some of my employees have a butts-in-seats mentality … and some just disappear

A reader writes:

In the remote time period following 2020, I took over supervision of a small team. We are finally back on-site and I’m encountering an issue I didn’t have in the fully remote setting. Our work is only sometimes coverage-based. The times this is the case are firm and established. Other times, it really doesn’t matter where the work is being done and, in fact, sometimes requires someone to move through the department or building.

I have some team members who feel the need to update me with every possible move — “I’m going to the supply closet, okay?” … “I need to go talk to someone; I promise it’s work related” — and also announce every single break and lunch (at the same time every day). I really don’t need (or want!) this level of oversight on their movements through the workday! They can’t seem to resist even when told not to, even to the point of interrupting meetings to let me know they’re walking down the hallway to fill up their water bottle in a non-coverage based time period.

I have other team members who will straight up disappear while on the clock and are impossible to track down. This is just as untenable, albeit in the opposite direction.

I have tried leading by example, making sure to let people know where I’m going when it impacts coverage and moving freely when not. I have tried directly naming both outlooks as a problem: “You don’t have to tell me, I don’t need to know where you’re going for [X] reasons.” / “It’s an essential job function that you are responsive and reachable within [X] time frame.” To the former, I was told they prefer to tell me where they are. To the latter, I get empty promises. I’ve also tried pulling them into solution building: “What can we try to make sure people know where you are?” etc. These prompt very non-committal responses.

I suspect this is part returning to office growing pains, part leftover attitudes from my predecessor, part personality quirks. Either way, my strategies obviously aren’t working, so your advice would be appreciated!

Let’s tackle the overly informative people first. I bet you’re right that some of it is left over from the manager before you; overly controlling managers can instill habits that seem really weird once the controlling manager is removed from the picture. (It’s one reason why it’s so important for people to be deliberate about doing a mental reset when they leave a toxic manager for a healthier workplace … but lots of people don’t do that.)

In any case, it sounds like you’ve told people that they don’t need to announce all their movements to you, but that’s different than telling them not to. Try the latter. For example: “We’ve talked about this before but it hasn’t stuck, so I want to be clearer now: I’d like you to stop updating me when you leave your desk. I trust you to manage your time, it’s not information I need, and it’s interrupting my own workflow to get such frequent updates! I also don’t want a culture where other people see what you’re doing and feel they need to report it every time they go somewhere. So going forward, please only update me if you are leaving for the day or will be gone several hours unexpectedly.”

You might need to have this conversation a few times before it sticks, but it’s likely that switching your language from “you don’t need to do X” to “do not do X” will make a difference.

The people who disappear for long stretches and are impossible to track down are a different story. It would be one thing if they just had weird habits after two years of working from home, but it’s concerning that explicitly told them they must be more responsive and they’ve just given you non-committal responses that haven’t changed anything. If they’re not responding to your feedback with changes, and if people can’t get responses from them when needed, that’s a serious issue and you’ve got to treat it as such.

As a next step, I’d sit down with each of them and say, “We’ve talked about this previously but I haven’t seen changes. What’s going on?”

Because really, what is going on? Are they finding it hard to focus now that they’re back in the office and they’re disappearing to go work from a quiet conference room? (Although then you’d think they’d still be responding to messages so it’s probably not that … but it could be something in that neighborhood.) Are they, I don’t know, working a second job while on the clock for you? Each of those would require a very different response, so the first step is to ask and hear them out with an open mind. (Also, did you have this issue while they were working from home? If they were responsive then and aren’t now … something is going on that direct questions will hopefully get at.)

Your next steps from there will depend on what you hear. If you hear “I can’t bear the noise so I’m working from the diner next door and there’s no internet there,” that gives you something specific you can jointly try to fix — and will probably change your perspective and point you toward solutions you hadn’t realized you needed to find. But if you just hear more non-committal responses, that’s alarming and you’ve got a more serious problem on your hands. In that case you’d need to move to, “I need to see XYZ changes in the next week. Are you able to do that?” And before you have this conversation you should think about what you’ll do if nothing changes — what consequences are reasonable? Is this something that would jeopardize their jobs? Would you start down a formal discipline path? Whatever comes next if nothing changes, be up-front about that now (“this is serious / without changes in the very near future, X will be the next step”).

But it’s reasonable to hold firm on people needing to be responsive if that’s part of the job.

{ 174 comments… read them below }

  1. CPegasus*

    I got nothing for the people who vanish, but for the over-informers, maybe they can have a whiteboard or something for their cubes? If they feel anxious thinking someone may not know where they are, it seems simple to set up a magnet with some boxes to move it to.

    Where is [Employee?]
    At my desk | Bio Break | Meeting Someone | Out of Office | Other

    And space to write in more details if necessary. Then they can provide the information without having to interrupt anyone, at least until it becomes clearer that no one NEEDS the information.

    1. Lacey*

      Yeah, that’s smart. It’s not necessary, but for people who feel anxious about not letting people know where they’re going, it could help alleviate some of that.

      1. msk1024*

        For the “vanished”, I would check their work output. Are they keeping up with work? Does it look like they are doing the minimum? For safety reasons, I think you do need to know where they are during office work hours. If there was an emergency, it could be a real problem. Our team put in a “tell me if you are leaving the building” after an employee’s child became sick at school and no one knew where they were and how long they would be gone. This was before cell phones so that would be less of an issue now.

    2. Constance Lloyd*

      I like this, it places the burdens of their workplace quirks solely on them. They could even mark in a “back by” time.

    3. DisneyChannelThis*

      My mother’s workplace (military) had that for security reasons. In the event of a fire or lockdown they needed to know who was in the building and who wasn’t. There’s was just a two column on the white board you put your magnet on the in column or the out column. Then there was space to write notes (“back at 1100”, “gone till friday” etc).

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        I’ve seen the whiteboards at medical offices and in hospitals, too. In these cases you pretty much HAVE to know if Dr. SoandSo is going to be in today, and when they go on breaks, etc.

        The whole “has to know who is where” thing is – micromanaging bosses aside – industry-dependent. Sometimes (military, medicine) you really do have to keep track of people. Others not so much.

        Still, the “in/out” whiteboard might be useful in LW’s case.

      2. Librarian of SHIELD*

        We had this at one of my previous libraries, and it was so helpful! Our process was that if you were leaving the building for a meeting/break/appointment, but planning to come back the same day, you would put your dot in the “out” column and write in a guesstimate for what time you would be returning. If you were just leaving for the day and not coming back until your next scheduled shift, you would just move your magnet and not leave a note. I’ve wished for it at every place I’ve worked ever since.

        1. Middle Aged Lady*

          Our library did that, too. One late career coworker who was getting a little dotty was travelling down to a car manufacturer who was working on the history of their company to help them with research. She would write ‘gone to Saturn’ for the trips. It also made me smile.

      3. D*

        My workplace has us badge in and out to open the dang doors so they know where we are. And badge into the safe areas during fires.

      4. Ness*

        We have that too. If there’s a fire drill, a designated person takes a picture of it as they walk out, then compares the board to who’s in the assembly area. It works pretty well (or did, until we went to 80% telework…)

    4. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      This might even be a good way to manage the disappear-ers. Give everyone status whiteboards, and tell people they need to use them if they’re going to be away from their desk for more than x minutes (maybe 10? 20? 30? 60? depends on the nature of the job) but can choose to use them for shorter time periods if they want. Just a simple:

      ____ on a break/lunch/etc
      ____ in a meeting
      ____ working elsewhere :_________
      ____ out of the office

      and I’ll be back around: __________

      system might solve both ends, if the LW monitors the disappear-ers for whether they do it and just lets the over-informers self-manage.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Good point. I’d wonder if the disappearers would “forget” to do it more often. That would be interesting to find out.

