to workplace and community safety.
So who isn’t a fan of working from home? Very few would openly admit to being against it. The fact of the matter is the most effective way to communicate is still face to face no matter what new tools we have (individuals and interactions over processes and tools). Does working from home have its place? Yes. Has it been abused and made us less effective as well? I think so.
When I started working in corporate America, I worked from home most of the time. I was an intern at one of the first companies I worked for during the school year. It was an in-between time from when I interned until I graduated from undergrad. It was great! Flexible schedule, better pay than my college job, working in my sweatpants (or no pants), and more experience in what mattered! I was very fortunate to get that opportunity and since I was doing a very individual project there wasn’t much need for collaboration (think audit of shared folders and confidentiality classification). The downside? I had to pay for my own internet and router because the student off-campus housing internet was not up to par for a VPN connection and VoIP. No big deal, right? Let’s come back to that.
When I started full-time (in the office), I had asked to work from home for one day about a month or so into my new position. Denied. I was furious! I was told I had not yet established enough trust or know how to be able to effectively do my work from home (or from vacation in that instance – I was hoarding vacation days – it was my first month after all). Do I agree with that decision now? Meh, a bit…not necessarily for the reasons given by my then manager, though.
Could I be trusted and did I have the know how? Yes, I think so. Would there be reliable internet? Maybe…But the real question was should I have been working from home? I was out of town with friends; was I really going to effectively work the whole time or enough to justify not taking PTO? Probably not. That’s the question we need to more often ask ourselves.
Marissa Mayer came under fire when she implemented a no remote workers policy at Yahoo. She did have good reasons for doing so (VPN logs of what employees weren’t doing from home) but the backlash was astounding. Just as with civic programs, we do not like privileges (regardless of if we have earned them or not) to be taken away. But working from home is not a right. And in some cases it’s not a good thing for the business.
Some folks work from home because of child care situations and that can be empathized with. I mean, I hear childcare is expensive. But tell me this, do you really get all the work done that you would if you were without said child(ren)? I’m not knocking parents here, it’s really our childcare system that’s broken as it’s unaffordable and that’s a different problem. When you have a sick kid (think throwing up) how much are you really getting done? Would it be more ethical to take a PTO day? It’s just a question I want you to ask yourself because we have decided that it is our right to work however WE want, not necessarily what is best for our teams and companies. We think we DESERVE absolute flexibility and I don’t think that’s the case. When I was a kid and my dad worked from home, my mom was home with us kids, too. We were not allowed to be in or around dad’s office. I’ve not heard that sentiment when on calls with folks home with kids to the extent it was at my house (think: dedicated space).
The other issue I see is when we do it because we’re lazy and just don’t want to come into the office. I don’t want to sit in traffic, I kind of have a headache, I have things to do around the house – people are coming over this weekend (I’ve used all these excuses). It’s fine once in a while but when it’s weekly and it’s not an expectation that is set up with your team and manager when is enough enough? When have we taken advantage of a privilege?
I wouldn’t be talking about it if it wasn’t a problem, but it is. Remember my personal internet network and router (which I think was equal to today’s private email server – who the fuck cares as I didn’t have malicious intent)? I did that so I could be effective. But when we don’t have the tools to keep up with our technology and allow us to remotely do our jobs, this becomes much more of an issue.
- VPN is down
- I can’t log on to the go to meeting
- I forgot my headset
- I didn’t shower so can’t go on video call
- The Google hangout isn’t working
- The power is out
- My cell phone is dying – call my home phone (wow this didn’t age well)
- Internet is slow
- I’m at the airport and it’s noisy and internet is not working
If our homes and offices are not set up to allow us to work remotely we should be using it much more sparingly. I had a manager who was in a different office across the country who told me I could work remotely whenever I wanted to as long as it wasn’t obvious that I was remote (another more individual and phone convo role across sites). When it is glaringly obvious that we’re remote and it’s keeping us from being effective at collaboration and our jobs we seriously need to re-examine no matter whose fault it is (personal or company infrastructure, hardware, personal hygiene).
The other piece of working remote is having management on board. This seems like a duh but I had a conversation once with a manager about flying some remote folks in for PI Planning. Basically he said, “well they chose to be remote so they just need to deal with the cost of being remote.” I disagree. If we as a company chose to allow them to work fully remote (i.e. not your random WFH because I’m getting a new dishwasher installed) then we chose to bear that cost, too. And that includes flying them in for things because: individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
So there are two different pieces here – occasional work from home and it’s productivity impact and true telecommuting that requires other costs to both the company and employee. Let’s use our best judgement and organize around expectations with our teams and management (it’s up to management to trust employees, too). Let’s not act as though this privilege is a right or we may end up like Yahoo employees did – in the office, all the time.
agile collaboration corporate natalie warnert productivity remote worker scrum team team teamwork telecommute work from home
I think all of the above truly depends on what type of work needs to be done. I would say that there are more times than not that I get more done working from home than when I’m in the office simply because there are far fewer disruptions.
Its honestly a discipline thing. Some people view working from home as slacking from home. Others take it seriously. I don’t think it should be too hard to tell who is who in an organization.
Overall I agree, it is a privilege (or a perk) not a right, just as 3 weeks of vacation is a privilege (or perk) not a right. I would be very cautious in taking a job where remote work was forbidden. Even if you aren’t 100% productive while at home, the intangible benefit of workplace flexibility will more than make up for it in the long run (retention, overtime when needed, etc).
Thanks, Josh. Completely agree – I think it all depends (consultant answer).
Hi Natalie! I just joined the Agile Coalition forum today and have come across your blog, just having a read through 🙂 This post resonates with me right now. I work in an office where the Managing Director lives across the other side of the world, so we have to manage our regular face-to-face conversations as best we can, though we are pretty much used to it now. However he has granted me permission to go travelling and work remotely, which is going to be a whole different ball game than merely working from home! I have taken into account the list of possibilities you mentioned, especially about internet connection. Time differences is another. I do indeed feel privileged that I will be remotely in the future. I think with certain roles (such as design and web based work) employers should offer flexible working. However with more collaborative roles I can see how it can become more complicated.
Thanks for your comment, Alison. I completely agree – great insights and thank you for sharing.
I like the way you put it as a “privilege not a right”. I think it boils down to responsibility needing to follow with authority/privilege. Teams cant exist as self-organizing if they are not going to take on responsibility of effectively solving problems. You can’t keep flexibility of remote work if you aren’t going to be responsible for effective communication and for ensuring that it doesn’t impact your team or the quality of the work.
Much of this does depend on the type of work and who else is depending on you. And can shift from project to project. if we don’t own that and think about what will be most effective given the situation we are in then we are not taking our responsibility seriously.
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This article seems extremely short-sighted, in light of coronavirus. Working from home should be a right for all people.
Please note the publish date on this article is 2016 and it is about discretionary work from home for convenience not the right to work from home for personal and community safety.