am I being inflexible for not doing non-work things during work hours?

A reader writes:

Am I a jerk for “being inflexible” and not wanting to do non-work stuff during work hours?

I’m a librarian and work part-time at two different libraries. Both are closed to the public. One lets us work from home, the other is having us come in, but is letting us work from home a day or two a week. Both of them make us account for our time. Nothing major, no timestamps, just sending a list of what we do each day/week.

The issue is that my brother wanted us to go drop off gifts at our grandparents, during the time when I am working. He has a full-time job, but his job might be a little different than mine (he’s done non-work stuff during work hours often). Anyway, he got annoyed with me because I couldn’t take 20-minute break to go and drop off presents.

At the job that is letting us work from home, I’m expected to virtually staff the reference desk, which means I keep an eye out on the emails and chats. It’s generally really quiet and I’m not the only one staffing, but I’m still expected to “be there” regardless. Even at the job where we work from home a day or two a week but aren’t expected to virtually staff anything, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a chunk of my day to do non-work stuff when I’m supposed to be working. I only work there for four hours at a time, so 20-30 minutes is a decent part of my shift.

But it mostly comes down to my not wanting to do things that aren’t work when I’m supposed to be working, even if work never finds out. They’d care if they knew. I mean, I’m not productive 100% of the time but I’m not, like, reading fan fiction or on Facebook at work all day (tempting though that may be some days).

Am I just being really inflexible?

You’re not being inflexible — or at least you’re not being problematically inflexible! There are some things where you shouldn’t be flexible, and not disappearing to do non-work stuff when you’re expected to be working and/or available for others is one of them.

There are jobs where it would be perfectly fine to go do a personal errand in the middle of the day, even outside of a lunch break, and you wouldn’t even need to clear it with anyone. In those jobs, you’re typically managing your own workload and it’s not a role where someone else needs to cover for you if you’re gone for a while.

But there are other jobs where it wouldn’t be fine — either because it would have a real impact on your work or on other people, or simply because that’s not the culture of that workplace.

It sounds like your brother works in a job where it’s no big deal to leave to do an errand or two (or his job’s not like that, but he chooses to do it anyway). But he should recognize that not every job allows that and not act like you’re weird for needing to operate differently than he does.

It’s also possible that this is about you working from home. Tons of people think that when their friends and family members are working from home, they have total flexibility … so you get people asking friends/family who work home to run an errand for them, babysit their kid during the work day, etc. (It would be interesting to know if this has decreased in the last year, with so many more people now working from home.)

But even leaving remote work out of it, there are people who just don’t get that other people’s jobs work differently than their own. You’re not weird or overly rigid. If anything, your brother is the one being overly rigid! “My boss would be unhappy if she knew” is a perfectly good reason not to do something, and so is “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it.”

{ 150 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    I think people have a hard time imagining jobs that aren’t just like theirs, or at least not just like something they see and interact with on a daily basis (so maybe if you were a grocery store clerk, he could imagine not being able to take a break from that? maybe?).

    This of course doesn’t add anything to what Alison has said already except the idea that this fits in with my theory of Everyone Is Oblivious.

    1. I'm just here for the cats.*

      I think it’s the WFH thing. Presumably if you were working in the library at this time he wouldn’t ask you to leave the library.

      1. Reference Librarian*

        And working a virtual reference desk is the same as a physical reference desk…but worse. Without any visual clues that the person is helping other people, patrons expect quicker response than normal.

        And with the curse of the 4:59 p.m. on Friday question, you know that someone or several someones would ask a question in those twenty minutes.

        Even in cases where you are not staffing a reference chat, you are not being inflexible to want to be working during your work time.

        Considering how tenuous library funding is even in the best of times, being seen as reliable is a good thing. During these pandemic days, I am keeping a journal of what I do every day when telecommuting just to show that I am working.

        Best of luck with your brother, OP.

    2. Mel_05*

      Yeah, my husband gets really confused/annoyed if he comes home and I’m not working. Because at his job he has to be working all the time. And sometimes I do at mine, but we have chunks of the year where we’re much of our day is time where we’re “engaged to wait” and jump on work as it comes in.

      If there’s no work, I’m free to browse amazon or have a 3 hour conversation about the last episode of The Mandalorian. Which, is what we did in the office too.

      But like the OP, I also wouldn’t feel comfortable running an errand during my work day. I’m supposed to be ready for when something does come in, which could happen any time.

      1. Elliott*

        Same here. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking too many breaks where I wasn’t accessible if something came up, because part of my job is to be around if needed. I will do things like browse the internet or read when it’s really quiet, but I’m still there.

      2. CatMom*

        Yes, my job is not dissimilar to this — there are only maybe 3-5 hours a day I’m “actively” working (i.e. cannot respond immediately to messages or attend to personal business or leave my desk longer than getting water or going to the bathroom), but I wouldn’t run an errand unless it was before working hours or after I was officially done for the day. I probably could, but it’s just better form to be available on email and taking care of other related business.

      3. uncivil servant*

        My husband and I had a hard time understanding this nature of each other’s job when we first met. He’s a paramedic, which means he’s either really on or really off. I have one of those office jobs where I have a few time-sensitive tasks and the expectation that I will use other time to work on projects. He didn’t get why I couldn’t use quiet days to do personal stuff, and I might have implied he doesn’t work hard when I marveled at the amount of time he can sometimes spend playing games.

    3. FacePalm*

      At my job, I have a coworker who spends a good portion of the day playing on her phone because she doesn’t have much work. I spend my entire day frantically trying to fall too far behind on work because I have so much. At least once a day, she’ll come to my desk to chat. I don’t mind making small talk for a few minutes to be polite, but when I gesture at the huge piles of documents on my desk and say I really need to get back to work because I have to get done x, y and z by noon, she’ll just….keep talking. When I repeat myself a few minutes later, she says, “Oh, you said you were busy, but I didn’t realize you were that busy.” *Face palm* It’s like she can’t comprehend that other people have work to do when she doesn’t have work.