        1. anti social socialite*

          My last workplace tried to implement this. Anedata shows that those who thought it was micromanaging conveniently forgot to sign out.

      2. Anonym*

        This I think is a bit heavy handed. I would feel extremely micromanaged if I had to set statuses like this, to the point of likely eventually leaving if the requirement remains. My role is not coverage based, but I let people know if I’ll be unavailable for any significant length of time, and typically check Teams or email.

        I think Alison is right to separate the two problems. People who aren’t doing their job, which is what disappearing and being unreachable for hours after being told not to IS, need to be on a “find a solution or find a new job” trajectory pretty quickly.

        1. tessa*

          I agree it can be heavy-handed, but only for those who do their work and are otherwise trustworthy.

          But for slackers: not heavy-handed enough.

        2. madge*

          Agree, I would leave over this and I wouldn’t allow very much time for them to correct course, either. Aside from the obvious restrictive issues, it would also cause me to seriously question the overall judgment of the manager.

          1. Mid*

            It’s not heavy handed if you’re in a coverage based role, however. It’s annoying, sure, but that’s how coverage based jobs work. You don’t need to give super intimate details like “going to get my nails done on my lunch break at [address] and with traffic, I should be back at 11:37am.”

          2. Librarian of SHIELD*

            Can you explain why this would be something you’d be willing to quit on the spot over? It doesn’t feel that restrictive to me.

            Granted, I’m in a coverage based job and we have regular safety evacuation drills, so knowing who is where is a pretty big deal for my workplace, but even if that weren’t the case, it feels like common courtesy to leave a note if you’re leaving the building so people don’t worry about you.

            1. Anonym*

              My job isn’t coverage based – I drive my own priorities and schedules, and the workload is quite high. There are occasional items that require a quick turnaround, so I’d say my line for letting my team know I’m stepping away is maybe 45-60 minutes minimum, but only if I’ll truly be unavailable. I usually check my email and Teams 3-4 times an hour if I’m away from my desk during a workday. It’s also pretty normal to be in meetings, during which you’d be unreachable for up to an hour anyway. They could also text my personal phone if it’s super urgent, but that almost never happens.

              This is true of my whole team, and we’re all very strong performers. Taking extra time to report exactly where I’m going and when I’ll be back is a waste of my time and thus company money. Either I’m trusted to do my job well, based on the results I deliver, or my manager or colleagues can let me know they have concerns and I’ll adjust. But micro-reporting my whereabouts? Hard nope, and I believe most people in my line of work and at my (mid-senior individual contributor) level of seniority would view such an ask from a manager as a sign of significant managerial dysfunction – a very big red flag that they either don’t understand their job, or ours.

              Hope that helps illustrate!

              1. No Longer Looking*

                Cripes, I often don’t check my email more than once an hour even when I’m AT my desk! That would be so distracting!

          3. KRM*

            That seems extreme to me? Having to say on a whiteboard “Lunch, back by 1:30” isn’t terribly restrictive, and then anyone who needs you can see that you’ll be back by 1:30 and they can come back later, or shoot you an email saying “Hey when you’re back I need X data for Y presentation” or whatever it is.

        3. KRM*

          It could feel heavy handed IF you’re not one who disappears. But this does enable you to do spot checks on those who disappear, and it gives the oversharers an outlet without them having to feel they have to tell your face to face where they’re going. And FWIW there are coverage based periods to this job.
          Honestly overall though this is a pretty low lift. It’s FREEZING in my desk area, and sometimes I go downstairs to the cafe to work. I wouldn’t feel put upon if I had a whiteboard where I had to write “working from cafe”, because then people would know where to find me. And if I’m a disappearer, and someone says “hmmm, KRM said she’s in the cafe, but I can’t reach her and I didn’t see here there when I went to get my 2PM snack”, then that’s a problem that needs to be addressed anyway.

        4. Velociraptor Attack*

          To be fair, OP says this role is sometimes coverage-based so there are times it could be beneficial.

          That said, there’s no indication that the people who disappear are doing it during coverage-based times, which I’d think would be mentioned so it seems that OP wants it somewhere in the middle, which is a difficult line to find.

          1. Allonge*

            Or the job itself may be in the middle. Plenty of places are not coverage-based, but may still require specific availability at shortish notice – I would say the more cooperative the jobs are, the more people in general will need to have reasonable availability even if they are not customer-facing.

          2. Seaside Gal*

            My job isn’t necessarily coverage based, but we do need someone in the office until 5:00. That someone is usually me. Four of my coworkers leave around 4:00 leaving me and another co-worker. The co-worker that should be there until 5:00 with me just leaves whenever they want and it’s incredibly frustrating. I’m in finance and having to stop mid spreadsheet to answer the door or the phone is incredibly frustrating. And, if I ever want to cut out early, I can’t because I never know if they’ll be staying.

        5. Ness*

          Huh. I’m in a job where I generally have a high degree of independence, but we have one of these boards and it doesn’t bother me. It’s helpful if you want to talk to a coworker and they’re not around – you can check the board to see if they’re gone for the day, teleworking, at lunch, etc. and plan accordingly.

          Caveat: There should be a minimum threshold for the length of absence where it’s expected, e.g. 15 minutes. I would definitely feel micromanaged if I had to mark the board everytime I went to the bathroom or got a drink of water.

    5. kiki*

      Yeah, a whiteboard or digital statuses (if they use Slack or teams). My company uses the latter for WFH and it’s great because I don’t need to ping everyone to let them know where I’m going, but if they are looking for me, they know where I am and about when I’ll return. I can also be super detailed with my statuses without annoying people who don’t care.

      When I was in-office, a few employees and I used post-its on our cubes and that worked well. Once we started doing it, other employees started too.

    6. winter frog*

      I agree, instead of getting the oversharers to change their behavior, maybe it would be easier for the OP (and these employees) to instead redirect their behavior in some way that is less obtrusive. A whiteboard with status, a dedicated IM channel for this purpose, etc. Someplace OP can check if necessary, but also ignore if not important.

        1. Hlao-roo*

          “door hangs that are static” sounds to me like the door hangs say:

          8 am – start work day
          10 am to 10:15 am – break
          noon to 12:30 pm – lunch break
          2 pm to 2:15 pm – break
          5 pm – end work day

          or whatever the actual hours/break times are. So they’re helpful if someone goes looking for Fergus at 10:06 am and sees he is not at his desk because he is on break. But Fergus is still letting the OP know every time he gets up from his desk outside of the defined break periods.

    7. RIP Pillow Fort*

      This is how we handle in person attendance. We have a big building and there is some coverage requirements so we have places to note where you are if you’re working in person.

      Generally there’s a place to note when you’re out in the field, actually out of office, in a meeting, at lunch, when you expect to be back. While for the most part it’s not strictly necessary, it has helped if we need to find someone urgently. It also differentiates the people that are flat out missing from the people who are not. We use it as part of naming a problem if people are just unaccounted for. We have coverage based work that can’t be done remotely and were never fully remote.

      I do wonder if the oversharing is a reaction to the people that just disappear entirely during the work day. Because when we had that problem- people got more active about sharing where they were in order to differentiate from the people that disappeared. Especially since this seems to be a problem just with the in-person work and not when they were remote.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        This is well worth investigating. Are the disappearing people affecting workflow so badly that that other employees are oversharing to avoid doing the same to someone else?

      2. turquoisecow*

        Yeah, if there are people who disappear randomly, it could be the non-disappearing people want to make sure they’re not included in that group inadvertently.

