I work for a small company with about 10 employees working full time in the office. We all report directly to the CEO, Phil. When the pandemic hit, Phil went into full panic mode and had us all move our desks 12+ feet apart, wash our hands every 20 minutes, sterilize everything in between uses, etc. Nothing super-weird, and better than having no reaction at all, but it was a hypervigilant process that made me expect him to be very accommodating when our state went on lockdown.
Boy, was I wrong. Our industry is considered essential, so we’re still open, but Phil is being odd when it comes to working from home. For background, about 95% of our work can be done remotely. The other 5% would require about 15 minutes in the office once a week. I was the first one to pose the idea of working from home, and Phil nervously agreed, but only to three days a week. My co-workers were given similar instructions but were “encouraged to come in every day, if possible.” A few of them do.
Since then, Phil has gotten pretty weird about the situation. He refers to people who are working from home as being “off work” (which is NOT the case; we are all working and available while at home, which he knows because he calls us for work-related things during work hours). Today, Phil asked me if my co-worker Travis was in his office, and when I told him Travis was working from home, Phil replied in a sour tone, “So he’s not working then, great.” He has made similar comments about other co-workers. When I’m working from home, he’ll call me and ask in a sarcastic tone, “What are you even working on today?” Or he’ll give me an assignment and end with, “Can you actually do work on this today? I need you working.” One time, he called while I was in the bathroom and when I called him back less than five minutes later, I was told that I “need to be available and not screwing around.”
The weirdest thing is that none of us has had productivity problems! My job is such that I can tell when anyone is slacking even a little, and I haven’t noticed any issues. Personally, I’ve actually been MORE productive! I’ve never been accused of “screwing around” while at the office before, so this attitude has baffled me.
He is so convinced that we aren’t working that he cut our work-from-home time down two days a couple weeks ago, and now it’s being cut down to one day as of next week — when COVID cases are higher in our city than ever!
My guess is that because Phil isn’t physically seeing us work, he assumes we aren’t working. CCing him on stuff to leave “proof” doesn’t work because he doesn’t read his email. He is also naturally a nightmare of a micromanager (and an across-the-office yeller) so not being as “in control” is probably freaking him out. But what is the best way to handle this?
An awful lot of managers who were previously opposed to letting people work from home are losing it right now. Opposition to working from home has always been about the fear that people won’t do as much work if they’re not in the same physical location as everyone else — and now that many employers have no choice but to allow it, some managers seem to assume that their trustworthy employees will suddenly transform into slackers if no one’s watching them. It’s insulting.
It’s especially weird in your case, where it’s apparently easy to track productivity. Managers overseeing any role should be able to develop accountability metrics that let them run a remote staff effectively, but Phil’s reaction is particularly bizarre for a job like yours.
If you worked for a larger company with people above Phil and/or with an HR department, I’d suggest involving HR in this. Companies that want people working from home — especially right now — will often intervene when an individual rogue manager is discouraging it.
But because it’s a small company and Phil is at the top, the best thing to do is to have a direct conversation with him about it. I’d start it this way: “I’m getting the sense that you don’t think I’m working when I’m working from home, and I’m wondering if I’ve done something to make you think that. I have a long track record of reliability and integrity, and you know me to have a strong work ethic. In fact, my productivity is higher than usual right now, not lower. So it concerns me to hear you talk as if I’m not really working from home when I say I am. Have I done something to affect your trust in me?”
This framing brings the subtext of his complaints right to the surface: Does he think you’re lying when you say you’re working?
He will probably say something about how, while he doesn’t think you’re lying, there are distractions at home, it’s harder to work outside the office, blah blah. (Frankly, this is probably about him, not you — he may find it difficult to focus at home and assumes everyone else is the same way.)
At that point, you can say, “I know you’re not a fan of working from home in normal times, but I want to ask that you look at what I’ve achieved since I’ve been doing it. I am as productive at home as when I’m in the office — more so, in fact. Since we’ve been at home, I’ve achieved things like X, Y, and Z. I normally wouldn’t push this so strongly — but given the current crisis, it’s terrifying to hear you say that you want us back in the office, when that could mean putting ourselves and our loved ones at risk. So I’m hoping you’ll reconsider, especially in light of my track record.”
I’d recommend also adding, “And frankly, it feels like you’re questioning my integrity when you say I’m not working, and that’s demoralizing!” — because he needs to hear the impact of what he’s doing. Often managers like Phil delude themselves into thinking their rigidity doesn’t bother anyone or only bothers people who are trying to slack off. It’s important for him to hear how he’s making a good employee feel.
In fact, he needs to hear this from others, too. You can go it alone if you have to, but ideally you’d enlist your co-workers. If there’s one person who has more influence with him than others, that person could take the lead — but pushing back as a group can be harder to ignore (and can give you all some cover if you’re worried about how he’ll respond).
But do talk to him. The more you and your co-workers stay silent in the face of Phil’s insulting and ill-conceived behavior, the more he’ll think it’s accepted and okay. Make it clear that it’s not.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.