      1. MassMatt*

        So unless she has other work you don’t know about, or she’s new, or her work flow is really seasonal, management where you’re working is doing a terrible job allocating resources.

        I’ve had jobs with lots of downtime, everyone envied me on days when I didn’t have much work to do, but they sure didn’t when it would pile in and I had to work at a frantic pace for 12-14 hours a day for a week. Some jobs are like that.

      2. Tink*

        Next time put her to work. Hand her a pile of papers, give her instructions and a time frame. She will either help you or never bother you again.

      3. Anony-Mouse*

        I hope there’s some way you can speak to your supervisor and share your workload. As someone who has more downtime then others, I would like to share the workload! I have asked my supervisor, but it hasn’t happened yet (because she is so busy too!).

    4. Momma Bear*

      So many people don’t get “WFH” or don’t understand what it means in different roles. I encountered that often when I was FT remote. Just because I was there didn’t mean I could be someone else’s childcare, or field all deliveries or take care of all appointments (like the pets to the vet). I had job duties to fill. I would tell him that it’s not feasible with how your job is and suggest he find another option. So often if we say no firmly enough people will discover that wow, there are other ways to get something done.

      The other thing I said a time or two is, “Please respect me, my professionalism, and my job. I am not going to run errands for you during these hours because I am on the clock.” What I read from some people was that they either did not respect my time or they did not respect my job or both.

  2. OkGo!*

    Hahaha reading fanfic at work… Call me out friend. Sometimes your favorite fic just got updated so you just… sneak some peaks between work.

    1. KaciHall*

      I admit, normally this time in January my job is slow enough I’ve read entire books during the week. (Sometimes fanfic, sometimes stuff on my kindle app.) But while working from home this week I’ve been too busy to do any reading. (Though I DO admit I have on GBBO in the background for white noise. I’ve seen them so many times I don’t actually watch them anymore, the British accents talking about nothing important is just soothing!)

      1. English, not American*

        Hah, I do the same thing with US sitcoms! Though recently noticing things that have aged poorly has made it a little more distracting than background noise (mostly social attitudes, but HIMYM also has a flash-forward to a big reunion party in 2020, no one distancing or wearing masks, terrible!)

      2. Third or Nothing!*

        Pre-pandemic, I would sit on the couch and put on a movie I’ve seen a million times as my background noise on the rare occasions I got to work from home. Now that I’m doing it full time and have set up camp at the kitchen table, I listen to podcasts or audio books since there’s no sight line into the living room from here.

    2. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

      oh, I have been tempted to look! but I’m too worried about ao3 showing up in the browser history (even incognito) so I save that for when I’m not at work haha.

  3. Big Red*

    My work is “just get your work load done” which I love so much, but not everyone’s is. We all have to be more understanding right now!

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Same here. There’s nothing I can be doing that I’d be afraid of my boss to catch me doing (except perhaps composing this convoluted sentence). Reading a blog, making a shopping list? Is your work done? Yep? Carry on.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, same here. As long as my work gets done it’s all fine and dandy. Of course, if the unthinkable were to happen and there’d be absolutely no work for us, the expectation would be to first use up any banked working hours by working shorter days. We also have lots of leeway for studying during working hours, provided we study something that at least tangentially has to do with our job.

        If I have to run errands during the day, I’ll let my coworker know, and my boss if I’m away from my desk for more than two hours in the middle of the day. She trusts us to manage our own working hours and workload.

    2. londonedit*

      Yes, same here. I have deadlines for my projects, but as long as I’m hitting those along the way, no one minds how I manage my own workload. Even when we were in the office, it was common for people to say ‘Just popping out to pick up a prescription while it’s quiet – won’t be long’ or ‘Just nipping out to get a coffee, back in a bit’ and that was totally fine. Now we’ve been working at home for months, there’s even more flexibility – no one minds if someone pops out for a run in the middle of the day, or starts/finishes earlier or later, as long as they’re not missing a meeting and as long as people know where they are.

      I have definitely encountered the ‘you’re not really working, therefore you can take time off whenever you want’ attitude, though – when I was freelancing a few years ago, people had real trouble seeing my work as a ‘real job’. They basically thought I was loafing around in my pyjamas all day and would be shocked when I said I couldn’t do something because I had an urgent deadline to meet. I mean, yes, I could totally set my own working hours and yes I did sometimes take a morning off or meet another freelance friend for a long lunch, but I was definitely working! I also wonder whether there’s more understanding of freelance work now more people have experienced working at home full-time.

    3. Liz*

      mine is too, in certain respects. Others, there are deadlines. Mornings are my busy time, but unless something major comes up, afternoons i’m pretty much left alone. I do run errands around lunchtime, and I always send my boss a quick email, just in case he needs something ASAP. I’m also able to to go out for other things, like a quick dr. appt one day this week, or, when maintenance comes to fix stuff in my kitchen per my request, i can shut down and hang on the couch for a bit (I work in my DR which is right outside the kitchen so no way to properly socialy distance.)

      But I also try not to abuse it, and only do that when absolutely necessary.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Absolutely. The fact that OP’s brother didn’t like that answer. But really, that’s on him.

    2. Batgirl*

      I really side eye anyone who can’t simply accept a “no”, or a “sorry, can’t”. There are usually other issues with them aside from scheduling. Hopefully, this is out of character for him.

      1. chewingle*

        Same. Really speaks of a whole different level of entitlement when “no” doesn’t shut down the conversation immediately.

        Something OP could try is saying their computer automatically goes to sleep after 5 minutes and sends and alert to their manager. I have a friend whose job kind of does that—if she’s away long enough people know.

        That is, if OP is fine with lying. (And at this point, I would just to remove that level of stress, but I can see why someone wouldn’t want to.)

        For validation’s sake, though, it is never inflexible to insist that you work during work hours.

    3. Drago Cucina*

      I’m wondering if it’s also wrapped up in her brother not understanding her job. I still get comments about librarians sitting around and getting paid to read.