        1. MysteriousK*

          I was coming to see if anyone else thought this. Makes me wonder if the over-sharers know what’s up with the disappearing and are purposefully distancing themselves.

    8. ACL*

      I had a boss way back who needed to know where I was all the time. I’d leave index cards on my chair:

      Lunch break.

      Rest room.

      Copy room.

      Delivering documents.

      Pumping breast milk in the ladies room. (ok, no, I didn’t actually do that, I just used the ‘lunch break’ card for that. But that pretty much was the level of how far it went sometimes.)

    9. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      It helps the “I need to let you know where I am at all times” group, but it also continues to reinforce the “I need to know where you are at all times” idea in a team where that isn’t necessary and the manager doesn’t want that level of oversight.

    10. Random Biter*

      As the person who answered the phone, it would make me crazy trying to herd cats so as to not sound incompetent when someone called, “Sorry, I don’t know if they’ll be in or when. Can I take a message?” The whiteboard was a great at-a-glance way to know where everyone was.

    11. turquoisecow*

      That’s a good idea, that way if Boss or some VIP comes looking for them and can’t find them, they can see at a glance whether it’s worth it to wait (oh they’re in the bathroom, I’ll wait a couple minutes) or not (oh they’re in a meeting, that will be awhile) and probably helps with optics as well since if they happen to come by whenever the employee is in the bathroom they will know it’s just bad luck and not that the employee is never at their desk, ever.

  2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    For the second case, I would straight up just ask “Where were you yesterday from 2 to 5?” and go from there.

  3. RS*

    I wonder if some of the oversharing that some employees have been doing is a reaction to their peers disappearing and being unreachable, i.e. they want to make it clear that (unlike those peers) they are not about to disappear for an unknown amount of time.

    1. OutofOffice*

      This thought occurred to me, too. I wonder if setting the same universal expectations to the team at large first, then following up individually for anyone not adhering to find out why would help.

      For example, “As we’re readjusting to working from the office, I want to be clear on the expectations around your availability. I expect to get a response back within an hour when I’m looking for you; therefore, if you’re going to be away and unable to communicate back for more than an hour, I need to know ahead of time. If you’re taking a short break, or your lunch, or catching up with a colleague, please don’t reach out to let me know – I trust you to manage your time.”

      For the “I need to know ahead of time,” I have my team enter longer periods away in a shared calendar. That might be time out of the office (day off, doctor’s appt, etc.), or time working but unavailable in an extended training session, retreat, meeting, etc. If it’s last minute (sick time, having to leave early for a personal emergency, etc.), I ask for a heads up. We’re all remote, so that’s usually an email, Teams chat, or text message. I’ve documented the team’s policy and put it in a shared location so that it’s clear and accessible.

      1. DataSci*

        What about if someone’s in back-to-back meetings? Is your workplace culture such that people are expected to be checking email/Slack/whatever during meetings? Does your team know that?

        1. Lea*

          Yeah I can’t respond to everything in an hour, sometimes I’m busy.

          But for ooo I tell my small team and the rest goes on a shared calendar. And an email bounce back. But I wouldn’t do it for lunch or anything

        2. Starbuck*

          I think that would be an obvious exception, if they’ve got a specific item on their calendar then that would essentially be the response to where they are and what they’re doing. That’s what the last paragraph of the above comment was about anyway.

        3. KRM*

          But the boss can always do a quick calendar check. “Hmmm, I haven’t gotten an answer to Important Question X”, but they pull up your calendar and see that you’re in meetings from 9-2, then they know “ohhh, okay they’re in meetings, I’ll give them till 3 or so”.

        4. Petit Four*

          That is what using a calendar is for. If you have those meetings on there, then you’ve given the “need to know ahead of time” that’s required, so there’s no issue.

      2. Sara without an H*

        I like OutofOffice’s suggestion: OP needs to get clear in their own mind what kinds of behavior they want, then put the whole team on notice that these are the expectations. Then follow up with individuals as needed, using something like Alison’s scripts.

    2. A Poster Has No Name*

      This was exactly my thought, too. And if it is the case, the disappearers are likely affecting morale overall.

      1. anonarama*

        I’d also add it can go both ways. I’ve joined teams with a deep culture of oversharing and my response to it was a constant refrain of “you can see my calendar I do not need to tell you every meeting I am going to and I trust you can figure out that I’m at lunch if I am gone from noon to 1pm”

      2. Chilipepper Attitude*

        I suspect, based on a previous workplace, that the over-sharers are trying to tell you, without telling you, that other staff are going walkabout and are not actually working.

        1. MM*

          This seems at least plausible, and it might well be worth asking the over-sharers straight up if this has anything to do with it. (Or at least a couple of them who you reasonably trust not to freak out or gossip or otherwise have an undesirable reaction to being asked.)

    3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I just speculated the same thing below…..from having lived it in a prior job. I just so wanted to make my manager aware I wasn’t going AWOL during the shift.

      However I never took it to the extreme of interrupting the boss or any meetings.

    4. Clobberin' Time*

      Yes, especially if the previous manager was terrible and played favorites. Wakeen was used to having to explain to Bad Boss where he was at every single minute, because Bad Boss’s favorite pal Fergus would disappear all day, and Wakeen was expected to do Fergus’s job for him.

    5. Scarah Screams*

      I had the same thought, because that’s what I’d do. If their bad behavior were to lead to changes in freedoms department-wide I’d want it known that, hey, *some* of us were always being responsible.

  4. Richard Hershberger*

    The people who disappear: It sounds like they are not responding to whatever messaging system the company uses, such as might mean they are offline. What about their cell phones? If I go to the bathroom, I have my phone in my pocket. If I am in the middle of doing my business when my boss calls, I know about it and call him right back. If these employees are going completely dark, that seems a problem.

      1. I'm A Little Teapot*

        If you’re spending multiple hours in the bathroom, then either you need to stop slacking off or you need to not be at work while you deal with what is clearly a medical issue of some sort.

          1. Robin*

            Nowhere, I think folks misinterpreted Richard’s point, which is that reaching out via phone might be a way to check just how unreachable the employees truly are.

          2. Dust Bunny*

            They didn’t, but these people are disappearing for hours at at time and someone above suggested calling them because they’re likely to have their cell phones on them, and then someone else said that if they were in the bathroom they wouldn’t answer it. The issue is that these employees are spending hours *somewhere* and if it happens to be in the bathroom (theoretically), they probably need to get some medical time for that. But they’re probably not in the bathroom.

            1. KRM*

              And the point is if they ARE in the bathroom at that particular minute and they see the boss called when they’re done, they should be calling back to check in. Them not doing so (getting back to inquiries, etc.) is where the problem is. This is assuming they’re not in meetings or something, but as I said above, the boss doing a quick calendar check should be able to see that.

          3. I'm A Little Teapot*

            OP doesn’t specifically state that. It’s an extrapolation based on the comment flow. So may well not be applicable.

          4. Myrin*

            Teapot was referring to the people in the OP’s letter who disappear without a trace (although we don’t know if they’re actually gone for “multiple hours”) but using Does Your Wife Know‘s (and, by extension, Richard’s) example of a bathroom break.

    1. coffee*

      A lot of women’s clothes don’t have pockets at all/pockets suitable to carry a phone in.

      Also I agree with everyone that there is nothing so urgent that would need a response in the bathroom vs when I come back to my desk.

  5. Angela Zeigler*

    I’m wondering if the two expectations might be causing some unintentional confusion on the team- for instance, hearing that so-and-so was reprimanded for being unavailable for x amount of time, causing everyone else to overcompensate. (Giving notice about refilling water down the hall seems *very* excessive!)

