when remote work goes really, really wrong

I recently asked readers to share their stories of times when remote work went really, really wrong, and today I’ve rounded up some of the most outrageous things you shared.

An important note: It’s crucial to say that none of these stories are reasons to disallow remote work. The take-away from these stories isn’t that remote work is bad — outrageous stories abound about non-telecommuters, after all –, but rather 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 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.”

4. McWhoops

“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 to not 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!”


I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 76 comments… read them below }

    1. AnonEMoose*

      I can’t stop giggling at that one. I work from home occasionally, and could totally see one of our cats doing something like that.

    2. Kelly L.*

      Yes! Before clicking over, I saw these comments and thought the cat had taken a literal poop on camera during a Skype session or something–this is even better!

    3. VintageLydia USA*

      I’m currently sitting in a 5 Guys across from a few attractive guys and I read the cat one and made some very embarrassing noises and almost dropped the food in my mouth. It attracted their attention. Y’all. Seriously.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      My favorite thing about that story is that then the cat disconnected the wifi — so it appeared to the boss that the person had expressed disgust with the training and immediately signed off in a huff.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Oh, yes – that’s the thing that makes the story perfect. And now I am (mostly ineffectively) trying to stifle giggles again.

      2. The Cosmic Avenger*

        I loved the part where the cat dropped the mic…er, wifi connection. LOL

      3. WorkingMom*

        Oh goodness – I had a similar disconnect issue but IN the office. One day while working with a very challenging account rep, she was demanding I complete a report that was worthless – because the client hadn’t submitted all required info yet. I had already sent the client a summary of data we still needed, but this account rep was INSISTING that I create the report without the data and send to the client, to show her what data was missing. We did the civilized argue thing for a few minutes – I knew it was a complete waste of my time – and we went back and forth. (This was an internal call.) Finally I gave up and said I’d do it. I was so mad I needed to sigh or groan or something, so I went to hit mute and bumped my phone – and accidentally hung up. I was MORTIFIED. I frantically dialed back in and apologized for getting disconnected…. it was so awkward!!!

      4. Harriet*

        With my old laptop my cat would leap onto the keyboard and manage to disconnect the wifi and turn off the touchpad at the same time. She also often managed to turn the screen upside down. I got very good at keyboard shortcuts…

        With my new job and new laptop the worst she has done is dive bomb me during a video call – I wasn’t feeling 100% so was sitting on the sofa rather than at my desk, and I was so focused on the call I didn’t notice her prowling along the back of the seat until she landed in my lap. All caught on video – luckily it was with a couple of colleagues I’m close with, who laughed and wanted me to get her in shot for the rest of the call. I’ve now learned not to schedule conference calls after 5pm which is when she thinks I should finish work and starts meowing and pawing me (no idea why, I always work later when I’m working from home).

      5. HRish Dude*

        My cat ALWAYS disconnects my wifi. I didn’t even know how to fix it until I just went down and hit every single button she had hit.

    5. Sunshine Brite*

      Thankfully it was just my coworker, but she was asking me about something while I ran to the other room quick and my cat took the opportunity to type PPPOOOOSSSSS so it made it look like I was super mad at my POS computer for a second.

    6. GOG11*

      My boyfriend’s cat doesn’t respond to conversations if she can hear both ends of it, but if you’re on the phone, she talks back to EVERYTHING. I can’t tell if she thinks you’re talking to her or if she’s trying to talk to the person on the phone, too, or what, but it’s hilarious and obnoxious.

  1. Relly*

    The cat story was definitely my favorite. Mine is just as obnoxious.

    (BTW, there are two #7’s in the article)

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Yes. I feel like I know all of my colleagues’ pets because they’re such a staple on our conference calls. None throws shade like that commenter’s cat, but I do appreciate a good howl in response to a questionable idea…

    2. PizzaSquared*

      Sometimes when I work from home, I’ll sit on the couch and do video conferences from there. (Yeah, I know I’m spoiled). More than once I’ve had my cat decide to jump in my lap, right in front of the laptop, during a meeting. Thankfully I work in a laid-back company and people just find it funny. I be sure to sit at a proper desk where he won’t do that if I have a meeting with someone who wouldn’t be amused.