      We may be reading, but it’s not pleasure reading. My patron may find the safety factor lunar tea pots fascinating, but I’m reading it to find the information she needs. Plus the being present factor. “We suddenly have a report due tomorrow and we need the facts and figures for how many llamas were raised in the county during 1886!”

      1. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

        I think this is it. I don’t think anyone understand what my job really is, which is annoying. They probably think that I sit at a desk all day, and that is noooot all that I do. So, maybe it’s because he doesn’t know what I do.

        I feel so validated by this post, though, thanks everyone.

        1. Self Employed*

          Also, if your shifts are just half a day, it seems you would have more flexibility to do things outside the work day. That makes his attitude even less reasonable.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      The phrase “I can clock out if this is an emergency” did seem to help with family elders. Putting a time-clock into the equation, or volunteering to take PTO to help them somehow made them realize they were interrupting my employer.

  4. What's in a name?*

    My feeling is that if it takes no longer than a bathroom break, you can do it. More than that, know your workplace and your boss and make good decisions.

    1. asgard*

      I’m similar to this. No longer than a “normal” break, whether it be bathroom, scheduled 15 minute break, or lunch, then it’s fine (especially if you then don’t take another lunch break, for example). I’ve gone and done things over my lunch break while WFH, just like I did when in the office.

      1. I'm just here for the cats.*

        Same here. When I was working from home I would run to the basement to do a load of laundry, or wash a few dishes. For me it was no different than talking with others in the hallway between clients or going to the water fountain.

        1. Uranus Wars*

          Same, and this is what I tell my (salaried) team. I generally expect them to be available most of the day, due to the nature of their jobs, but them taking a few 10 minute walks or putting in a few loads of laundry during the day isn’t any different than walking to the break room and chatting for 10 or so minutes. Just get your work done and make sure you are responding to/completing requests in the timeframe necessary.

    2. ThatGirl*

      I’m generally comfortable with taking the dog out, making a quick snack, doing a load of laundry… if I’m leaving the house beyond taking the dog out, though, I’d let someone know. It definitely depends on your boss and workplace.

      1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

        I found taking conference calls I needed to be on but wasn’t leading while walking the dog was REALLY beneficial, as I was actually actively listening and paying attention, vs taking from my workspace where I have ALL the work/email distractions!

  5. EmmaPoet*

    His job may allow him the freedom to do this, but speaking as a librarian who staffs virtual reference/call center, there are times when you get one caller in two hours, and times when the phone rings off the hook, and it can switch on a dime. You can’t take off for thirty minutes and leave the “desk” without coverage, because Murphy’s Law means your library will invariably be inundated with people who want help and they will contact library administration to complain that nobody was there for half an hour. Your manager will not be happy, and this will blow back on you.

    1. Classic Rando*

      I’ve worked from home for years answering support tickets, and it never fails – I could sit at my desk for 3 hours and not get a single ticket, but as soon as I walk away for a few minutes everybody decides it’s ticket time.

      My company’s flexible, they don’t mind if I wander off to load the dishwasher or put something in the oven, but I’d never go run an errand off site without asking first

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Something I’ve noticed a lot is that people who don’t do direct customer service/on call type work don’t always have the context for how our jobs work. I don’t have any customers calling or signing in to ask questions at this exact second, so it would be easy for a family member to look at me and say “but you’re not doing anything right now, why can’t you (help me with this home improvement project/go have lunch with me etc)?” But I don’t know when the next one will pop up and I’m supposed to be here to help them when they do.

      1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

        I think it’s that some jobs are, by their nature, reactive and others are proactive. If my job was to write book reviews, then I might know that I need to read x book by y date and then have the review written by z date. If I wanted to take off for a half an hour in the middle a day allocated for reading the book, and then read a bit later into the evening to catch up (or start reading earlier in the morning so I don’t fall behind), that really isn’t going to cause any problems and I can easily flex my time that way since it matters when the entire task is completed by rather than when I complete any given part of the task. If my job is to answer the phone when it rings, I can’t plan ahead by paying attention to the phone earlier in the morning and ignoring it for a half hour during the day while I run errands.

        Most jobs have a mixed of the two kinds of tasks, but a lot of them skew more towards one than the other. I know my parents (who both had pretty “proactive” jobs when they worked from home prior to retirement, albeit with occasional phone calls or meetings) both had a lot of trouble adjusting to the idea that I was at home but anchored closely to my computer all day most days so I could tackle things as they came in.

        1. Owler*

          I think your comment about proactive versus reactive jobs should be highlighted. Those of us who don’t have coverage jobs where we need to be responsive to the requests of others need to be mindful of the differences here.

    3. Zennish*

      …and at least one of the callers will be the Board President’s niece, or the Director’s second cousin.

    4. EvilQueenRegina*

      Seriously, my phone can be quiet for ages and then start ringing as soon as I go to the bathroom. I just know that if I ever did try to take a personal errand for longer than that takes, it would go nuts.

  6. Colette*

    This is really workplace dependent. I’ve had jobs where it would be fine, jobs where I could do it but I’d have to tell someone I was going out, and jobs where I would have to arrange coverage while I was gone. And I think the reason for going out matters, too – picking up needed medication for your grandparents would be different than dropping off presents. But I think that if you do it, you need to be able to be open about it. “Hey boss, I have an errand to run at 1 so I will work until 4:30 instead of 4, is that OK?” or “I’ll be away at 1 but I’ll be back online at 1:30” or “Yeah, I dropped of my grandparents’ gifts yesterday afternoon”.

    If you can’t mention it, you shouldn’t be doing it, and if you’re not sure, err on the side of asking.

    1. What's in a name?*

      I wouldn’t say that is necessary to mention different hours. Since the OP’s reports “no timestamps, just sending a list of what we do each day/week”, mentioning a change of hours (assuming not covering the phone) would not be necessary.

      I do agree with your last sentence.

    2. Grits McGee*

      I think there’s also a really big difference in publicly-funded jobs and privately-funded jobs (both non- and for-profit), especially publicly-funded jobs that are public-facing. When taxpayer $$$ is involved, I think there’s a much higher threshold for on-the-clock behavior, at least in terms of perception.