    I’m also wondering what the expectation is for being ‘reachable’- if someone’s been reprimanded for being unreachable for a 10 minute span, that might put other people on edge, hence the oversharing updates.

    I know it really depends on the job duties, but it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone in my office to be dark for 15-20 minutes because they’re focused on other things, talking with someone at the desk (work related), getting a snack, taking a walk as a ‘brain reset’, etc. It’s also understood that texting can be used for emergencies.

    1. Antilles*

      I could definitely see that. Especially if the reprimand is coming indirectly, it’s possible that they got a garbled version of “OP was looking for John and couldn’t find him” so they’re worried about what happens if you stop by and can’t find them – even if my supply closet run is only five minutes, what if it’s those five minutes you choose to swing by and are like “wait, where’s Jane?”.

      1. Antilles*

        (By indirectly, I mean the other employees hear about it indirectly – so they only have the game-of-telephone rumor of “John wasn’t at his desk” and don’t know that he had vanished for the entire afternoon).

  6. Does Your Wife Know, Tim?*

    This is why I will never return to an office. I cannot stand people who need to announce their every move, like they’re getting extra special butt pats for making sure EVERYONE KNOWS WHERE THEY ARE!!! These are usually the same people who announce how busy they are and how there’s just soooo much work.

    Conversely, those people who disappear? Unless I need you for a meeting or an urgent brain surgery, I dont care. Just get me the deliverables I asked for and you can be on Mars for all I know.

      1. Angela Zeigler*

        I agree, but looking at the letter again, there wasn’t an issue about this just over coverage periods- OP is getting updates during non-coverage periods, and there wasn’t a specific mention of people being unresponsive/missing during coverage periods. It sounds like a general awareness of where people are in the building and able to respond within a timeframe. OP also mentioned that movement within the building was also expected to some extent.

        I think it really depends if there’s an issue during coverage periods (which is very legitimate!) or if there’s an expectation of responsiveness outside of that. In which case, if the team was previously fully remote, I can see how some people might not handle that well.

        1. amoeba*

          I mean, even when I’m fully remote, a certain responsiveness is still the norm though? Of course, it depends on your office’s standards, but you can still have the same expectations (response within a reasonable timeframe) whether in person or remotely via Teams chat or call or email.
          If I’m absent for several hours at a time while working from home, it’ll show in my Teams status and I’m sure people would start wondering if I did that on a regular basis. (Actually, I feel like it’s more noticeable when working from home – when I’m in the office, I could be in offline meetings etc and hence not on my computer, while in home office, offline pretty much means “not working”.

    1. NeutralJanet*

      It may be the case for your job that people don’t need to be available very much or at all, but you have to know that not every job is like that.

      1. Antilles*

        Yeah, in my experience, most of the time with coverage-based roles it’s not an issue at all. If it’s your job to have a physical presence, you know it’s part of the deal and generally figure out pretty quick exactly how much level of “keep people informed about my whereabouts” is appropriate.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, mine is not at all like this. We’ll tell each other if we’ll actually be leaving the building just so that everyone else knows not to waste time looking for Cersei when she’s off-campus at a meeting, but beyond that, nobody announces. The level of announcing here is beyond the pale even for most coverage jobs.

        1. KRM*

          The oversharers could be coming from an office/boss who was always saying “I came by your desk 5′ ago but you weren’t here, where were you?? I have an important question!!”, and now they’ve been mentally trained to tell the boss EVERYTHING so they don’t get yelled at for making a cup of tea.
          The problem with the disappearers not checking in seems to be that, while it’s outside of the coverage based time, answers are still needed in a timely fashion, and that’s not happening. If I need a piece of information by 3 so I can put it in a slide that my boss needs by 4, and I can’t get any answers from the person who knows, that’s frustrating and annoying. There’s a huge difference between “Hey boss I couldn’t get that info from Guac Bob, but his calendar shows he had 2 meetings followed by an out of office appt and he probably couldn’t get to it today” and “Hey boss I asked Guac Bob for the info and didn’t hear from him, and he wasn’t in his office or working in one of the conference rooms, so I don’t know what to do” in terms of how the boss needs to deal with it. The first you can let go, esp if you get the info next AM, but the second is a problem. If someone needs something and you’re 100% unresponsive in your working hours, that’s bad.

          1. DannyG*

            I was reminded of the scene in Shawshank when Red was working in the grocery store after he was paroled & kept raising his hand to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. His boss had to remind him that he was not in prison anymore. Might be the same type of conditioning here.

    2. Hen in a Windstorm*

      I’ve never worked anywhere that people do that, so it’s not about being in an office. It’s just the job you had. Don’t extrapolate one bad experience to “all office jobs”.

    3. JSPA*

      Why post on a thread that’s about a workplace where certain in-person tasks are legitimately required exactly when needed, albeit only a few hours a day, just to say that your job isn’t like that, and you’re glad?

      if the people who ring up your purchases (or drive them to your door) take that attitude, how happy are you?

    4. Cat Tree*

      this certainly isn’t exclusive to being in person. We have hybrid work and a few people announce every time they are away, even when WFH. And we’re not coverage based.

    5. lilsheba*

      Same here. I never have been one to announce where I’m going or what I’m doing every time I leave my desk, even at a call center where they try to control every move you make. Bite me. and now that I’m remote the best you will get out of me “back in a bit”…that’s all you need to know.

  7. Yllis*

    my new boss requires I inform him. cant even have an extended poop session without getting, “tried to reach you. where were you?” I feel like I’m in grade school

        1. Ann Ominous*

          That’s infuriating. I had a person who did the same thing. He was above me in rank but not in my chain of command. He was a bully but also cowardly. I confronted him every time and he backed down and backpedaled every time.

          “I was in the bathroom” for the first time he got all weird about not being able to instantly reach me.

          “I’m concerned about your messages and wondering what is behind them. Have you ever not been able to get what you needed from me on time? Have I ever not called you back? If I’m in a meeting, I can’t respond to you, same as if I’m in the bathroom. What’s going on?”

          1. Snagglepuss*

            I had a former boss who was the same way. It was a fully remote role and I wouldn’t step away from the desk for more than 5 minutes for a coffee or bathroom break. If I was on a lunch break, I would have my phone available. Once I had stepped away to take a brief bathroom break when he sent over a time sensitive task. He was incredibly upset that I didn’t answer his call and wasn’t available to begin working on it until 3 minutes after it was sent to me.

            I used similar language you did (I was on a bathroom break, have I not consistently executed these tasks in a timely manner? Is 5 minutes reasonable to get back to a request?) and ooohhhh boy he stammered and backtracked quickly on that one.

  8. animaniactoo*

    I’m betting the over-informers are an issue driven by the problem of the underinformers.

    They recognize the issue of the long absences and are likely witness to your frustration with it and/or are hearing other comments about it.

    It might be useful to define the boundaries for everyone. “If you’re stepping away from your desk for 15 minutes, I don’t need to be informed. If you’re stepping away from your desk for longer than 15 minutes, I expect to be informed both where you’re going and when you’ll be back.”

    That might also be enough to get some of the disappearers back to their desks with such clearly defined boundaries around needing to be accountable for time away from their desks. And if they aren’t accounting, then you can address that as a performance and communication issue. Because at some point – you’ve tried bringing them in on the solution. It was good that you tried. But if they’re not accounting and are just flaking – well, then it’s time for you to hold them accountable.

    1. The Crowening*

      This is such a good point! When we had a couple of these magicians on our team (they regularly made themselves disappear) it really got in my head. I’m not even in that job anymore and I still worry that if my little Teams status light is yellow for too long, someone will assume I’m out slacking off. My boss has said no one cares if you go run an errand or go to the gym on your lunch and your Teams light goes yellow! But it’s still hard to get past.

