my coworker thinks I should be available 24/7 since I work from home

A reader writes:

I work at a small company, almost completely from home. I go into the office about twice a month, and for the most part, it’s been a dream. I am vastly more productive and have found that my mental health has improved drastically.

Since the transition, I have done everything I can think of to set clear expectations as far as when I am available. I have specific, set hours when colleagues can expect me to be at my desk. I use away messages to say if I’m up from my desk for a quick break to stretch my legs, use the bathroom, etc. (with a time I’ll be back). I also always have my cell on me in case it’s a (rare) emergency. I do most of my communication with clients and our team via email, but I do have a VOIP phone that dials out with the main office number, and I can be inter-office paged via this phone as well.

Almost the whole team is great with this arrangement, with one exception: our main admin, Kate, who cannot seem to respect these boundaries. She’ll page me outside of my work hours, or regardless of whether I have an away message set, and if I don’t get to my phone fast enough, she’ll call my cell — usually for a very simple question that could have waited, or been an email. If I point out that I set an away message, she’ll say, “Sorry, I didn’t see it.” I have told her I’ll be unavailable for an hour, and she’ll agree pleasantly, and then turn around and call me 15 minutes later, followed by the usual call to my cell if I don’t pick up. I will also often come back to see that she’s IM’d me in an effort to get my attention, as well. When I ask why, she will say, “Well, I didn’t think it was a big deal since you’re already there!” When I say I’m busy, Kate says, “Oh, I knowwww, we all are,” and continues with her behavior.

What can I do differently to enforce these boundaries? I have stopped running to the phone if I’ve communicated that I’m away, but that doesn’t stop the inevitable tide of calls and texts to my cell, and sometimes she’ll just call and call until I get sick of hearing it and answer, even though I’m taking a break. I pride myself on being just as available now as if I were in the main office, but at this point, I’m being forced into being much more “available” at home than I ever was when I worked in that building.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 98 comments… read them below }

  1. Lilo*

    My organization is mostly work from home and one of the things you get explicitly told is to set boundaries and clear hours or you’ll feel like you never get away from home. This coworker needs a firm reminder of that and given LW tried, I agree with looping in a manager.

      1. Evan Þ*

        “You’ll feel like you never get away from home” was actually one big thing I didn’t like about working from home…

        (Apparently a lot of my teammates feel otherwise; more power to them.)

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          Living at the office (>80 hour weeks onsite) inoculated me against that side of remote work. The feeling is real.

        2. biobotb*

          Yeah, I prefer coming in to work so that I have some separation of work and home. Of course, hybrid is nice, because I can commute when I want, or work from home when commuting gets annoying.

    1. GythaOgden*

      Yup. A few years ago before mass WFH people started putting in their signatures that they didn’t check email outside their working hours because their org had a policy of switching off after work. Good job coming from the org itself :).

      1. Irish Teacher*

        My school regularly encourages us to keep e-mail within school hours as much as possible. Our principal has told us that if he sends an e-mail outside school hours, it is because those are the hours that work for him and he does not expect it to be read or replied to until the following morning.

        1. Susannah*

          I have family members who are teachers, and it’s amazing to me the number of parents who email late at night and expect an immediate answer.

      2. OMG, Bees!*

        Still recall the first time I set an away message that I wouldn’t check email on my vacation; it was so freeing! Of course in that case, I worked with external clients more often the company that employed me so it was a bit different

    2. Fishsticks*

      Yeah, I have a coworker who really struggles with that. She’s usually on before 8 am and I’ll get emails from her LONG after the end of her working hours because she just never fully switches off. I work 7 to 3, give or take, 7 to 330 if I take a lunch break, and I try not to check my emails or answer them after that time, because I don’t want work to think I’m “still available” if I’m not.

      1. ariel*

        Maybe some email systems don’t have this feature, but in a time of being able to schedule emails, I don’t understand unscheduled emails sent at weird times! It feels like a capitalism flex.

        1. Anna*

          I don’t think it has to be a “flex”, it’s just sometimes not worth my time to bother scheduling when an email is sent. And on the off chance that the recipient happens to be working odd hours, and wants to get started on their piece of the task, fine. Of course context and content of the email matters, but I wouldn’t make a blanket policy that every email must be sent during business hours.

  2. jlv*

    Time to escalate! Give management the story you told Alison, you’ve asked 1-1, everyone else seems to get it. How can you get this person to stop crossing boundaries and interrupting personal time? It is not ok.

    1. Random Dice*

      Yeah, Kate isn’t forgetting, she’s doing this deliberately. It’s a pure power flex, covered with that veneer of plausible deniability. (“What? I was just…”)

      I’m guessing she’s angry that she doesn’t get to work from home, or dislikes this OP.

      And she’s gotten away with it to date, because this OP is willing to change her behavior to accommodate unreasonable – but that just gives her power.

      I’d skip straight to the manager. Kate is harassing you and it’s unacceptable.

      1. Beth*

        I thought this too until I saw the update someone linked below! But the update made it clear that Kate was genuinely like this with everyone, all the time, until she got in major trouble for it. Now I’m 50/50 on whether Kate power trips with everyone (WFH or not, junior or peer or senior, everyone) or whether she was just insanely oblivious to basic consideration for others.

      2. casey p*

        What in this email made you believe that it would be rational to assume the worst motives on Kate’s part?

        1. fhqwhgads*

          The being told “will be gone for an hour” and she calls 15 minutes later, and the consistently “not seeing” away messages when they’ve been a completely standard part of office life for the past 20 years at least. Kate’s either power tripping or seriously incompetent.