      1. Mae*

        This! Most of my jobs have been public and I would NEVER do this unless it was my break. Even then, you have to be very careful about not looking like a gov. Employee when you run the errand. Hide the badge, remove uniform shirt….

  7. New Mom*

    Similar with my husband and I. One of us has a job and workload that makes it easy to slip away and do non-work stuff a few times a week and maybe more of a lackadaisical attitude about it. The other does not feel comfortable taking an hour off without formally logging it. I think we both raise our eyebrows at each other but respect the other’s work boundaries.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Same – and he’s also not allowed to work outside of work hours whereas I’m here until the work is done and also receive out-of-business-hours requests frequently. He does not understand why I’m not logged off the second the clock turns at the end of the day, and I don’t know how he can just switch off halfway through a task for his boss because it’s X time on the clock. :)

    2. Sleepless*

      My husband and I have extremely different job norms as well. He works from home in the mortgage industry. He has deadlines but his time is completely flexible. He can do any kind of personal errand when he has time (on the other hand, he logs in and chips away at his work at all hours on nights and weekends). In contrast, I work in an extremely busy emergency animal hospital. It took many, many years and repeated explanations to make him understand that no, I can’t just leave any time I feel like it, and that I don’t even have access to my phone unless I’m sitting down writing charts…so if he texts me during the day, I may not see it for hours.

      1. just a random teacher*

        Reminding people that not everyone can look at their personal phone all day long has gotten to be more and more an annoying part of my life as years go by. No, I’m not going to answer a personal cell phone call or text at 9am, even if it’s from someone I know. I’m in the middle of teaching 35 squirrelly 7th graders who aren’t allowed to have their phones out, and will be pretty much all day. Calling me again in a half hour will not help either. I’ll listen to my messages at lunch if I happen to look at my phone then, or more realistically when I’m getting my stuff together to go home for the day.

        1. Kimmybear*

          Yes, or my mother (a teacher) who took years to realize I didn’t get off work at 3pm like she did.

        2. SomebodyElse*

          Not a teacher here and have a pretty typical desk job, but I’ve had to systematically train people not to call/text me in the middle of the day. In fact my husband and I have a rule, if I don’t respond to a text or confirm a voicemail assume I have not gotten the message. So if you’re texting me to pick the dog up on the way home you’d better call if I didn’t respond to the text.

          (I will take calls from my husband, only because the only time he calls is for something like picking up the dog on the way home from work and he’s already texted me but I haven’t seen it or responded yet)

        3. Rara Avis*

          I’m a teacher too, and no matter how many times I told my daughter’s daycare to call my desk phone (which I’m expected to answer, since it’s usually the office asking for a student) rather than my cellphone (locked away in my closet out of earshot), I could not convince them that I wasn’t carrying my cell all day. So that call that my daughter broke her shoe and needed a new pair? Yeah, got it at 4:00. I assume if she had been vomiting and needed to go home, they would have tried harder.

          1. Adultiest Adult*

            Ooh, this is giving me flashbacks to my childhood as a teacher’s kid, in the years before classrooms reliably had phones. The first emergency contact listed was actually the babysitter, who was available almost all the time and had the authorization to handle minor medical things too. Even as a first grader, I knew to tell people that you didn’t call my mom unless it was an absolute emergency, because the office would have to send a random kid to her classroom to give her the message to come down to the phone, and then find someone to cover her classroom while she did.

        4. TexasTeacher*

          I’ve probably told this story before, but one time my husband called the school office, expecting to be asked to leave a message. (He knew I wouldn’t have my mobile out.) The receptionist had never received a call for me and assumed it was an emergency. She arranged coverage for my class so I could come to the office. He just wanted to know if I wanted to attend a basketball game that evening; a client had given him some club seat tickets. I was so embarrassed to explain that to the staff at the end of the call!

          1. Katrinka*

            Next time, he can ask to just be sent to your voicemail. When I worked at the school, we assumed that family members need to talk to the teacher right then (same for daycares, doctors, etc). But we would usually try to remember to ask first or call the teacher’s room and ask if they wan to take the call (we could transfer the call to their room phone). It is very rare that we need them to come to the office (it only happened once in my 3 years there, and the teacher’s mother had died, so we had her come to the office and take the call in a private office).

        5. TardyTardis*

          Try to tell that to Blackhawk parents who try to email a teacher and are upset when they don’t get an answer in five minutes! My husband ran into one set who apparently did not understand that his job was *teaching* and there are very good reasons you don’t leave a student lab while students are in it.

    3. KWu*

      Yeah I agree this is a lack of respect for someone else’s work boundaries. “I don’t want to” for an easily rescheduled, optional errand is reason enough.

  8. Caramel & Cheddar*

    Is there a reason neither of you could drop off gifts outside of work hours? E.g. they conflict with visiting hours at their long term care home (if they’re in one), etc. I realise the letter is about the norms re: running errands during work hours, but ultimately this problem seems like it still would have been a problem regardless of whether or not you were working from home.

    1. Batgirl*

      I think the only reason is her brother feeling he can decide for her when she should be able to do it.

    2. Colette*

      It may very well be that that time worked best for the brother or the grandparents. But that doesn’t mean the OP is obligated to do it.

    3. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

      we ended up dropping the gifts off on christmas eve, when neither of us were working!

  9. bunniferous*

    With my job it would be perfectly fine (and heck, sometimes I am working at 11 at night depending on what else went on that day ) but MY job is not YOUR job. Not to mention that even with mine, if I have work that needs doing, that is the priority, and some days I can’t just walk away from it for a bit. In any case, no is a complete sentence, n0 matter what your brother wants.

  10. Colleague’s Dog’s Viking Funeral*

    You can’t do it on your lunch break? Oh wait, it sounds like you work part time, OP.
    I can’t imagine your boss being cool with “I have to run an errand during my shift” when you are only there half a day. And your brother is being unreasonable if he can’t understand that.

