When Working From Home is a Sham

What if you could come into the office anytime you felt like it, or even stop coming in altogether? What if you could take a late morning run or volunteer in an after-school program but still get paid a full-time salary? What if you only had to work 4 hours a day?

Sound like your dream job? Sure, as long as you’re not the manager.

There has been much ado about Results Oriented Work Environments (ROWE), the latest in work/life balance programs. Under ROWE, there are no office hours. As long as workers complete their projects and deliver results, they are allowed to work whenever and wherever it suits them. Most notably being implemented by electronics giant, Best Buy, ROWE is promised to be the panacea for worker (dis)engagement.

Trust workers with their freedom and they will reward the company with riches.

If only business were so simple.

I’ve often fantasized about working from home. How great would it be to sleep in on weekdays, grocery shop without the crowds, never worry about missing a meeting because of a doctor’s appointment? As an employee, the freedom to not work would be an awesome benefit.

But as a manager, I realize that working from home takes discipline, a lot of it, and that most people don’t have the focus to work three feet from a bed and HDTV. This spells disaster for me and my bottom line.

In my own experience, most people who “work from home” (WFH) aren’t really working (exempting people with home offices or special set-ups who actually do work from home). How do I know this? They’ve told me. I once worked in an office with a very liberal WFH policy and the employees abused it so much that upper management had to revoke the policy. Now no one there is allowed to work from home without authorization from the president. Sound harsh? It probably was, but considering employees would send emails like the one below, you can see why they would do that.

Actual example (altered to protect privacy) of an email sent to all employees at my company:

Hello,

I will be working from home today. If you need anything my email is xxxx@notworking.com and my cell is (123) 555-1234.

But I will be watching [insert important sport event here] all day so I probably won’t answer or be much use to you.

See you all tomorrow.

So much for all this extra productivity when working from home. You could make the case that this employee watched the game and then did some work. I can tell you that he most likely didn’t.

In a guest post on Penelope Trunk’s blog, Ryan Healy says this in praise of ROWE:

It’s a win-win situation. Half of the American population will no longer hate their jobs, which will inevitably lead to increased production for the corporations. The only sector that could possibly lose out is pharmaceutical, when clinical depression reaches an all-time low. And that’s just fine by me.

Is freedom from office hours enough of a reason for people to stop hating their jobs?

I highly doubt it. If you hated working in sales because you had to make 50 cold calls a day, would you really be that much happier if you got to make 50 cold calls a day in your bathrobe? If you disliked proofreading press releases, would sitting on a park bench make looking for commas that much more enjoyable? Maybe. Maybe not.

Case in point, the above email writer, someone who took an unlimited amount of “WFH” days to watch football, basketball, soccer or whatever sports event he wanted, with little to no financial or professional ramifications, left after 2 years with the company, allegedly because he felt “unappreciated.”

A change of scenery can’t cure everything.

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18 responses »

  1. I think you’re missing the point. ROWE is not about working from home (in fact most people in a ROWE work in the office) it’s about producing results. Employees are not required to be anywhere they are just required to produce results.

    I’m sure that puts a lot of strain on managers because now they have to manage results and not just head count. So they need to determine what results are actually useful and then make sure employees produce them.

    According the the people who developed ROWE at Best Buy, the number of involuntary terminations went up – meaning more people got fired for not producing results – while voluntary terminations went down – meaning more people liked working there and decided not to look for another job elsewhere. Plus productivity went up.

    It’s about results not where you work. If you just give people freedom but don’t require production I’m not surprised that you got the emails you quoted.
    – John
    http://www.TheSmallBusinessCoach.com

  2. Nonsense, the real reason you damn fool managers won’t let workers perform their tasks from home is simple – without an audience of peons to watch in awe as you self proclaimed Masters of the Universe strut from Important Meeting to Important Meeting, then the life and worth of the MotU becomes meaningless.
    God forbid, you should ever question the worth of what you’re doing.

    What’s the point of power if you can’t rub the noses of your slaves in it?

    I’d happily work from home – and be extremely productive – because my loyalty is to myself and my family and keeping the money coming in.

  3. Pingback: Absolute MLM » Blog Archive » work from home

  4. It’s a good idea,it’s really great for a single mom to work at home at the same time doing things for her children,could you help me how to start working about it?/
    thank you

  5. People work when they need to, and don’t when they don’t, regradless of location.

    I’ve worked full time in offices, had flexi-hours, done shifts and am currently self-employed. The only difference to my productivity is need: in an office where I know I’ll draw a salary even if I spend 70% of the day wittering on email I’ll witter on email… If I know paying the rent depends on my rolling out of bed, turning on the laptop and working I work.