      1. Fabulous*

        I had to get over the Teams light too because, for whatever reason, it turns yellow even if I’m at my computer! If I don’t actively open the dang window, it doesn’t seem to recognize I’m still around.

    1. Petty Betty*

      I’m going to passive-aggressively side-eye you from behind my boxes of work that I’m ignoring to read this post and commentary because I’m jealous of your nonchalance and OJ grabbing. So rude. And you didn’t even ask if I wanted any. Even if you knew I’d turn you down, the thought (and ask) would have been nice. lol

  9. Knope Knope Knope*

    I hate micromanaging but in this case I would probably call an all-team meeting and set out rules for what, when and how you communicate your whereabouts, and what the expectation is for being reachable. Then start ignoring the oversharers when they overshare and penalizing the disappearing team members.

    1. Adultier Adult*

      YES!! Address it..with everyone.. This is the deal- this is the expectation- Let’s move forward- Address one on one afterwards

  10. The Crowening*

    Ohhh, the disappearing people absolutely 100% need to be dealt with in progressively more aggressive ways. You cannot cannot cannot just let that go. I worked with a couple of those at my last job and I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to need something from one of them and have them be gone, but especially how demoralizing it was to see them actively committing timecard fraud and have our managers look the other way because it was too much trouble to deal with. (Government contract role, plus union.) This crap went on for years, with the rest of us having our time off nickel-and-dimed while these guys gave themselves hours off every week, sometimes every day. It was MADDENING. Finally, we got a manager who (rightfully) took offense at this behavior as the disrespectful, insubordinate behavior it really was, and went through the effort of documenting absences (complete with timestamped cell phone photos of empty desks etc.), following up on PIPs, and finally terminating these guys. Yes it took like a year to jump through all the required hoops, but by gosh, she did it. It was an immediate morale boost for the rest of us.

    1. The Crowening*

      I should add, before someone comes along to say it doesn’t matter where they are as long as the work gets done:
      – We were required, as a condition of the contract, to work onsite
      – This was a very collaborative role and team, we weren’t all off doing individual work, it required a lot of back-and-forth between teammates and gov customers
      – They DIDN’T get their work done; it was sloppy if it did get done at all

      And we are talking about an 8-hour work shift in which these guys would be missing for 4 or more hours, often daily. We are not talking about taking an extra hour to run to the pharmacy now and then or something.

      1. AthenaC*

        Thanks for clarifying. I’ve noticed a strong bias in this comment section toward the type of jobs where every individual does their own work in a bubble.

        I see it in the responses every time I speak to my own field where deadlines are a thing, collaboration and communication is 100% necessary, and the manager absolutely has to require status updates from team members in order to keep the project on track. And just because team members “don’t like” status updates doesn’t mean they’re unnecessary.

        Also, just because team members don’t like being held accountable for the requirements of their job doesn’t mean they’re being micromanaged.

        1. cardigarden*

          “Just because they don’t like being held accountable doesn’t mean they’re being micromanaged”. +1000

          1. The Crowening*

            Amen to this. One of these guys actually told me once – to my face, out loud – that being required to work 8 to 4:30 each day was “unAmerican.” Dude, that was a requirement of the job, it was made clear to every new hire, and it was universal across our government customers (with whom we shared a building, because the work was so collaborative and fast-paced) and contractor support. Literally everyone was working 8 to 4:30 unless they had an appointment or were sick or whatever. It wasn’t harshly enforced, if you were sick you were sick, if you needed to be off it was no problem, but you still had to coordinate it with others. EVERY time this guy would pull a disappearing act – which was typically daily, I’m not even joking – our customers would come to others on the team to ask for help. Our roles were not interchangeable, so we could help with some tasks but not others.

            The guy wanted the pay and benefits but didn’t want to have to follow policies or do work – and he somehow convinced himself that that was a reasonable expectation. It was a great day when he was finally shown the door. He was toxic in other ways too, but it was all mostly tolerable but for the constant shirking of work and vanishing.

        2. Clobberin' Time*

          Some commenters are in insular tech bubbles, true, but I think it’s fair to assume that a non-zero number of commenters are also those people who think it’s cool to disappear for half a day if they can get away with it…. and don’t like being criticized, even by inference.

          1. AthenaC*

            Totally agree. I’ve lost count of the number of commenters that don’t believe they should have to put in a full day’s work if they finish the tasks initially assigned to them quicker than planned. In my field if there’s work to be done, you do it or you’re not pulling your weight with the team / project as a whole.

        3. Pisces*

          Agreed. I wonder how many commenters have even admin assistants, and if they do either don’t know or don’t care how much grief their failure to communicate or come into the office causes for the assistants.

          Long before Covid, PastJob let the firm’s professionals work a flexible schedule which many of them unilaterally decided would be 100% remote. Covid-forced remote work only hardened that stance, and among several staffers as well.

          Thank goodness I’m not there to see how the conflict ultimately shakes out. PastJob’s longtime lax attitude is really haunting them now.

      2. cardigarden*

        I’m in the documentation process right now. It’s annoying but it needs doing and I hope at the end of the day it all ends up being worth it.

      3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Agreed….coverage based and also a government role that is collaborative- brief bio breaks, boss doesn’t care. But if your gone more than 15 mins – boss wants to know, so that if he needs to sign into the phone system to catch calls for instance he can do that.

        To a large degree knowing who is where when levels varries a lot based on your job and it’s responsibilities.

    2. Been there, done that, got the receipts*

      That tracking with the cell phone photos was awesome! I had a micromanager boss once who would have LOVED doing that! He was very competitive too. Anytime he bested me at minor things like proofreading, he would crow about it.

  11. KaceyS*

    Since this is a widespread issue, with both sides of the coin being represented, perhaps some kind of visible reminder?

    e.g. “For the week of Sep 19-23, the following times are coverage times” and then a list of dates and times….or if it’s per person, a shift list. “Visible” doesn’t have to be physical, though it can be, it can be something that appears on their calendar, or in a chat channel.

    The point is to make it unmistakeable that people know that you need to be able to find them during X time window, but not during Y time window.

  12. DisneyChannelThis*

    I think it might be helpful to specify to all the people you manage how long of a “away from desk” period needs to be notified to you. Under 15 min, whatever. Over 15 min, give the boss a heads up. Set the time to whatever works for your office culture.

    Also make sure on communications you specify if you need a reply ASAP, “Hey James I need the numbers for XYZ report by 5pm today, send them as soon as you have them”, or “Hey James, I need an update on the XYZ numbers as soon as you get a moment this morning”. Some of the nonreply by your reports might just be them assuming to wait to reply when they finish tasks or something.

  13. Vice President of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    “I’m going to the bathroom, stall #2. It shouldn’t take more than 5.3 minutes.”

  14. NeedRain47*

    This is weird.
    At previous job it was a common practice to leave a note at your desk if you were going to be away from it for more than a bathroom break. Something like this could clear it up easily. Oversharers can overshare in a way that doesn’t interrup, and you can check up on the disappearers to make sure they are where they say.

  15. Higher Ed*

    I’m wondering if the disappearers are resentful of being back in the office. They still need to be told this isn’t acceptable, but knowing their motivation might be useful towards coming up with a solution.

      1. Higher Ed*

        It sounds more like they were working remotely and now the company has decided that everyone has to come back on site full time. Maybe their objection isn’t to being on site when coverage is needed, but to being on site when they could be doing the other work remotely. The OP states that some of the work doesn’t matter where it’s being done.