    1. Public Sector Manager*

      While the OP might be part time, the OP might work Monday-Tuesday all day for library #1 and all day Wednesday-Thursday for library #2. But that’s besides the point. OP shouldn’t feel compelled to meet the brother’s demands, who I agree is being unreasonable.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Oh yeah! I have friends who are librarians, full time and monday-weds is 12-8 and the other days are alternate or in the middle, and then again Saturdays. Brother is a pain, indeed!

      2. Katrinka*

        True, but also a lot of people don’t realize that normal labor laws apply to WFH – you still get to take the required am/pm breaks, lunch breaks, and get paid for any overtime they require you to work. When we first went to WFH, I asked the other secretaries to give me their break and lunch times (we staggered just like we would when we were at the office), then sent an email around to all staff. My boss got mad (she’s a micromanager and apparently thought I overstepped), until I reminded her that she had asked me to arrange break and lunch times at the beginning of the year (in the Before Times) and this was just a continuation of that (not to mention, overseeing the secretaries and their scheduling was literally the second item in my job description). I also pointed out we could be in violation of our union contract in addition to labor laws if we didn’t ensure they got their breaks, since we were requiring them to be logged in and available during regular work hours.

  11. Yes Ma'am*

    I’m willing to bet it has to do with the perception of flexibility while working from home. My sister is an essential worker (and normally quite thoughtful, I swear!) and asked me a few times to watch her child during the day while my spouse and I are both working from home. I said no every time because, you know, I’m working, and she understood but there’s definitely people who think that working from home is coming and going as you please.

    1. UK gal*

      Usually that would be very unreasonable but I feel like it’s different in the pandemic because parents working from home who aren’t essential workers are expected to look after their kids and work and many normal childcare options don’t really exist or aren’t safe.

  12. TimeTravelR*

    OP, Thank you for being a conscientious worker. I appreciate that some jobs offer more flexibility but where I work, there is only flexibility if you are clear that you are taking 20 minutes to run an errand. You can’t just take off and not let someone know. We have people that do it anyway and are the reason so many managers have resisted more telework prior to the pandemic. I really appreciate your work ethic.

    1. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

      thank you. unfortunately today I am more doomscrolling twitter than actually working…..

    2. EmmaPoet*

      Good point, it was a hard sell to get to do telework for a lot of libraries because so much of our job was in-person before. Management might be allowed due to paperwork and meetings, but convincing them that info staff could still do our work took serious effort, and having people take off for extended breaks without permission would have caused real issues.

  13. juliebulie*

    This would be fine in my job, under most circumstances… but I would still prefer not to do it, because the more I intermingle non-work time with work time, the harder it is for me to disconnect during my actual free time.

    This might not be a problem for everyone, but I’ve been figuring it out for myself. So, I say no to people who think that WFH is the same thing as All-Day-Fun-Time. The less time I need to spend switching between work/not-work, the better.

    Some people may expect you to be “flexible” for their convenience, but only you can be flexible for your own needs. They are not the ones who are paying you!

    1. Myrin*

      Yeah, even if I could do that I wouldn’t want to unless there was an absolute emergency – I’m very black-and-white in that regard because I have found that I don’t do well with not clearly separating work-time and not-work-time.

    2. juliebulie*

      It just occurred to me, this is like when you’re in school and your friend wants you to ditch class and gets mad when you say no. You don’t have to be THAT flexible!

    3. MissDisplaced*

      I don’t see an issue with it if you get an hour lunch break and wanted to go do it on your lunch hour. You are free to leave for lunch if you’re WFH same as at the office, and what you do on lunch break is your business.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, but I’m not willing to skip actually eating lunch to run errands for someone else. Sure, at home I could sit and eat at my desk, but I’m not expected to answer the phone and talk to the public, like a reference librarian might be expected to do, unless they get all their jobs through a ticketing system or by email, etc.

        In my job it’s a moot point, though, because I can both run errands and actually eat during my breaks. My hair salon is in my office building, which is one more reason why I haven’t gone for almost 11 months. I’d get a haircut, that usually took 45 minutes to an hour, and then I’d eat my lunch afterwards.

    4. EmmaPoet*

      Yes, this. I telework at times and it’s really easy to let them blend if I’m not careful. I don’t want to check my work email umpteen times during my time off. In fact, I normally don’t check it at all when I’m away from work, because when I do start, I find myself doing things that I could leave for actual working hours when I’m getting paid.

  14. Salad Daisy*

    So we’re not supposed to read fanfiction while at work? Next we will be told we cannot read AAM! Or shop on Ama **n. Or any of the other activities that keep us sane while working from home.

    1. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

      haha I don’t read fic at work partially because I’m scared work will somehow find out and also I WILL get sucked in.

      but I do read AAM a lot. :D

  15. Research Admin*

    My boss has no idea what I do during the day. For that matter, neither do most of my coworkers unless I choose to loop them in. I am also salaried. I still do not leave the site (home or office) when I am working without (a) telling someone I am going and when I will be back; (b) putting in leave time if I cannot truly call it a lunch break (and that means, no eating at my desk if I call it lunch). I generally pay no attention to what others do, but my personal ethics hold me to a certain standard. And I get minimal oversight because my boss (and coworkers) know that I can immediately account for what I do during the day.

    The brother’s job may not care–but just leaving for a significant chunk of your shift is not likely to fly with most employers, esp. in a customer facing role.

    1. Sarah*

      So wait, do you just not eat if you use your lunch break to run an errand? That seems pretty rigid and self-punitive, but you do you.

      1. TassieTiger*

        I see it more as a choice. She gets to choose how to use her lunch hour, and someday she may choose to run an errand instead of having a lunch.

  16. Nice Try, FBI*

    I’m teaching remotely, and the number of friends/family who’ve asked me to do stuff in the middle of my work day is surprising. I do notary work on the side, and a relative has come to my house twice to get something notarized, without even asking if I had time to do it. The first time, I did it. The second, I told him he needs to reach out and make arrangements for when I’m not working. I also charged him the second time because I was irritated.