    Mr Sportsfan would have been just as useless in an office environment (you can watch TV online, you know)

  6. i think every person makes a good point here. there are many people that work at home and take advantage of the freedom. i always get a kick out of the mother or father that is going to work from home because they have a sick child or their kids are off from school. which implies they really arent working, but rather watching their kids.

    working from home takes discipline and self motivation. some can do it while others simply cannot. i think its folly to paint all work-from-homes with a broad brush as you have done. much of the same could be said for the old schooler management type.

    anyway, in the end i think its 100% up to the individual to make this work. it will have nothing to do with their manager or their work, simply their attitude. and yes, there are plenty of slackers in offices across the country!

  7. I work MORE hours now that I work from home because I never leave my office. I’d rather be able to do laundry on my “break” that have to sit in a room and gossip about the people on another floor.
    Yes, some people require constant supervision but not everyone:)
    Also, if you hate what you do, you will still hate it from your home office.

  8. These are all great comments on a good post. Working from home does require tremendous discipline, especially when you have other distractions such as children or an insane number of pets.

    I think I agree however that a person’s work ethic is a highly personal thing, meaning that if they are not motivated to work in the office, they won’t work at home either. Those who take pride or are just extremely OCD will work regardless of where they are, amid the distractions, into the wee hours of the night.

    See this post for some more thoughts to add to this discussion topic. http://everydaypr.blogspot.com/2008/06/working-at-home-just-doesnt-work-for-me.html

    Great post!

  9. I work from home, and the reasons why I like my job better that way are so different from what you just described above.

    What I like most about working from home is that it provides a better balance between work and private life for me. At home I’ve got a personalised ergonomical chair, that prevents the pain in my back I get from using the chairs at the office 8 hours a day. I can also put in the times that are most convenient for me, from 10am to 8pm, because my concentration levels and productivity are better later on in the day, and I don’t mind working until quite late in the evening. It just fits my biorhythm better. What I also avoid is having to travel to work and back for two hours each day. In that time I can do my grocery shopping before I start work for example, or clean up around the house.

    I’m dedicated to the work I do, and definitely put in the hours I have to put in. And I feel much better about my work when I can work from home, because then I can combine it with my private life to such an extent everything is balanced. Which makes me a happy, less stressful employee. I felt you didn’t touch upon any of this in your entry.

  10. As a person stuck in an office for 9+ hrs a day, I would almost give my right arm to be able to work from home. Most companies will not allow it-they say they have their reasons-but what they do not see is that with the price of gas going up higher and higher, there are alot of people that are struggling to put gas in their cars to get to work. It would save so much for the employee, traffic gridlock, the environment, the list can go on and on. I know of two companies that allow their employees to work from home: Microsoft & Boeing. These two large companies have come to the realization of how it would benefit them-why cant the other big companies see the benefits. Undoubtedly they havent done their home work. Most jobs that the employee spends most of their time on the computer, CAN be done from home!
    Its the employees work ethic that would tell you whether or not they would be “working” or playing…..do they work hard in the office? Then they would at home….do they screw off and waste time in the office? Then they would at home. It really is a no brainer!

  11. Arleen:

    i always get a kick out of the mother or father that is going to work from home because they have a sick child or their kids are off from school. which implies they really arent working, but rather watching their kids.

    Not necessarily. I work from home and my son is out of school for the summer. He’s old enough to manage on his own for the most part, as long as there is an adult around to check in with periodically, and in case of an emergency. He is not, however, old enough or mature enough to be left completely alone for ten (plus) hours per day, as would be the case if I still worked at the office.

    As for staying home with a sick child – there are many occasions when a child is “sick” by school district or day care standards (temperature of 100.5, etc.) but not so sick that the child requires constant catering to. As a parent, it has also been my experience that children often require less maintenance, if you will, when they’re sick than when they’re feeling great and running in and out of the house, and all over it. My son usually just stays in bed and sleeps most of the day when he’s too sick to go to school. In those instances, working from home allows me to be there for him and get a significant amount of work done.

    working from home takes discipline and self motivation. some can do it while others simply cannot. i think its folly to paint all work-from-homes with a broad brush

    Is that anything like the broad brush you used to paint parents who work from home when their children are there?

    it will have nothing to do with their manager or their work, simply their attitude.

    It can have a lot to do with a manager. If the manager is unclear about his or her expectations, or changes them with the wind, working from home can be stressful and ultimately unsuccessful. There are many ways a manager can affect the situation, but I’ve gone on long enough so I’ll leave you to (re)consider that broad brush of yours yet again.

  12. Why to be shame working from home? I left my regular job i.e day job 3 years back. All my friends were laughing. Now I earn more than them, working online from home.

