It seems that in every management training session I do lately, the same issue comes up: we’re being forced to do this flex time and telecommuting stuff and it doesn’t work for us.  We need our people here in the office.  We need them available during certain hours.

I acknowledge that it’s not as easy as saying, “If you manage by results then it doesn’t matter where your people are working.”  Some jobs are structured around handling service tasks as they come your way and you really do need someone to be in a particular place at a particular time.

Nonetheless, it often seems to me that managers are acting out of entrenched habits or resistance to change.  Open-mindedness is called for.  The world is changing, and we must change with it or risk becoming an employer that can no longer attract the best and brightest.  Here are some common objections I hear, and my response to them:

1. My people don’t produce anything, they just answer questions and provide support. So I need them to be here during the hours I’ve said they will be available.

Clearly in this case, the hours your people work are critical.  You need to be able to publish specific hours to your customers.  But does it really matter where your people are working from?  Set standards for responsiveness, and then find a way to gather customer feedback.  Do your customers tell you that the phone goes to voicemail frequently, or that they leave a message and don’t get a call back in a timely manner?  Then you have a problem.  The problem is not that the employee is working from home and you can’t see them, it’s that they aren’t answering the phone or returning calls to the standard you have set.  Address the real problem.

2.  I often call my employee because I need her and she doesn’t answer the phone.

Doesn’t that happen when she’s in the office too?  Let’s be reasonable here.  Sometimes your employee is in a meeting, on the other line, or in the bathroom.  These things happen in the office as well as at home.  Set standards, once again.  Tell her how soon you expect a call back when you leave a message.  Or ask for a schedule of conference calls and breaks so that you know when the best time to call is.

3. I get what I ask for.  But how do I know that my employee is really working eight hours a day?

This is really a key point.  Who cares if he’s working eight hours a day, if the employee is producing the results you’ve asked for?  Is it fair that the employee who works efficiently and gets the same job done in six hours as others do in eight hours gets penalized?  They should be rewarded instead.  Give them some extra assignments if you think they have extra time.  Choose assignments that are “stretch” assignments and will develop the employee, or choose projects that you know the employee will enjoy.  That way you get more from them, plus they get rewarded for being efficient.

4. I think my employee takes care of personal business on company time.  Sometimes I call and I can tell he’s out in a store or somewhere other than at home.

Again, this comes down to setting standards, communicating your expectations, and then measuring what you get.  If your employee is delivering what you’ve asked for and can shop at Home Depot at the same time, why does that matter?  If, on the other hand, your customers are telling you that they call and get put on hold while the employee deals with a cashier at the grocery store, then you have a problem.  Deal with the real problem.

5.  I need my people to work well together as a team and to communicate frequently.  They need face time for that.

Perhaps more than any other objection, I acknowledge this one as a true challenge.  Teamwork is important, and face-to-face communication is a great teambuilder.  Nonetheless, the world is changing.  Some teams are entirely virtual and they make it work.  Recently I heard a good suggestion from a manager in a federal agency.  She said she sets one day a week, Wednesday, as an “all hands in the office” day.  Except for true emergencies, everyone must be in the office that day and all routine team meetings are scheduled for that day.  For teams that are geographically dispersed, video conferencing is a way to make something similar happen.

I’m opening up a can of worms here, but there really is a generational trend in all of this.  Some of us Boomers just can’t get over the fact that we weren’t allowed to work from home or have flexible hours when we were just starting out in our careers.  Get over it!  If you’re truly managing by results, and you should be in most cases, then you’ll eventually see all these objections for what they really are—excuses and irrelevant noise.


  1. Nice one, Anna. How right you are, too.

    A couple of thoughts for you.

    * I’ve worked virtual teams for over 10 years. They can be some of the most collaborative, supportive and productive teams — if they know what needs to accomplished and you give them the space to accomplish it. Space — per your descriptions above.

    * Have you thought about the power issues. Every management position has power. Some power is visible in symbols such as corner offices and floors of open cubicles with workers answering phones and talking into headsets.

    Please note that those headsets could just as easily be tuned to music while the employee is surfing the net and shopping on line or talking to their kids, spouse, friends as they are to customers. That computer focused eyes could just as easily be focused on YouTube, Twitter, IMS or games. Now, more than ever before, bodies in an office desk are even more at risk for non-task focused work.

    Results focus needs to include team work (which may include accessibility by virtual peers), communications (which may included reporting progress to supervisors as well as effective accomplishment of virtual task through webconferencing, email, IMs, and phone.)

    Maybe we just need to figure out a good way to give managers a power symbol for how many people they have working for them… kind of like a the power bars on the phone.

  2. Sharon, I love your points about power. It’s true, but I have no idea how to address it. Perhaps other readers have thoughts?

    Regarding your point about workers who could be doing personal things even when they’re sitting in a cubicle–that’s a point I often make with regard to the perception of smokers, by the way. I’m not a smoker and this isn’t an ad for smokers’ rights, but people often think that smokers take more breaks just because they’re visible breaks. In reality we have no idea how much break time non-smokers take. It’s an argument for tolerance in the workplace.

  3. Yes, so true. I’m a coffee drinker. If anyone counted my trips to the coffee pot and tried to match that to official “breaks”, I’d be in real trouble.

    I’ve been working virtually from home for several years now. I’ve noticed that my coffee breaks are less frequent at home (though sometimes longer) and that my days are often longer. I end up so involved in something that time just flies by. The longer breaks happen when I need some “think time” or when there’s nothing particularly challenging happening… when I’m waiting for someone else to come through with something or other.

    Anna, please take the idea of power… and maybe even the idea of cell-phone power bars and give it one of your think pieces. I’d be interested in your insights.

  4. P.S. About smokers. Often smokers get a lot of communication done over that cigarette. They aren’t answering cellphones or text messages and they have a certain rhythm to the smoking cycle that encourages real listening. It might be interesting for someone to do a study on what is discussed by smokers, by coffee drinkers, and sports fans promoting their teams around the water cooler (er-r-r, soda machine).

  5. Sharon, I’ve been told by colleagues in the diversity world (but I can’t quote the studies) that studies have been done around smokers’ water cooler chat. What I think is most interesting about that is who they chat with; most people talk to the folks they work most closely with, but smokers might be out there with anyone from the CEO to the mailroom clerk. That means they have their ear to the ground on many different levels within the organization and perhaps have a broader perspective on organizational issues.

    I love your suggestion to write about power in this context–I’ve got it on my list, and thanks for the thought Sharon!