  17. SpringIsForPlanting!*

    I’ve telecommuted part-time for several years, and for whatever reason, the phrase that seems to work best is “Sorry, I’m on the clock.” I don’t literally have a time clock, but the chatty neighbor or phoning relative or whoever is usually like, “Oh OK” and wanders off/hangs up vs whatever used to happen when I tried to say “I’m working” or “I’m at work”.

  18. I need coffee before I can make coffee*

    I think the first sentence of OP’s last paragraph says it all: “But it mostly comes down to my not wanting to do things that aren’t work when I’m supposed to be working, even if work never finds out.” It’s about personal integrity. Some people do not want to do things they feel are improper even if they know they can 100% “get away” with it. The next sentence is “They’d care if they knew”, so it doesn’t just seem improper to OP, it IS improper. Some people don’t understand the concept of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

    1. Aziraphale*

      I was also struck by this “But it mostly comes down to my not wanting to do things that aren’t work when I’m supposed to be working, even if work never finds out. ” And my comment to OP is — thank you! As a manager, I really respect this and appreciate this. :)
      As a library manager, I know that in our work day, we sometimes step away from the public desk — but it’s for a quick bathroom run, a run to the shelves, etc. Just disappearing for a longer period of time leaves the burden on others and if you’re the lone person on the reference desk (which is what OP sounds like, answering questions remotely), then you really can’t take an extended break.

      1. Esmeralda*

        Agreed. I have colleagues who don’t understand why I use my leave when I run a long errand while WFH. “Nobody will know”. Yes, somebody will know: ME.

    2. LilyP*

      Yep, “They’d care if they knew” is the entire answer. I would feel totally comfortable taking the half-hour without asking because I know for sure my boss/coworkers *wouldn’t* care if they knew.

      1. Tammy Swanson (OP)*


        unfortunately today isn’t the best day for me or my integrity because we’re mostly just scrolling through various social media. but in general, we try to be way more productive than this!

  19. Jennifer*

    You don’t get breaks? I agree that your brother is being inflexible, you said no and that should be enough. But I think it’s possible that you might be just a bit inflexible too, if this would have only taken 15-20 minutes. Could you have asked permission beforehand if you weren’t sure?

    1. TechWorker*

      Even if you do get breaks it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to use them for errands! A 20min present drop off means you’ve not had any time to get a drink and relax for a few minutes. Some people are fine with this, others aren’t, but it’s not a failing to want to have your break at a time that’s convenient for you and for your workload rather than rushing around to get something done.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, this. It’s possible that the LW isn’t willing to bend over backwards to do a favor for her brother, and that’s perfectly OK. If I don’t eat during the day, my productivity would plummet, so that’s not something I’d be willing to do for anyone, for any reason.

    2. EmmaPoet*

      As a librarian who has worked four hour shifts, I can tell you that our union agreement gives us one fifteen minute break for that shift. When we take that break in the library, someone else comes to cover our reference desk. You can’t just walk off and leave it with no coverage. It’s the same for virtual reference. Someone else has to cover you being away.

    3. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

      me personally, I don’t want to use my breaks to do errands, unless it’s super time-sensitive and there wasn’t any other time that it would be done.

      but also, there’s no way dropping off the gifts would have taken 20 minutes. and that’s technically exceeding my break at the shorter-shift library (our break is 15 minutes), which I’m not okay with.

  20. Public Sector Manager*

    There is nothing wrong with the OP’s decision and the brother is being unreasonable. The brother is in no position to judge the OP’s workplace norms. And it doesn’t matter if it’s during the OP’s lunch hour, after work, during the day–it’s OP’s time.

    And even if there is some flexibility, flexibility during COVID is a much different animal, at least at my agency. Pre-COVID, we had the flexibility to go out during the middle of the day to run an errand like this. And we’ll have the same flexibility after the pandemic is over. But we’ve wanted remote access for a very, very long time in our agency and we have always been told no. Since we’ve all been home for the better part of the year, none of us wants give our agency ammunition to undermine the idea of remote access once we’re all back in the office. We want to have remote access once or twice a week. So, a lot of us don’t take advantage of the flexibility we have in the office, or substantially curtail it, because we want our agency to adopt remote access permanently.

    But all of this is none of the brother’s business. It’s not an emergency. It’s something that can wait. And it’s something that doesn’t need to be done together as siblings.

  21. Erin*

    Oh, gosh, my husband does the same, assuming I’m free because I’m home, even if I’m reading from my screen or in a virtual event. I’ve actually had to tell him to stop talking and go away when he just came over during meetings and started talking (we’re muted while others speak, so at least they didn’t hear him). My 5yo sees me with the work laptop and asks first! (Yeah, he’s soon-to-be-ex husband. Makes you wonder why, right?)

    1. allathian*

      Yeah… Your soon-to-be-ex doesn’t respect your time or the requirements of your job, I don’t blame you for kicking him to the curb.

  22. Maltypass*

    My family don’t get sometimes that because my job involves lone trading, I am sometimes unreachable by phone for hours. I can Technically check my phone, but realistically I’m holding down the fort and checking my phone is the last thing on my mind, but because their jobs allow it they assume mine does too. People do be being oblivious

  23. RagingADHD*

    I also suspect — and OP can correct me if I’m wrong — that “20 minutes to drop off presents” wouldn’t really be 20 minutes anyway.

    Unless the brother, the OP, and the grandparents all live literally next door to each other (or they intend to yeet the presents from a moving car and speed away), there’s “where’s my mask” time, chatting with the brother time, there’s travel time to the grandparents’ house, there’s chatting time with the grandparents, there’s “one more thing” time, etc etc etc. Before you know it, you’ve been away from your desk for 45 minutes to an hour.

    I suspect this because the folks who say “come on, don’t be so uptight, it will be FINE” are very often the same folks who secretly believe they have a personal tesseract that erases the time spent on travel and incidentals.

    1. Colette*

      Yeah, I agree. I think it would have been more than 20 minutes so, even if 20 minutes would be fine, the OP was reasonable to say no. (And 20 minutes wouldn’t have been fine, which makes her decision all the better!)