  13. > But as a manager, I realize that working from home takes discipline, a
    > lot of it, and that most people don’t have the focus to work three feet
    > from a bed and HDTV. This spells disaster for me and my bottom line.

    Most of these people are the same ones who will surf Facebook or otherwise burn a substantial portion of their time while in the office. Many managers believe that they can’t properly manage their people if they can’t introduce a personal presence, because they’re the type of people who manage by that sort of social interaction. There are advantages to this… for many types of troublesome employees, an “in-the-office” interaction can enable you to motivate them without having to make it a confrontation, simply by dropping by their cubicle or office.

    Results-oriented processes aren’t any more difficult to work with than people-oriented processes, they just require a different perspective and approach. Sometimes, ROWE is particularly suited to remote work, sometimes it’s not… it depends upon what sort of results you’re trying to produce.

    But the primary “problem” with ROWE approaches is that managing projects and processes with a results-oriented basis requires much *directly measurable* deliverables than managing people. “I know Bob is working because I check on him” is different than “I know Bob is working because he is responsible for delivering [foo] before [bar] deadline, and he has done that consistently.”

    ROWE will, in many cases, lead to an increase in involuntary terminations because people are now required to deliver something that is measurable, and they can’t dodge responsibility with personal affability. Managers will have to make measured, justified tradeoffs to retain people who are facilitators but who don’t produce those direct measurements of value -> the nice administrative assistant who enables lots of other people to get their job done by performing good gateway service to their executive is hard to “measure”.

    This is all “more work” for managers… but it’s actually management work that they ought to be doing in the first place. Far too often I see managers who are actually spending much less time *managing* than they are *doing*.

  14. sometimes I get the impression that people working from home really IS a sham. Some have children and I know that it’s important to be home with them, but does that mean that because I don’t have children, I don’t get that extra time away? I understand that people have families and the role of a mother is sacred but you do also have a responsibility to have a full time job. Working from home is a total possibility if you really want to be a full time mom too. It lends itself to being at home and also having a career. Some people from my work also have a situation worked out where they work part time and also come in when they have to for certain meetings. Sometimes it’s rough not having them there but they also do their part to make sure that when they are not there, that it’s still business as usual.

    I wish I could work from home and sleep in every day! (not that that’s what everyone does…) I’m just saying I like my sleep!

  15. Some have children and I know that it’s important to be home with them, but does that mean that because I don’t have children, I don’t get that extra time away?

    Excellent point!

    I think that anyone who has shown him/herself to be disciplined enough to work unsupervised should have an equal shot at working from home, whether or not they have children. Parents should not receive special treatment or special consideration just because they are parents.

  16. I love my job. I love spending time with my co-workers. Plus there is an hour long bike ride that comes with my workday.

    When I was at home looking for a job, I spent most of the day wasting time watching TV shows and cyberslacking. I got little job search work done. The same is true today, but I get paid for it.

    If I had to work from home, I wouldn’t feel that there was time for a bike ride due to the strange time shift that occurs when you stay in your underwear for 36 hours at a time.

    I would miss my co-workers. Worst of all, I’d have to prove on a daily basis that I was getting work done. What if I had nothing to do? Could I bill for those hours? Now I am available for whenever I am needed to answer the phone or people need my help. At home, I’d be watching TV. I don’t feel right for billing for the latter.

    Therefore, I’d rather go to work. When I’m home, I can relax. When I am at work, I relax, too, but I manage to get _some_ work done each day.

  17. Leroy,

    I guess it depends on the individual. For instance, anyone who is not disciplined enough to get dressed for 36 hours at a time, probably isn’t cut out for working at home.

    Worst of all, I’d have to prove on a daily basis that I was getting work done. What if I had nothing to do? Could I bill for those hours?

    Personally, I don’t have that problem; I never run out of work. And not everyone is an hourly employee anyway.

    At home, I’d be watching TV. I don’t feel right for billing for the latter.

    Again, if you’re not disciplined enough to pull yourself away from the T.V. and work without someone standing over you making sure you do, you are not cut out for working at home. Not everyone has the same strengths and weaknesses; some people can get up in the morning, shower and dress, have a bite to eat and some coffee, and then sit down at their desks and start working.

    The arrangement I have is far too important to me to jeopardize it over daytime television or anything else.

    Priorities.

  18. Let me get this straight…we should focus on results? I think we’d all agree that we’d rather spend more time actually getting stuff done instead of sitting in never-ending meetings talking about it and, in that regard, ROWE makes a lot of sense. But before you start planning a meeting to reengineer your work environment, think about whether it will work for your particular business and your particular staff–believe it or not, some folks are actually more productive when they have a weekly staff meeting to keep them on track.

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