When remote work goes wrong, it can go really, really wrong – because when problems aren’t right under your nose, it can take longer to spot them. That’s how you end up with the remote guy who hasn’t done any real work in two months (like Marissa Mayer’s discovery at Yahoo! that some remote workers hadn’t signed into the company VPN in months), or the colleague who’s so unresponsive during everyone’s work hours that she might as well be a ghost, or the realization that your remote team is working in silos and never collaborating or sharing information.
I recently asked readers to share their stories of times when remote work went really, really wrong. My favorites are below … but before we get to them, it’s crucial to say: None of these stories are reasons to disallow remote work. The take-away from these stories isn’t that remote work is bad, but that managers need to manage and notice what’s going on with their people.
1. Double billing
“I once worked in a trade organization with a an assistant for a VP. She claimed to be so busy all the time, but doing what? No one ever knew. She’d claim she was working from home, and the email time stamps showed that she did. But one Friday, I had a flex day, and I went to the grocery store. She was a cashier. She never said anything to me nor I her. (This was back in the day before cell phones with cameras.)”
2. Double standard
“My former boss would leave every single day around 3:00 or so, and he claimed to his boss and sometimes to us that he’d be working from home. Other times he would plainly say, ‘I want to watch a football game tomorrow night, so I’d better take my girlfriend to the movies this afternoon’ as he was walking out. Or he’d say he was taking his daughter to the mall. One time my coworkers and I caught him in a lie because he told the folks in the office one story and he told the folks in the field a different story.
Then, when I’d work from home due to a snowstorm, he’d constantly call and email, and I knew it was to make sure I was actually working. One time he called my cell multiple times and left multiple messages, because I wasn’t in the office. I wasn’t at work because I was getting my mandatory work-required medical workup, and I had reminded him about it when he left the day before, but he’d obviously forgotten. I learned then that if I was going to be gone from the office for any reason I’d need to leave a note on his chair the day before.
I don’t miss that job at all.”
3. Telecommuting doesn’t mean topless business meetings
“My last job was a telecommuting situation, and my first manager after my promotion was a nice guy but not very organized time management wise. One night during my shift, he asked if I’d have a few minutes to meet then. We did Google Hangouts for our meetings, and when he got on camera, it was very obvious that he was not wearing a shirt! It was beyond awkward.
The next time he met with me, he had a shirt on, but I’ll never forget the shirtless boss encounter.”
“Lots of remote employees means a lot of conference calls, and I once clearly heard someone ordering McDonalds while on a call. The mute button is your friend, people. Especially if you’re ordering a McMuffin during a call.”
5. Secret team outings
“I worked remotely from my team, in another company office two states away. Once when I was on a trip to the town the rest of the team worked in, Wednesday afternoon everyone disappeared. Apparently that manager would not send me emails when they had team building that they were not asking me to travel for, so that I wouldn’t get upset. Several people pointed out that I wasn’t there (at a matinee minor league baseball game 5 miles from the office) but the manager told them not to call me.”
6. Feline office mates
“I’ve been working from home for about seven years, and nothing has ever topped this.
I have a very obnoxious cat. She was very interested in my conference call, trying to climb on my laptop, meowing into my (muted) headset, and generally being an annoyingly lovable cat. My boss sends me an IM: ‘What do you think of this training?’ My cat chose this moment to walk across my keyboard – most specifically on the P, O, and Enter keys. She sent the word POOP to my boss, and stepped on the Wi-Fi off button, immediately disconnecting me. I wanted to cry.
Thankfully my boss had a great sense of humor, and more importantly, we both agreed with my cat’s assessment of the training.”
7. Printer mishap
“I was working from home one night, and while I was working, I was typing up a grievance letter for HR about my horrible boss. After wrapping everything up at midnight, I hit print to send the letter to my printer. I stared at the printer as nothing happened. Of course, I was on the VPN and the nasty letter went to the copier in the copy room in the office. I had to drive 15 miles in the middle of the night and wander through the dark office, just so I could pick up the page I printed. Thank goodness it was still on the printer and no one was working late.”
8. And a high note…
“My last remote experience (which was 100% remote for the whole department, though those who lived in the same city as headquarters were given the option of an office), was fantastic! Highly motivated, high achieving colleagues, who had company-wide respect for their excellent work. A manager who balanced allowing employees to work independently and appropriate hours with engagement in their work and responsiveness. An excellent tech set-up and lightning-fast reimbursement for expenses. I can’t think of one single horror story!”