  24. Ann O'Nemity*

    It’s not unreasonable to refuse to slip out of work when you’re expected to be logged in and providing services as needed.

    Heck my job offers enough flexibility that I could run errands or do some housework occasionally, but I’ve found that’s a slippery slope! If I start getting into the habit of loading the dishwasher, throwing in a load of laundry, etc, I start doing more and more non-work during work hours.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Sometimes I do that stuff too. But then there are also many days when I’m still working at 7pm, or times I log in on Sunday afternoon to get a head start on my work for the week.

  25. NewYork*

    I may have skipped over some comments, but could you help with grandparents outside of work time? Is your brother’s complaint really that he is getting dumped on?

  26. DrSalty*

    I think the fact that you work 4 hr shifts makes a big difference. That makes it easy to do stuff during the day around your working hours.

    1. Portia Longfellow*

      Not necessarily – OP mentions that they work part-time at two different libraries, so they could be working up to full-time hours in total.

  27. hayling*

    I work in tech and have a very flexible workplace, even when I was in the office full-time. But I totally get that a lot of jobs aren’t like that! Your brother is being weird about pushing your boundaries.

  28. EventPlannerGal*

    A lot of people who don’t have coverage-based jobs have a hard time getting it through their heads when other people do. It’s very annoying. I mean, it’s not that hard a concept to understand…

  29. MissDisplaced*

    It’s not you being inflexible per se, it is whether or not you job has flexibility. Some jobs expect you to be “on” for your whole shift even if you’re working remotely, because that may be the duties and needs of the job. Other jobs aren’t as structured, and there is more flexibility to “step away” for a few minutes or to disengage for an hour lunch break.

    I mean you know your job best, and what’s expected of you. That said though, if you are working long enough to be due a lunch break, you shouldn’t forego it just because you’re working remotely.

  30. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    If OP is working a 4 hour shift that means that 20 minutes (and let’s be real, there’s no way that ‘dropping off presents’ at your grandparents is only going to take 20 minutes) would be 8.3% of OP’s scheduled shift time. Add in bathroom breaks, water breaks, etc (which are all totally reasonable) and it could add up.
    I’m not saying OP should never ever be away from their desk during a shift, that’s not reasonable or fair to ask. But I think what some commenters may not be getting is that in some jobs it’s more about the *perception* of being available and working. Especially in hourly positions like OP’s where they probably spend a fair amount of time ‘waiting’ for work to arrive (i.e. reference e-mails, questions, etc.) In those types of positions, if you don’t respond very quickly it’s likely to be brought up to your supervisor that “you take forever to respond” or that it always seems like you’re away from your desk even if you only leave for bathroom breaks.
    I speak from experience. The sheer amount of crap I got from my manager when my Skype was wonky and wouldn’t show me as available/away was obnoxious. Even though I got more done this way because I wasn’t getting constant interruptions she cared more about me looking like like I was available every single second than if I was getting work done.

  31. Willik*

    My husband used to do this to me. When we started working from home, he’d be like “ can you come here for a few minutes” to help him work on whatever. I’m a therapist, and if I have an appointment, that time is booked. He’d also ask things like “can you get out early today?” When I told I have appointments until X time everyday. He also doesn’t believe that I sometimes don’t have time to take care on non-work tasks during the workday, because he was able to.

    1. Ele4phant*

      I have learned that my husband is the annoying coworker that will just wander into your office to chat.

      It’s easy to waive off some random Adam and tell them you’re busy, a little more complicated when it’s your husband that wants to talk about your finances or familial obligations.

  32. lilsheba*

    I’m working from home, and in a job where as long as the tasks are done each day, it doesn’t matter what we do during work time all the time. I work hard and get stuff done, and I spend time reading posts on here or wherever, or listening to something or reading a book. My last job wasn’t like that and it’s a nice refreshing change.

  33. LibrarianfortheRealm*

    I am the head of one of those libraries where most people are working remotely, including virtual reference. I am grateful every day for my employees like the letter writer. I trust them to do their best to fulfill their responsibilities as agreed upon; they trust me to do my best to keep them as safe as possible and defend their value to the institution. We start off with a high level of trust, and over my 25 years in the field I can count on one hand the number of times I have been disappointed.

  34. Ele4phant*

    You may not be in a job where you can step away from your computer whenever you want, but you’re still legally to breaks yes?

    Theoretically you could tell your brother a time that works for you and is a “break” time for you, unless you don’t want to run around giving gifts with him.

    That’s fine too.

  35. mppgh*

    Interesting. I am not at all rigid with my day and am always connected, so I would not miss an urgent email or call anyway. With a teenager with a changing school schedule depending on local case counts, I have done conference calls in my car, answered emails while waiting for him afterschool, and worked from 10 pm to midnight to catch up. I don’t necessarily recommend this for one’s sanity, but it has been my WFH reality. I am not the only one doing this at my org either. My CEO has been great about flexibility as a perk of WFH, and knows we are all working just as hard (or harder) as ever.

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, this. But the job of a reference librarian is unlikely to be this flexible about working hours.

      1. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

        nope, my job is not this flexible. i’m expected to be working when i’m scheduled, and i couldn;t do work in the car or on the bus or whatever. that’s not how my job works, which is fine!

  36. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

    My job flexible is like your brother’s, but I would never expect someone to use this option if they don’t want to. Some people like to stay focused within a more rigid framework. There’s nothing wrong with that.
    I imagine your brother is not a librarian and doesn’t understand your industry.

  37. EvilQueenRegina*

    Oh, I get this! There was an issue once around sorting out my grandad’s estate and clearing out the old house – Uncle Robert and Uncle Ned are both self employed and had a more flexible schedule than my mum who at that time was working in UK local government. Uncle Robert and Uncle Ned had chosen a random Tuesday to go and handle some house stuff but they’d given about three days notice and Mum couldn’t get the time off to get there (the old house was about three hours away so it would have had to have been an all day thing). It ended up in arguing.

