"But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired."
June 13, 2012 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Quality-of-life issues with an otherwise awesome job. How to deal with lazy coworkers and an incompetent manager?

This might be a little long in order to get the important details, but here goes. I am at a job that I really like. Pay is great, I enjoy what I do, it's not stressful, and for the most part, people are great. However, there are two issues that are becoming larger problems and I'd like to know if there is anything I can do about them.

Some background: small department (~10 people) within a larger organization, most everyone has advanced degrees (Ph.D. level) and several years of experience.

Issue #1: There are many of us who have long (1 hour +) and expensive commutes to get to work. What we do is something that can very easily be done at home given a computer and internet access. We have meetings outside our department on an infrequent basis and even though we are in the same physical area of the company much of what gets done within the department is handled via phone and email (which is comical at times, phoning someone who is two doors down from you). Many of us are interested in working from home more often, which is de rigueur in several other departments in the company, but our boss is quite resistant to the idea.

One of my colleagues made an informal proposal to our boss about working from home and was shot down on the basis that part of why our department is so efficient is because we are in the office every day. According to this colleague, our boss insinuated that being in the office every day allows the managers to better supervise us, which is somewhat insulting given that we're all highly educated and experienced and do not need such tight supervision (seriously, our employee to manager ratio is 2 to 1, which is ridiculous for the volume and type of work we do).

I suspect that part of our boss's hesitation stems from the fact that several of my colleagues spend a lot of time clearly screwing around. We do have a lot of down time, and with our production schedule there are often slow periods of several months. There are days where I come in and surf the internet all day long because I have nothing to do. However, I always try to appear busy in my office. Other colleagues are in the same boat, yet they take two-hour lunches, play games on their computers with the volume loud enough to hear, and spend extended amounts of time chatting in each others' offices. I'm worried that our boss sees this and thinks that working from home would encourage more blatant time-wasting. I don't feel that it's my place to tell my co-workers to start looking busier, but at the same time I feel like I'm being punished (as I'd greatly benefit from being able to work from home) for their actions. Not everyone is doing this, but it's about half of us that are diligent about keeping busy and half that are not. All of us would like to work from home more often.

So, anything I can do about this? Tips that worked for you to convince your boss to let you work from home? I feel like my colleague may have been too casual and potentially abrasive in the approach to our boss and I'd like to give it another shot and work out a plan that everyone can be happy with. People overall are getting pretty disgruntled about the rest of the company being free to work from home and our department being kept on a tight leash.

Issue #2 is somewhat related. Remember that ridiculous manager to employee ratio? Well, one of our managers is relatively new to our department as this person was hired for a job in another area of the company but then brought into our department full-time when that department folded. This individual is also highly experienced and educated, but not in the same field as many of us. Let me put it this way: if our department involves designing widgets and analyzing their use, this person has no experience on the design and analysis end but has used a widget before and been an end user of the type of data we produce about widgets. So, kind of related, but not what we're doing here. Now this manager is in charge of several of our projects and clearly has no idea what they are doing. All of this person's projects have a further layer of bureaucracy as our boss reviews them and often makes extensive changes to correct the manager's mistakes. These are mistakes that we, the employees, often have argued against making, but manager, having no experience in widget design, goes ahead anyway and then everything is revised multiple times and there are a lot of useless analyses performed to please this person. This makes projects with this manager a lot more stressful than our usual projects. Some of the members of our department with more seniority have specifically requested not to work with this person, and now more of my projects are with this manager as a result.

Our boss is usually pretty smart about people but, apart from co-supervising this person's projects for the several years, doesn't seem that aware that this manager is not the right person for the job. It's possible that this manager is still around for reasons my boss can't control. Is there anything on my end that I can do to make working with this person more manageable? I feel like many of our one-on-one meetings become remedial classes in widget design and it's frustrating. I have reason to believe this manager is looking for another job, but there's no telling how long we'll have to put up with this in the meantime. Help!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Find a new job. You're describing structural problems with your employer that not even replacing personnel are going to fix.

Short of that? No, not a whole lot to be done. Sounds like you've got an inherent inefficiency here, either because your employer is to dumb to know its own labor needs or works in a really unusual niche which permits or even requires this sort of inefficiency due to spiky demand. Regardless of which of these is true, this isn't an awesome way to run a business, so you're probably just going to have to deal with it. The only decisions to be made which might change this are not only about your pay grade but above your manager's pay grade. We're talking C-suite-level decisions here. And honestly? As long as you deliver your product on time and on budget, they're not going to care that it's a sucky place to work in the meantime.