        1. Clobberin' Time*

          The OP also says “Our work is only sometimes coverage-based. The times this is the case are firm and established”, and that the disappear-ers are disappearing while they are supposed to be “on the clock”.

          1. Higher Ed*

            On the clock does not necessarily mean during their assigned coverage time, it could mean not on lunch or other break.

          2. Angela Zeigler*

            The letter didn’t mention if the issue was happening during coverage times, just times when they’re supposed to be working. If it’s non-coverage, I’m not sure how this is different from working remotely when the boss had very limited info on what everyone was doing at any given minute.

        2. LittleMarshmallow*

          We ran into this with a front desk person. She resented having to be in office again because “I can do 90% of my job from home”. Which actually wasn’t true, the job is more like 50% stuff that needs to be physically in person in the office but since others covered that stuff during Covid she resented having to take it back. And the thing was… you couldn’t let her do the stuff that was computer based from home and the other stuff from the office because it wasn’t like “from 9-1 I have to cover desk and I can do the rest of my stuff from home from 1-5”. The desk had to be covered from 9-5 and when there wasn’t someone at the door or something that needed to be copied and filed or whatever then the computer work was accomplished and it was random throughout the day so yeah… the answer was that she had to switch to a non-coverage based job if that was a deal breaker for her. The job was what it was. And the engineers were not going to continue to run to answer the door multiple times a day from wherever they were in the plant because she only wanted to do half of her job. We cried uncle when we had to buy a wireless doorbell so we could take the ringer with us wherever we were working in the building and then literally run when it rang to get to the door. It was ridiculous and she really thought that should be the way it was because she didn’t want to come back to the office and cared not at all how it was affecting other’s abilities to do their own jobs. So sometimes the answer to those that don’t want to return has to be tough cookies, either come back into the office or find something else.

    1. GythaOgden*

      Not management’s fault, though. These people are employed and those days in-person are part of their employment agreement (if not their contract, as it would be in the UK). There are those who never got to work at home for many reasons who have the right to be rather resentful at the people who generally get paid more having more flexibility, and now things are relatively normal, they need to be able to get over that resentment and come back in when they have to. Most of the people I work with/for do get some time at home, but given the number of enquiries made of us receptionists for admin services we don’t provide from people who we just haven’t seen for two years, I think a lot of WFHers have got used to others doing stuff for them and have forgotten that they have an admin team who have been in-person for a long time now.

      They can carry some of that weight for themselves, given that they’re probably more likely to be better off than the people who have to be in-person. If society is going to be more equal, it starts with people who know they have a certain amount of privilege to understand that their resentment is nothing compared to what we’ve felt about people who can WFH being able to do so. It’s turned me very slowly into a ‘from each according to their ability’ Marxist.

  16. CLC*

    Someone suggested a white board with where people physically are in the office—I think this would just reinforce the over informer culture. Instead I would try a variation on this: a centralized calendar (physical or digital) that each employee fills out on Friday for the upcoming week. The choices should be very limited to in the office, PTO, travel/offsite, WFH (employees can also indicate if they will be leaving early, out in the morning for an appointment, etc). This should send the message of the level of detail that is needed.
    It might even help with the disappearers a bit too?

    1. NeedRain47*

      The OP is needing to know when people are at work, but not at their desk. This is a thing that happens without a strict pre-planned schedule.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I think the idea of the whiteboards is to give the over informers an outlet besides OP. I think calendars are super important, especially if you’re hybrid or unreachable for work related reasons frequently, but I don’t think that level of detail helps the problem here. It’s not about where someone is on a given day but for a period of time during that day, and it doesn’t sound like it’s for obvious reasons like a meeting or work travel.

    3. kiki*

      I think whiteboards solve the parts of over-informing that actually negatively affect LW– being distracted from whatever they’re working on every time somebody needs to step away. Being overly-informative on a whiteboard doesn’t really have negative repercussions for anyone, so it appeases the over-informers need to over-inform without any negative impact.

      While I agree with your plan in general, it sounds like part of the issue is that LW’s direct reports sometimes need to go to other departments or areas of the building during work hours, it sounds like this isn’t always schedule-able in advance.

  17. Troublemaker*

    I’m tying together two thoughts that folks have already expressed. Please try to understand, LW: your employees are under- and over-reporting *because* you do not establish clear rules for on-call presence. Set the rules clearly, and they will be followed.

    On a more personal note: you ought to consider *trusting* your on-call staff to be able to provide a constant presence. The fact that everything went smoothly during the remote era implies that something specific to your in-office culture is a contributor to this problem. Since the root cause is a lack of clear guidelines for on-call behavior, I’m sensing that your office culture might generally have a poor or unfair approach towards on-call responsibilities. Remember: on-call staff should be paid an extra per-hour wage, and their responsibilities are delimited by those hours; all else should flow from that first principle.

    1. OP*

      It’s not really “on-call” in the sense that I think you’re describing. More like a cafeteria – some hours we’re “cooking” with the doors closed and some hours we’re “serving” with the doors open. Both apply to all employees, not just an “on-call” portion.

      I appreciate the contribution though!

      1. Purple Cat*

        To continue the analogy, are the disappearer’s claiming they’re “cooking” when they should be “serving”? But their work output indicates the cooking isn’t happening either? If so, that’s the problem you need to name specifically.

      2. Troublemaker*

        Thanks for replying!

        When your employees are “cooking”, they are in a task-oriented mode; what matters is that the “food” is “cooked”, not that the employees have a specific physical presence. When they are “serving”, then they are effectively on-call, because they cannot “serve” the “food” unless they are physically present. I recommend that you consult with a labor attorney in your state about the exact situation.

        I would recommend that you set clear rules for physical presence when “serving”, and delineate duties so that it is distinct from “cooking”. I recognize that this may be uncomfortable, but you ought to respect that you are creating discomfort for your direct reports by not making this boundary crisp and clear.

        On another personal note, I have seen your description of the situation often applied to environments where “serving” and “cooking” are commingled because they are concomitant. In these environments, employees are stretched far beyond their duties in order to keep the business unit afloat, and “serving” is a context switch out of “cooking” in order to deal with emergencies. “cooking” is probably the bulk of the nominal job description, and “serving” is an emergent set of duties which are only defined enough to keep people from quitting.

        I’m not saying that the situation is this bad for you, but it might be. In that case, it is even more important to delineate these duties, because “serving” should eventually *cease* once the broken business processes are fixed.

    2. Starbuck*

      But if people are disappearing for hours and not able to give a clear account of what they were doing or where they were, that’s pretty concerning! There should be some trust, absolutely, but that’s just so suspicious. Hopefully they have a good explanation.

      1. Allonge*

        Yes, trust would come in if OP joined a new team, and generally speaking things were going well. When people disappear in a coverage-based job and don’t check back in, that’s not a sign to ‘consider trusting them’.

  18. Where’s the Orchestra?*

    Something I have seen before…I wonder if the over sharer’s are doing so to compensate for the folks pulling the disappearing act. The oversharing group seems super conscientious, they want to get the work done – and they know some of their coworkers are who knows where doing who knows what, and they want to be explicitly clear they are not part of that group that disappears, without realizing they are causing other problems…..

    As for how to fix it (if this is indeed the case) I think you need to really dig in and troubleshoot the disappearing crew (and Alison’s point about digging into the why they are vanishing is important I think – because if there is something that can be fixed that is causing the disappearing, like too much noise, it’s worth trying to fix). If it’s an overreaction having half the crew go awol, hopefully they then calm back down and stop with the oversharing.