    It’s more an Uncle Robert thing than any other relative, but he has no concept of the fact that not everyone can just drop everything at work – one time, he and Aunt Cersei decided to come for a surprise visit mid week and because I’d had no notice, I couldn’t get the time off work and they had to entertain themselves. They’ll ring up to chat in the middle of the day – I’m better at not taking those calls now but there was a time when there were several medical emergencies going on in my family and at the time, and for a while after, I found it harder to not take the calls. (My job does require me to be available for work calls, it’s a coverage job.) Other times if Robert and Cersei have suggested a trip, and it’s a date that doesn’t work for me because coverage issues mean it’s not a good time for me to take off, they’ll just say “Just ring in sick.” One day I’ll ask Robert how he’d react if one of his employees pulled that one.

  38. Oaktree*

    I’m a librarian (corporate) and staff a virtual reference desk for 8 hours a day every weekday. My boss is super understanding and would let me go run an errand if there was sufficient coverage, no problem, but I don’t like to do it if I don’t have to – if something can wait until my lunch hour, or after my regular work hours are over, then I wait until then. Your brother is the one being weirdly inflexible about this. You’re allowed to be conservative about your usage of your time on the clock.

    1. EmmaPoet*

      My former boss once let me run an errand during working hours- actually, he basically ordered me out of the library to do it- and I’ve never stopped being grateful. He was suspicious of the Really Great Apartment I’d found on Craigslist in our city and told me to go right this very minute to look at it. I got there and found it was actually a boutique hotel, a scammer had stolen pictures of the place and posted them online. If he hadn’t done that, I’d have been scammed out of two month’s rent as a deposit. This was in my younger days, when I had a lot less experience apartment hunting. I went back to the office, thanked him profusely, and bought him lunch. Short of that kind of thing, though, I’d really rather not.

  39. Bopper*

    I work from home and sometimes run errands during working hours. However, I try to limit it to lunch time if possible. I also know how sometimes you need to protect your working hours when people make too many requests. But once for Christmas? I would do it.

  40. Pitter Patter*

    I work as a reference librarian and while the library is closed to patrons, I do chat and phone reference from home. I get a 15 minute break, and during that time the chat button turns into an email the librarian button. That’s enough time to get a snack or check in on my kiddo, but not enough time to leave the house.

  41. LJay*

    I may be in the minority but refusing to take a 20 minute break to go drop off presents does seem to be unreasonably inflexible to me.

    If you don’t want to because you’re focusing on a task that’s one thing.

    But being afraid to step away for 20 minutes because one of the other people doing the same job might have to take a call instead seems unreasonable to me.

    In most office jobs I’ve had you might be away for 20 minutes going to the restroom or chatting with a coworker by the coffee machine or going out and getting a breath of fresh air or smoking a cigarette or taking a quick personal call or fixing a cup of tea or walking the long way around the office to stretch and rest your eyes after staring at the computer or about a million other things that nobody would look at you slightly askance at.

    Even in jobs that required coverage like working retail as a cashier, we always got not only our lunch break but two 15 minute breaks on a full shift where someone else would pick up coverage.

    Being MIA for hours would be one thing. But 20 minutes is another and isn’t an unreasonable amount of time to do non-work stuff. But only if you otherwise want to. If you don’t want to he should respect that.

    1. LJay*

      Though I now see you only work 4 hours at a time and that changes things a bit. Most places I’ve worked if you work only 4 hours you don’t get a lunch break etc and it’s a bit easier to sustain productivity for 4 hours instead of 8. And 20 minutes is a much larger percentage of the shift than an 8 or 9 hour shift. So not wanting to take 20-30 minutes of a 4 hour shift is a lot more understandable.

      Plus it sounds like there was probably plenty of time you could bring the presents before or after your shifts so your brother was the one being inflexible for wanting to do that right then since apparently he has no problem leaving his job whenever.

    2. EmmaPoet*

      The difference is that this is a librarian position, and she can’t just walk away from the reference desk because she is the one who’s assigned to be there. Off the desk, fine, go take your stretch or make your tea, but when you’re on, you’re there. It’s not inflexible; it’s that when you’re on the desk and need to walk away, someone has to cover for you. This doesn’t change when you’re WFH. Also, union rules give us a 15-minute break when you work a four hour shift, and the OP has stated that the trip alone is ten minutes one way, assuming no traffic or other issues.

  42. Tammy Swanson (OP)*

    hi everyone! op/letterwriter here.

    sorry for not responding yesterday. I knew this letter was going up, but right at the time it was posted, the world went to shirt, and I forgot all about this.

    thank you to alison for posting it, and the thoughtful answer, and to all of you for your supportive comments. I’m glad to read I wasn’t being out of line in my inflexibility. my brother and I ended up dropping off out gifts on christmas eve.

  43. Sprinty McJira*

    My roommate will sometimes ask me why I didn’t pick up milk or knock out some household chore when I WFH (both of us usually work onsite, but we’ll periodically log in from home when that’s more convenient). A response that works well for me is asking, “when was I supposed to pick up the milk — when I was at a virtual doctor’s appointment ? Or when I was doing my job ?”

    Said with a smile, this gets a couple chuckles and gently but clearly reminds him that I’ve got other priorities even on days when I can’t be in-office.

  44. Another Academic Librarian*

    My job is flexible enough that I am often able to do non-work things during the “work day,” particularly now that I’m working from home, but I wouldn’t expect that most part-time positions would come with that kind of flexibility.

    I think the fact that you’re expected to be available for reference is a big factor. I would never do non-work things while I am scheduled or on-call at virtual reference — just like I wouldn’t run out to the 7-11 or schedule a doctor’s appointment during a shift at the physical reference desk. Outside of reference, teaching, and required meetings, though, my work tends to ebb and flow, and it isn’t a big deal for me to run a couple of errands in between replying to email or drafting research guides. But honestly, mostly I am able to do this because faculty status comes with a lack of standard working hours, and I also work in the evenings and on weekends. So it’s more like flexing my schedule than anything else.

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