Telecommuting and Snow Days

I gave my staff the option to telework today, anticipating the dreadful white monster said to be slouching toward us and expected to blanket Washington with 16-24 inches of wet snow by tomorrow morning. (The record snowfall in Washington is 28 inches, set in 1922.  If you want to follow the storm’s progress the hashtag is #snowpocalypse.) I did that yesterday morning. Soon after, we got a notice telling us that telecommuting should be encouraged.  Good.  Now we got a further notice telling us that the government employees will get four hours early dismissal and this goes for teleworkers too. Not good. I know this is done in the spirit of fairness and of course we will comply with the directive.  I know that I will sound like a scrooge, but it really doesn’t make sense.

Presumably we are giving people four hours off so that they can flee the confines of Washington before they are frozen in place by the fierce winter storm. This is smart, especially around here where we are dependent on transportation systems that seem especially sensitive to weather.  But our telecommuting decision has already addressed that problem for those working from home.  They are already safely hunkered down in their warm cocoons and don’t need those four hours to come safely home.  If it were up to me, I would just let them work the full day.

I have long been a supporter of telecommuting and encourage it to the greatest extent possible. I fought to protect and extend telecommuting when I ran the IIP-Speaker office and have written in support. It is good for morale, the environment and productivity where appropriately employed. But telecommuting is one of those things precariously balanced on a slippery steep slope and it starts the downward slide to perdition when it transitions from being a mutually beneficial working arrangement to a type of defined right for an employee.

Social pressures weaken when employees are away from their bosses and colleagues. Working alone requires a lot more self-discipline than working where everybody can see you. There is significant temptation to use telecommuting as a type of semi-vacation day. That is why telecommuting is not for everybody and why it can never become a right.  A few people will abuse it and – sorry for the cliché – ruin it for everybody. Managers have to maintain an arbitrary power over telecommuting, i.e. we have to have the authority to call telecommuters at a moment’s notice and change or assign different work.  It is also important to specify that if telecommuters cannot do the work from home, they must make other arrangements.  In other words, you cannot claim equipment failure as an excuse. The telecommuter has MORE responsibility at home than he/she has at work.  Responsibility is a price of the freedom and flexibility of telework. 

I have a simple kind of karma rule for life. If things are not too big a difference, I call them equal.  My analogy is the vending machine. If I put my money in and the machine rips me off, I don’t complain.  On the other hand, if it gives me too much change, I don’t try to give it back.   It is just too much effort to care very much and if you care only in one direction, you are being dishonest.

Work and trust are similar two-way propositions. I don’t complain when co-workers take a little extra time at lunch and don’t expect complaints when people have to stay a little longer to finish work.  As a worker, I am actually in favor of leaving a little more on the table, i.e. I try to put a little more effort in than I think I “need” to. Since I assume that I overestimate my contribution (as we all do) this probably makes it objectively about fair. Most people are okay with that, but there are always a few bad apples who try to take as much as they can and give back little or nothing.

I learned these things from hard experience, BTW.  I will give one example. A few years ago, I couldn’t get in touch with one of my telecommuters for a couple of days. When I finally found him, he told me that his phone and computer had gone down and thought that was a good excuse.   When I asked him what he had done during those two days, he just repeated that he had been unable to work.   I think he was lying about the phone and computer, but that didn’t matter as much as the demonstrable result that he didn’t work for two days.  I made him take those two days as annual leave and took away his telecommuting privileges until he could guarantee that his equipment would work. There was much gnashing of teeth and some people thought that I was unfair and arbitrary. I would say it was indeed arbitrary, but it was very fair. I further believe that if managers ever lose the power to be arbitrary in this manner, that telecommuting is doomed to become something like those jobs in the old Chicago political machine, where people showed up for their city jobs only to collect their paychecks.

Returning to my original thought, there is no reason to give telecommuters four hours off. This would be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate why telecommuting is such a good thing. As I wrote in the original linked posting  telecommuting makes our organization more robust and less susceptible to the caprices of nature. We should revel in that, savor the success, not throw it away in a misguided show of magnanimity. It violates the social contract and just doesn’t make sense.