  2. MegEB*

    My mother mainly works from home but will Skype in for some calls. She also has a somewhat needy cat that likes to sit on the computer keyboard while she’s working. One time she had Skyped in for a conference call, and the cat wandered over and proceeded to position himself so that he was facing my mom … with his butt facing the camera. She still gets teased about it a year later :)

    1. Nanc*

      My great aunt Mary was a photographer from the time the Brownie Box cameras came out and she used to refer to cat butt in face as “taking your picture.” It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized the lens of those cameras do indeed look like a cat anus. I miss that woman–in addition to being a photographer she was a dead eye shot with a pistol and rifle and she gave me my first (and last) taste of white lightning!

  3. Elizabeth West*

    HAHAHAAHAHAHAHA #6 (the poop cat)

    Thanks for the laugh, Alison, and whoever posted that story (I missed it in the thread). I needed that–I’ve been really sad over James Horner today.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Thanks. I am sooo soo glad I spent the money to go see him at Albert Hall. I would have been super mad at myself for not going now.

        He was such a favorite at my music site–the autoplayer is picking only his tracks today, so I really wish I was working remotely today because I can’t stream at the office!

  4. TBF*

    Don’t get me wrong RE: #1: Saying that you’re working when you actually aren’t fully “there” isn’t professional….but the fact that someone would hint at wanting to take a photo after catching someone who, to me, appears to have been in a financially difficult situation makes me sad.

    1. Adonday Veeah*

      Feeling empathy for someone who is hurting financially is appropriate. Allowing them to bill you for time they aren’t working is not. I’ve been in dire straits and had to work two jobs to make ends meet at certain points in my life. But what this person is doing feels like stealing to me. That’s where my empathy ends. This should have been called out.

      1. LUVZALAUGH*

        It would help to know if she had set hours for the work from home position or if this was more here is the assignment here is the deadline kind of thing. I can see juggling a cashier job (there is no info if this was a just a few hours a week or what that she was cashiering) and getting 40+ hours of remote work done. I actually work better in the wee hours ( as I descovered in college) I am worthless in the afternoon and would rather be able to check out groceries and make extra cash and do my more thought related work tasks in the twighlight hours or the A. M. Alas Shackled to my desk trying to force my brain to focus.

        1. Colette*

          It’s fine to choose to work unusual hours, as long as your manager is on board and you’re still able to do your job. Claiming you’re working from home but actually working another job does not qualify.

    2. Lily in NYC*

      That’s a pretty big assumption – there is not nearly enough info for anyone to know if the cashier was a con-artist or genuinely needy. Regardless of the reason, I’m not all that sympathetic to someone who would so blatantly commit employment fraud.

      1. Ad Astra*

        If I recall from the original post, the person seemed like a con artist who was also in need. It’s certainly a fire-able offense, but I’m not sure if I’d out her, if I were just a regular, non-managerial coworker. I probably would have said something, though. Or gone through her check-out lane.

    3. Snarkus Aurelius*

      That was my contribution. If you read the original post, which is much longer, you’ll see she was a bit of a conartist.

      She may have had dire financial straits, but she was committing serious and illegal fraud.

        1. Snarkus Aurelius*

          No and I really should have. I wasn’t very savvy at confrontation yet but I totally would now.

  5. Jillociraptor*

    The printer one is my worst nightmare…I’ve worked out of so many different offices that you never know which printer is going to be set as default for a given program on my laptop. I broke out into a cold sweat reading this, imagining accidentally hitting CTRL+P on something sensitive and sending it across the country. *shudder*

    1. Andrea*

      I have my default printer set to PDF, I manually have to change it if I want to print physically. I did not make this change until after I had printed a few documents to my old office, several thousand miles away.

    2. Artemesia*

      I once managed to print my entire enormous email in-box at a remote location — twice. It involved a 2 foot stack of threaded computer printer paper. So mortifying.

    1. hermit crab*

      I know! Do you think someone was like, “There’s an idea! I’ll take outrageous pictures and sell them as stock photos!” or if someone actually took the photo for a real reason, or what?

      Alison, do you get to pick/suggest the stock photos, or does the host site do it?

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Me too–I use FreeDigitalPhotos for my blogs (because I’m poor), and they have all these really goofy out-there pictures. Everybody is smiling and doing thumbs-up gestures. It’s like the entire site is on happy crack. Even the sad/angry/upset photos of people are exaggerated. I have a really hard time finding a subtle picture on that site. It’s a good thing I’m usually trying to be funny with them.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Yeah, where are the bitter, angry stock photos? Every single one always seems like people are WAY over happy about jogging, trying on socks, etc.