    1. Purple Cat*

      I agree that it’s likely the issue that the disappearers are making the oversharers feel like they REALLY need to make sure the boss knows EXACTLY where they are so they don’t inadvertently get lumped in with the disappearers.
      OP needs to be very specific with the group on the level of communication and availability expected, and then follow-up individually with the disappearers on what’s happening with them.
      Otherwise it’s going to continue to be a circular reference where OP says he needs to “generally” know where people are and the one group continues to overshare and the other group continues to disappear.

  19. FlyingAce*

    That is not helpful at all. OP’s issue is that the employees are disappearing for way longer than a regular bathroom break.

  20. JSPA*

    could be some mind games going on inside the team.

    Mr. Ghost: “OP is so on my case about leaving without checking in! You getting that too?”

    Mx. Scrupulous: “no, in fact, she’s been telling me to check in less!”

    Mr. Ghost [jealous] “wow… that weird. Don’t know what to tell you. I used to think that’s how she felt about me, too, but I guess I was wrong.”

    Mx. Scrupulous, to self: “dang, guess I better keep checking in.”

    1. Exiled in TX*

      OMG yes – I could totally see this backfiring while people share information. Better to address it in one fall swoop.

  21. Controlling Bosses Mess With Your Head*

    I once had a job where we had to announce our every move, including trips to the bathroom. We said we were “Going to the library” as the bathroom was in the library- this was in higher ed. We were not student facing and all of our meetings with faculty were by appointment, so it’s not like someone had to be there at every second in case someone walked it.

    That boss was VERY controlling. He would literally call us when he was on vacation to make sure we were at our desks, often at 4:58 or 4:59 to “make sure we were not leaving early because he was gone.” I could not handle that level of micromanagement and lasted there less than a year, but it took me about a year to train myself out of telling my coworkers where I was going/what I was doing. I bet the “every move” people worked for a person like this. It is hard to break yourself of this habit and the accompanying paranoia. I remember coming back about 5 minutes late from lunch once at my next job because of a series of things that just happen, and I was practically in tears and my boss was all “Um, it happens. Calm down. I literally do not care as long as it is not every day and your work is getting done.”

    1. AnonPi*

      Yeah I had one that if they tried to call me and I wasn’t at my desk I was grilled why I wasn’t there. Sorry had to go to the bathroom? And what did they need me so urgently for? Nothing. Once just to see if I was there (it was at a remote visitor desk, called at like 10am, why wait so late to make sure I was at our visitor desk when I report at 8:30?), another time just to pass on random info that could be sent by email.

      Course they made a big deal when we had a visitor show up and I had the sign up on the desk that I would be back in a few mins, and if they couldn’t wait go to ## office. Which is what the visitor did (because hell if they have to wait a few mins for me to get back from the bathroom). And my manager gave me a whole blow by blow of how the visitor had to walk down the hall to the main office, and so and so had to walk them back over to the visitor desk and check them in. By that point I’d had enough of the BS and responded “So the sign worked as intended?” lol manager just stood there dumbfounded. Like, what do you want me to say?

      So yeah, wouldn’t be surprised if some of these employees dealt with managers like ours. It’s sometimes hard to shift to new expectations, without feeling like you won’t be gaslit or thrown under the bus (because they’ve likely had that happen too).

  22. QuinleyThorne*

    For the people that continue to insist on giving updates on where they are, it also might help to establish a specific threshold for when that’s necessary, so they at least have something more concrete to follow. As Alison said, if this is leftover behavior that was instilled by a previous (micro)manager, it could be that their sense of what is an appropriate time to be away from their desk is still calibrated to the previous managers expectations, and that they genuinely aren’t sure what time duration is appropriate. So it might help to say something like “if you’ll be back at your desk within [X] minutes, you don’t need to tell me.” That way they’ll only report something outside of the threshold you’ve set.

    1. QuinleyThorne*

      This could also somewhat be the case with the under-reporters, but in the opposite direction. Going back to the previous manager theory, it’s possible that they previous manager allowed them to be away from their desks without reporting (for whatever reason), and perhaps they also need to have their time-away sense recalibrated. When having the “final” conversation with the under-reporters, you could say, “It is important that when I need something from you that I get it within [X] minutes from my initial request. If you are going to be unavailable for longer than that, I need to know ahead of time so that I’m not having to waste time trying to track you down.” I’d trust them at face value first, but if you somehow find that the time-away-from-desk for under-reporters doesn’t square with whatever task they’re actually performing, that’s an additional conversation that needs to happen so they know what your expectations are.

      That said, does everyone on your team have the same role with the same duties and tasks? If not, have you found that the under-reporters have roles or tasks that differ enough from the over-reporter group that perhaps they haven’t previously needed to report where they were at any given time?

  23. Yes And*

    I once had a toxic boss who would yell at me both for overinforming and underinforming her – “Why are you bothering me with this trivia?” and “How dare you go over my head?” – often within the same day, and on issues that, as far as I could tell, were identical in their materiality and particulars. It contributed to my sense that the criticism was personal, from a person who was trying to find fault.

    I wonder if the underlying idea of what does and does not need to be communicated has ever been laid out, all at once? Not as a response to the wrong choice, but as, “Here are both situations and the difference between them”? Laying that out clearly in one communication could clear up a lot of what may be employee confusion.

    1. OP*

      The laying out has been admittedly muddier than ideal due to the phasing back of onsite services. What was necessary was in flux over months.

      1. maybe*

        I agree that it may be genuine confusion. I hope you’ll take Yes And’s advice to explain to everyone, in one conversation, when they should/shouldn’t tell you where they’re going. And then let us know how it goes!

  24. kiki*

    One thing I might check in on if I were in LW’s shoes, is how LW reacts when they look for an employee and finds they aren’t at their desk. If they seem frustrated, that might be what’s contributing to the over-informers, especially if they aren’t getting the full context that Ben is always disappearing for multiple hours while LW knows if they can’t find an over-informer, they would assume the best and wouldn’t be frustrated.

    This is a scenario where a message to the group might be necessary. I would send an email to clarify standards with the whole team, outlining the necessary updates as well as unnecessary ones. I like the idea of having a system on a whiteboard or something similar that other commenters have suggested.

  25. PotsPansTeapots*

    I’ve worked in customer service situations where I would spend most of the day on a phone queue, but got a couple hours of “do not disturb” time to work on projects that required more focus.

    I would still veer on the side of oversharing with my co-workers during my DND time just because we were all overworked and they sometimes would ask me to jump on phones again if I wasn’t doing anything super-vital. I don’t know how similar OP’s situation is, but my situation did lend itself to a certain amount of oversharing.

    I agree with the suggestions upthread to use whiteboards or post-it notes. You still might get oversharing, but that’s easier to ignore in a note.

    And please, please institute real consequences for the disappearers. In jobs that have a coverage aspect, nothing destroys morale more than the impression (true or not) that someone isn’t doing their share.

  26. Haven’t Chosen a Name Yet*

    “(It’s one reason why it’s so important for people to be deliberate about doing a mental reset when they leave a toxic manager for a healthier workplace … but lots of people don’t do that.)”

    Just a gentle reminder that this isn’t an on/off switch if the unhealthy environment traumatized the person. It can take a while to rewire your brain for a healthier environment.

    1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      I think Alison’s comment was more that lots of people don’t even realize that they *can* do this. Yes, it’s going to take some time, but it will never happen at all if the person in question doesn’t realize that this is a pattern for people in general (not just for them).

  27. A Pound of Obscure*

    Create and publish an internal policy around it. I work in state government and this is the standard way you deal with these issues. You create a policy, you provide it to new hires, and you hold annual or periodic reviews/training on it.