I used to work at a place with spiky demand. It was a call center--they call me, not vice versa, so it was just boring, not scummy--and if I didn't have customer on the line, I had nothing to do. I wound up downloading pdfs of the four-odd Harry Potter novels published to date and reading them on my computer. I looked busy. Really, most managers in these types of situations don't care if you're actually working, they just want you to look as if you are. So take up reading or something you can do unobtrusively while still looking occupied.
posted by valkyryn at 12:49 PM on June 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

The ability to work from home is very culture-specific to the workplace, and yours doesn't have that culture. This is going to be true in a lot of old-school places. Upper management simply doesn't see the need or the value of working from home and suspects it's a scam. That is not going to change until the current management cohort retires and is replaced by people from your generation.
posted by deanc at 12:53 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you do work from home off-hours? That's how I got the privilege of doing so at my last job. I would take on extra projects outside of my hours, and do a little bit of work on them (and document that I was doing so, by writing e-mails and logging stuff on our system) outside of my office time. Eventually, my bosses saw that I was good at doing work outside of the office, and allowed me to do so during working hours.
posted by xingcat at 12:55 PM on June 13, 2012

You can start by proposing a once-per-week work from home day. Say it's Friday. On Thursday before the end of the day, email your manager a list of deliverables. To take it further, offer an email follow up of the deliverables by the end of the day Friday. If you can't make a deliverable, just say why. I work in a fairly untrusting environment, but this seems to appease the suspicious.

For the second issue, I hate to say this, but it sounds like a learning opportunity. Find a way to make the manager think your ideas are his/her ideas. It's not ideal, but if everything else about your job is great, then it seems worth putting up with until things change.
posted by icanbreathe at 1:06 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sit down, you're rocking the boat. Your insistence on these issues will make you look like the bad apple. Your manager will become resentful, and fearing for his/her job will make your life miserable enough so that you will want to quit. When you do you will get a bad reference, stating that you were unhappy in your work.

Seriously. I found myself in a similar circumstance, intelligent workers, but lazy, and management that let them run as they will. I come in and see all sorts of ways to "improve processes", "streamline workflow"...etc. Well one day i found myself hearing that I was a disruptive force from coworkers, and accused of stepping into areas I didn't belong..yada yada, union, yada yada..only a contractor... in short my expertise was no longer required and I was cut.
posted by Gungho at 1:34 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I worked at a company that existed entirely because of the Internet and required the internet to function and they still wouldn't let us work from home. Our company internet went out for 3 days and they still made us come into the office because "People don't actually work when they work at home," because the prospect of us not-working at home was more terrifying to them than us not actually being able to work at work. I read The Maltese Falcon and Bossypants on my phone when I could've been at home actually doing my job. Don't expect this is some kind of rational thing that you can change with a good argument, though hey, maybe you can.

For the second one, I've never seen this situation resolve itself without changing jobs. I've seen places that hired massive number of people to cover their mistake in promoting someone rather than let that person go. I've seen clearly overmatched people get continually promoted because someone talked them up and it would look bad to not keep promoting them. Again, you seem to be assuming there's some logical case you can make and it's probably not a logical thing.

Finally, the most important lesson I've learned is if you complain and fight to change things, you are the bad person. Even if, sometimes especially if, you are right. You will go farther making people like you than trying to change things around you, even if the changes need to be made.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:38 PM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Assuming you actually do want to keep working there, it sounds like moving to a one-day-a-week WFH schedule is a good start.

Here is an e-mail that I sent to my boss 18 months ago. We were doing one day a week WFH, but it was considered a privilege. His response to my e-mail was "Sounds good. Start tomorrow," and within a week everyone else on our team was working from home too.

However, this was in a company where 60% of our teams are off- or near-shore, and maybe 50% of on-shore folks work from home. BUT, our particular team wasn't allowed to work from home because our manager felt that our client felt it was "critical" that we be on site.

The e-mail:
We need to talk about me working from home more often. With most of the [TEAMTEAM] team working from home, it helped me see that it makes sense for me as well. Also, last week was National Telework week, which made me think about the impact of driving 40 miles every day. Working from home more often would eliminate the time needed for commuting, giving me more time to focus and more time to work. I won’t have to stop working on something in order to avoid getting stuck in the thickest of rush hour traffic.