  6. Stranger than fiction*

    Im confused on #5, did he or she meam the coworkers told the boss he WAS there (in town that day)?

    1. zora*

      I know, that made me pause as well. But I finally figured out I think the group was at the game together, and someone pointed out that the OP wasn’t “there” as in at the game with them, but was back at the office. And the boss still didn’t want them to call the OP. Maybe? Does anyone have a better explanation? (I get so obsessed, I get way too distracted by confusing things.)

      1. Judy*

        Yes, that was it. The boss didn’t include me on team building emails because he didn’t want to pay for travel for me. But then one fell when I was in town, and the team just disappeared that afternoon. A few of my teammates reminded the boss that I was in the office, and he told them just to let me stay there.

        1. zora*

          Ah, got it! ;o) thanks for clarifying, Judy. And for the record, that was super rude of your boss, I’ve been irritated at him since I saw your comment on the original post.

          1. Judy*

            That wasn’t the worst of it, but it was the most public show of his dislike of some combination of (1) remote workers, (2) female engineers, (3) anyone that wasn’t him, (4) anything that caused him to do more work, or (5) me.

        2. Mints*

          What’s extra terrible here is that minor league games (at least the local ones to me) are like $3, and $15 for the whole kit and kaboodle with hot dog and beer. It’s not like you couldn’t get added last minute.

          That’s such a downer

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      11! bless you! I have 3 and boy what a handful. I would probably rescue more if I wasnt a renter and didnt live in an area heavily populated nu coyotes (mine have to stay indoors)

  7. That Marketing Chick*

    #6….You should warn us that we are going to laugh out loud…had to stifle an outburst! So. Funny!!!!

    1. louise*

      I missed it, too! My conspiracy theory gene is working overdrive and I suspect it must have been one of Alison’s cats. :)

  8. MaryMary*

    Yaaaaaay! I made one of Alison’s reader stories posts. I am a little surprised it was the McD story, and not the drunk frenemy/unattended laptop/Super Bowl Sunday story.

  9. Dasha*

    “And an important note: It’s crucial to say that none of these stories are reasons to disallow remote work. The take-away from these stories isn’t that remote work is bad — outrageous stories abound about non-telecommuters, after all –, but rather that managers need to manage and notice what’s going on with their people.”

    Big thank you, Alison! That is important to note :)

  10. AcidMeFlux*

    So far my cat hasn’t done anything really awful, and only does this when I’m preparing classes at home (and we all know that teachers don’t get paid for prep work, so it’s not really work….) but he has sent out mails before I’ve proofread them (and only on Outlook, not on Gmail which has an “undo” function. On the plus side, he has howled so piteously while I’ve been on the phone that I’ve twice had telemarketers say “oh, I’m sorry, I’ve woken the baby!”.

    1. quietone*

      yeah, ours get very talkative the *moment* I get on the phone. Currently they are sleeping like angels.

    2. AnonEMoose*

      When I was growing up, we always had dogs. One particular dog really hated the sound of the phone ringing (I suspect the shrill noise hurt his ears). So, he figured out how to make it stop.

      The phone in the kitchen hung on the wall and had a long cord. So if the phone rang and the humans didn’t get to it fast enough, the dog would jump up on top of his kennel and hit the bottom of the receiver with his nose. This caused the receiver to go flying and hit the floor with a crash…and if there still wasn’t a human there to grab it, he’d jump down and start barking into the receiver.

      Some of Mom’s friends got kind of used to it, but it startled a few telemarketers!

  11. Clever Name*

    Woo! Mine made the list! It was one of those jobs where I didn’t realize how terrible my boss was until I left and would talk about my old job. Although, it really has made for some great stories I can now (years later) laugh at. I did just stalk my old boss on LinkedIn and saw that he lists himself of VP for a new company, and he was VP of the last company when he left. Based on his history with the truth, I’m pretty certain this is a fabrication, but at least I can just shake my head.

  12. EvilQueenRegina*

    To the owner of the cat: Thank you so much for sharing your story which really made me laugh exactly when I needed cheering up.

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