    1. Antilles*

      That might be the standard way in state government, but it’s not in private industry. In my experience in the private sector, in most offices, that would come off as overly bureaucratic, over the top, and far too rigid. Attendance and properly informing your supervisor is handled by management providing general guidance and employees being expected to use reasonable professional judgment.
      OP should provide some more one-on-one instruction and clarification for the people who are either over or under-communicating, but the idea of a formal written policy and periodic training would just feel ridiculous.

  28. WellRed*

    My god. I have coworkers who do this all the time on slack, even after 2.5 year of wfh. They never did it in the office but now I get, everything from afk and brb, to gotta reboot, hopping on a call or multiple messages alerting the rest of us to upcoming appointment, reminders of the appt, I’m leaving for the appt and I’m back from appt.

  29. My+Useless+2+Cents*

    For the over-informers, are the coverage times clear to everyone? They could be informing you because they are never sure if it is “Coverage” time vrs. “Wherever” time when they are in the office. I can see getting confused if I am told to let someone know if you are stepping away from your desk to fill up your water bottle (meaning during “Coverage” time) but then getting scolded because I told you I was stepping away from my desk to fill up my water bottle (during “Wherever” time). I’m going to default to over-informing in that case.

  30. Pocketgnome*

    Stuff like this makes me so grateful for my job where they don’t care where I am as long as I get my work done and am responsive. Someone on FB suggested always updating your Teams status every single time you leave your computer. GAAAAAh! I would hate to be micromanaged like that. Don’t get me wrong, I am busy and I check email all day, but I am also able to run errands and do as I please with my time. No thank you to companies who think they own me during business hours.

    1. Allonge*

      You do understand though that not all jobs are created for total flexibility?

      Sure, it can be a micromanaging manager – which can come at any job – but I think you may be puzzled if e.g. a receptionist, a teacher or a plumber went away for an hour or so in the middle of the day to run errends?

  31. ThisIshRightHere*

    Another vote for general expectation-setting and consistency. Some managers say they are fine with a certain standard, but then realize their needs are different and start holding folks accountable to a new standard without adjusting expectations. I just started a new [non-coverage] job and I asked explicitly on my first day what the norms were around such things. My boss told me “you’re a professional; I trust you to manage your workday.” A time or two, I’d check with her “I’m going to work through my lunch so I can head out an hour early for a personal appointment. Is that fine?” And she’d reassure me that this kind of notification is not needed, especially if I’m still reachable. Last week, I went to grab something from the pharmacy; I was gone maybe 15 minutes total. I came back to a couple of messages asking where I was and then got a “talking to” about how important it is to be present the entire workday. So weird. Next staff meeting, she spent most of her allotted time reminding us to be at our desks at 8 sharp, which had not previously been a requirement to my knowledge. Either something has changed or she wasn’t being honest from the beginning about what the norms are.

  32. Chris too*

    I’m testing a chocolate teapot – I’ve put hot water and a teabag in it and for some reason it’s pouring coffee. My supervisor and I can’t figure it out; the problem is time sensitive as the teapot will melt if I leave the liquid in there too long. I’m just a teapot technician, I need a teapot scientist to look – physically cast eyes on this thing.

    It’s a big building, lots of operational areas, not too many of us working there. I can see from the in/out whiteboard that one or two teapot scientists are in the building somewhere…but not in their offices…the amount of time I waste looking for someone really adds up.

    I’m reading the suggestions here with interest.

    1. Gumby*

      That is not dissimilar to situations I occasionally experience at work. I once jokingly asked the CEO if I could put trackers on the scientists and he agreed it was an appealing but impossible solution. There are lots of labs here and some are inside of other labs and not all have windows so even though it’s a small company it can still take ages to locate a particular person.

      1. LittleMarshmallow*

        We wear radios (walkie talkies) or have them at our desks if we aren’t out and about to combat this. I’d say it works 85% of the time. Haha. Also only works with small teams or you get too much chatter.

  33. bopper*

    One way to do it is to update the status on your work chat applications (e.g., Teams, etc)
    That way if a boss does have to track you down they have an idea where you are but otherwise it is not interrupting anyone.

  34. Cat on a Keyboard*

    It’s interesting, Alison often advises asking reports questions that I would avoid answering directly if I was the employee. If I’m actually working next door at a café and haven’t told anyone, it’s 100% because I know it’s a weird thing to do that’s probably not allowed and I don’t want to have to explain my reasoning (the office is freezing, I hate my deskmate, I have a crippling bagel addiction, I don’t want people to see how much time I spend on Ask A Manager, etc).

    Although, if I was getting feedback that my covert café days were reflecting poorly on me or getting in the way of operations, I’d cut it out posthaste.

  35. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Oh, my Lord. This is the place I just left.

    ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, from start to finish. Upper administration made it clear through their actions that they simply did not trust employees, and treated us like naughty children who absolutely WILL misbehave if left unattended. The concept of being able to trust voting adults was completely foreign. If you ingratiated yourself with the leadership for enough years, making sure to “report” others (who did things like come in late after a doctor’s appointment), you could do no wrong. Don’t ask me how I know this.

  36. allathian*

    Sometimes it’s the manager who’s oversharing. We have shared calendars across the organization, so I could look at our President’s calendar if I wanted. People are expected to flag private appointments during our core hours (9 am to 3 pm) private, and appointments outside core hours don’t need to be on the calendar at all. Not even your manager can see an appointment you’ve marked private.

    We’re expected to attend the meetings we’ve accepted the invitation to, and to ensure that work that requires collaboration gets done, but taking even long breaks during the day is allowed as long as we mark our absences on the calendar.

    A former manager who’s since retired worked most of her career at jobs where there was a lot more oversight. I’m actually quite proud of the way I got her to flag her medical appointments private on her calendar. I remember mentioning that I felt really uncomfortable even opening her calendar when I could see her medical appointments, because I didn’t think they were my business. She said something about how at least everybody knew she had a “real reason” to be absent and wasn’t just taking a long lunch to go shopping or to the hairdresser (which I often did, my salon is in my office building). I looked at her quietly for a while and said something like “Oh? When I look at your calendar, all I want to know is when you’re available or busy, and when you’re out of the office. I don’t care if you’re going shopping or have a medical appointment when you’re not available.” It was like a light went on in her head, and from then on, she never overshared.

    Admittedly our relationship wasn’t entirely professional, she confided in me about her private life, which meant that I tended to think of her as a close work friend rather than my manager. Our relationship deteriorated later, when she needed to manage my workload and decided to take something off my plate that I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t really respect her as my manager, because she didn’t behave like I felt a manager should. But at the time I didn’t have the sense to establish that boundary until it was too late. I yelled at my manager once, and generally behaved in a way that would’ve no doubt got me fired in the US. As it was, I was put on a PIP and had to attend an early intervention program with our EAP. She decided to quit management, went to a sister organization for a while, and only returned to us to do a special project before she retired, but she was directly supervised by the department head rather than the team manager, who was one of her former reports. Thankfully that happened during Covid lockdown, so she never had a retirement party (I would’ve made my excuses anyway, but I was grateful that I didn’t have to).

    I really regret what happened, but at least I learned my lesson. I really can’t respect a manager who is also my friend, so I’ll never allow myself to become a manager’s confidante again. Thankfully the two managers I’ve had since then have been friendly but always impeccably professional, and I’ve never had any issues with them, and consistently get great feedback on my work.

  37. A Genuine Scientician*

    For number 22:

    This isn’t the biggest deal, and I used to use the term myself.

    But calling a discussion of what happened after the fact a “post mortem” has hit me very differently after my brother was murdered and there was an ensuing police investigation. In a way very different than it did even after my mother died of natural causes.

    I get that it’s a common term in many contexts, but … it may not be the best one. I think it’s worth considering whether you might prefer to use a different term.

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