Issues to address:

Communication: I will be on [CHATCLIENT] all day. I can set up a webcam at home so we can still chat easily.

Availability: I’ll be available during business hours.

Meetings: I will come in for meetings that require my presence.

Face time: I realize that at times face time can be irreplaceable and would be happy to work out a time with you that I could come in to go over the past week and discuss the coming week.

If I can work from home one day a week, I can work from home every day. Ultimately, I think [MEGACORPTECH] will benefit from such an arrangement in the form of me being able to focus more on projects that require my attention.

posted by MonsieurBon at 1:39 PM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Der, sorry, maybe I was unclear. We were doing one day a week WFH. After sending that e-mail we all started working from home EVERY day.
posted by MonsieurBon at 1:41 PM on June 13, 2012

If people start working from home, the boss' bosses will notice that 1/3 of the company is middle management. Can't have that; don't die on this hill. I solved a similar problem by, as other people have intimated, finding another job. It can suck if you like your coworkers, but you can remain friends with them.
posted by rhizome at 1:46 PM on June 13, 2012

So, anything I can do about this?


In my experience there's a segment of the management population that simply cannot believe that you're working if they can't see you. It's not a matter open to discussion or something that they can be convinced of. Your non-busy-seeming coworkers (I'm reluctant to call them lazy, as you do, just because they don't do the smart thing and put on an appearance of busy when they are not) may have nothing what so ever to do with it. Their behavior could well be their way of dealing with the inanity of the boss' position.

If you like everything else about the joint I'd suggest you find a way to use your time that you resent less and perhaps move closer to work. If telework availability was the worst thing about my job I'd do a happy dance on a daily basis.
posted by phearlez at 1:47 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

So, anything I can do about this?

Take whatever time and energy you might spend trying to fix this situation (Hint: you can't) and invest them in finding a new job.

The return on your investment will be SOOOOOO much greater!
posted by John Borrowman at 2:04 PM on June 13, 2012

I disagree with folks who say you can't fix the WFH issue.

Phrase it as a demand/statement rather than a request. "I will begin working from home," which implies "If you value the work I do for the company, you will have to come to terms with me working from home."

If that doesn't work, sure, then leave if the market allows.

The screwing-off coworkers are part of the problem though.

When I was bed-ridden for 8 weeks when I worked at a Help Desk, I became the first and only person in the decades of that Help Desk existing to be allowed to work from home. Once I was mobile again I was required to come back to the office.

The reason Help Desk management gave for not letting me do that all the time was "we have absolutely no problem with you working from home. We trust you. But if we let you do it then all the other people, 80% of whom we have to keep an eye on, will want to work from home, and we can't have that."

But it sounds like at your workplace, management will ultimately need to deal with the poor performers one way or another, rather than keeping an eye on all of you just because there are a few workers who can't deliver.
posted by MonsieurBon at 2:09 PM on June 13, 2012

Our boss is usually pretty smart about people

I would disagree with this. If he can't understand that it's perfectly possible to judge people's productivity without making them sit in front of you for 40 hours, and he can't understand that Extra Manager is causing problems for the team, then he's either not a good judge of people or he's given up and doesn't care.

You've gotten conflicting advice here (try/don't try). So it's going to be up to you. I will say, situation No. 2 is probably beyond your control, though if you want you could let Extra Manager know when a position better suited to their talents does pop up.

As for number 1, if there really is nothing to do but look for another job, you could take a swipe at trying to change it anyway. All you would lose is some time, and it sounds like you sometimes have more than you need anyway. MoonOrb has the best suggestions if you're serious; make it about what's good for management, not for you.
posted by emjaybee at 6:58 PM on June 13, 2012

I'm not sure your company operates with a great model for allowing work from home. Working from home is all about having clear metrics and achievable goals that are performance-based. If you're not doing anything half the time, what would the performance measures be? How would someone know if you were doing a great job, an adequate job, or no job?

It may not easily be possible, but if it is, this is the question your boss will ask and the one you should find ways to answer. They may not be paying you to do work on performance based measures - they may be paying to be available as needed, under observation.
posted by Miko at 9:11 PM on June 13, 2012

Yeah, spend your time learning something new and polishing your resume.
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:50 PM on June 14, 2012

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