What to do when coworkers question working from home

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: smoking breaks, a cold manager, and being called a “good girl” at work.

I am outnumbered in my office by smokers. They go out for 30-40 minutes at a time, sometimes up to five times a day. I am not bothered as we all have our own work to complete; however, I have recently heard that some people in my office are questioning my flexible work circumstances. I sometimes get to work from home when it’s school holidays or one of my children is sick. Do I have a right to bring up the smokers’ time away from work if questioned about my WFH?

There is suspicion in the office.

There is suspicion in the office.Credit: Dionne Gain

I am not a smoker, so I have zero understanding of the need to go outside and puff on a cigarette for extended periods; however, in this case I think the smokers are merely a sign of a bigger cultural issue in your office. It sounds like everyone is watching each other with suspicion. Your colleagues are questioning you working from home, and you are questioning your colleagues about time out of the office to smoke.

Whether it is time out of the office to grab a coffee, get the dishwasher fixed, smoke, or mind your sick children we work best in office cultures where there is a level of trust. It sounds like your supervisor or the manager of your office could be managing this situation to make sure it was fair for all, so you did not need to question their conduct, and they did not need to question yours. Are there clear guidelines in place for being able to work flexibly? Is working from home open to everyone and not just parents of unwell children? If not, I suspect your colleagues may be resentful that they don’t get the same flexibility you do. Are there clear guidelines on how often you can be away from your desk for personal reasons (whether to smoke or anything else)? If so, that would help clarify what is acceptable in your office and allow your supervisor or manager to work with the people who are leaving the office for hours a day to smoke.

I would have a chat with your supervisor and let them know you would find it really helpful for things to be clarified – for everyone – so that your colleagues, and you, can focus on building trust.

I have worked as a teacher delivering special education in a stressful environment for almost four years. Throughout that time, I have been punctual, filled in for sickness, and been diligent and professional in my duties. Yet, I’ve just been told I no longer have work due to staff changes, and a preference for a younger person who blows shifts and lacks boundaries with students. My manager’s parting words after announcing this news: “Don’t let it ruin your weekend.” Devoid of care and compassion, why does this person retain a senior, highly-paid role? The decision has consequences (financial and otherwise for me). Is there anything I can do?

It sounds like your manager really does need some lessons in empathy and how to communicate news, which may seem inconsequential to them but significant for the person they are communicating it to. As to why they can still have a senior role, unfortunately there are many bad bosses who rise to the very top of their professions, and it sounds like you have had to deal with one of them.

Whether there is anything you can do about the decision itself, I would recommend speaking to your employer to see whether there are other opportunities available, perhaps even with a different manager? I would avoid ridiculing the person who took your position since this is only likely to reflect poorly on you. I would focus on finding a new role where you feel valued.

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