          1. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

            That’s certainly possible, but I think it’s much more likely that Kate has built up an idea in her brain that these boundaries don’t apply specifically to her for what she perceives as benign reasons: maybe she has to liaise with multiple departments and thinks that grants her additional access to people. Maybe she thinks the questions she’s asking are much more urgent than they are or, conversely, that because her questions are neither urgent nor time-consuming they are less of a bother to Letter Writer. Malice takes a lot more energy than straight-up lack of consideration.

    1. Number Blocks*

      I know we have limited information about Kate, but I too am wondering if Kate is feeling resentment towards the OP for working from home.

      1. H3llifIknow*

        That’s kinda the vibe I was getting. “I have to be here and available to everyone, but you can be in your underwear eating cheetos and watching TV all day, so I’m going to make SURE you’re constantly working/at the computer.” What a pain. I was going to second Alison’s “sent the cell calls to VM. There is NO obligation to take WORK calls on a personal cell (unless you ARE explicitly told you’re expected to) but definitely not when you’ve set your status to “AWAY” or “DO NOT DISTURB” etc… I’d also, TBH probably also use that “bored, slightly exasperated tone” we all know and love to say, “Yes, Kate what is it you need right NOW?” when you answer/call back.

        1. All Het Up About It*

          I feel like I would specifically block Kate. What are the odds of it being a real emergency from her? It might not be possible to do, but seriously, this lady is a mess. I’m assuming this was pre-panni times, so I’m wondering if Kate changed or just got worse.

          1. JM60*

            If there is a real emergency, and the OP’s manager knows ahead of time about the situation, then they should realize that any missed emergencies are on Kate for “crying wolf”.

        2. I Have RBF*

          Quite frankly, I would warn her once more, and tell her if the non-emergency calls and texts continue she will be blocked. I would tell her in an email, citing examples, and CC her manager and your manager. Then do it. She is abusing your time, patience and good will.

      2. Anonymouse617*

        I had a “Kate” in my former job around that time too. Though I wasn’t working from home, I was regularly taking time off as I had accrued a lot covering for my Kate in the previous two years. My time off was not an inconvenience to her, but if she had to be at work and annoyed, so did everyone!

        I started responding with the calls and texts to my cell with a work email the next day, and would CC my boss or the person she was requesting the info for. A few other of my colleagues started following suit, and low and behold, the requests on our days off or evenings finally went away.

        1. Candi*

          Please tell me you included “as of your call/text yesterday evening at [time] about [question]”. To make the point that you noted the time stamp, but she does not get to intrude on personal time.

  3. KellifromCanada*

    Since Kate can reach you via email and IM as soon as you’re back at your desk, can you block her number on your cell phone? She’s obviously not going to respect your set availability, so as long as you can see her messages as soon as you are available at your desk, that should be sufficient, especially since none of her calls and texts have turned out to be emergencies.

    1. McS*

      I would block her number for sure. Your workplace only needs your phone number to call to tell you not to come in if the site isn’t safe, or to check before calling in a welfare check if you don’t show up when you should. Your direct supervisor and HR rep are the only people who need it for those reasons.

    1. Purpleshark*

      Whoa! That was… something. Apparently, it does not matter who or how high up the food chain Kate/Karen was equal opportunity intrusive and wildly out of order.

      1. Vio*

        Hopefully the change wasn’t just a short term reaction before reverting back to usual behaviour. Although since it sounds like she went to the opposite extreme, it’d be nice to think she eventually found a healthy balance.

        1. Shrimp Emplaced*

          In case you didn’t see it in the comments of the final update:

          “I think Karen is doing a bit better. She has totally, 100% let up on the paging, which is AMAZING. She also references my away messages (ie, “I was going to buzz you earlier, but I saw you had an away message up,”) so I’m over the moon about that. To those who say Norman is a great boss — yes, he is. The company culture is changing drastically under him, and it’s actually been fairly exciting (while also sad), and we’re now working on establishing a new set of norms. Grandboss was very much the type to expect long hours/working weekends/etc until the job is done, and I think that that probably contributed to a lot of Karen’s…Karen-ness, since she worked under him for about twelve years. And, now that she’s not actively stomping boundaries and annoying me personally, I’m having an easier time being compassionate towards her, and I hope things continue to improve for her.

          Anyway, long story short — I think everything is changing for the better, and Karen’s behavior looks like it was somewhat symptomatic of working for a boss who expected her to bother people until she got what she wanted. Time will tell if it sticks, but for right now, yay!”

          Thanks to DEJ for posting the update link!

          1. SarahKay*

            I totally missed that comment, so thank you so much for sharing it; it definitely sheds light on why Karen/Kate was the way she was, and why she wasn’t fired.

      2. Candi*

        I can’t believe someone did this twice.

        The other time someone showed up at a funeral to try and make someone do work things was an AAM comment where 1) he was a bad boss 2) he wasn’t invited 3) he chose to go to the funeral and ask his worker attending it where a file folder was instead of searching for the thing himself. And it sounded like he walked in during the service.

        1. Vio*

          Not only did he walk into the service, he interrupted the reverend, claiming it was an emergency. It’s linked in one of the comments

          1. Enai*

            Wow, that has got to set some kind of record. Not worthy of being included in any Guinness Book because it’s an ignoble record, but a record nevertheless.

    2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Oh THAT one. Yeah, Karen has boundary issues to say the least. And really poor judgment. If I were boss, I wouldn’t have just talked to her, she would have been GONE.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          It sounds like the only reason she didn’t get the immediate boot was because the new CEO was willing to acknowledge that former CEO/his dad bore some responsibility for why Karen acted the way she did (as he’d spent a dozen years expecting Karen to boundary-stomp on his behalf). In that case I understand giving Karen a chance to learn how the company had changed and to change with it. Hopefully the change stuck and she became better.

    3. Certaintroublemaker*

      Woooow. Simple steps were not going to fix this one. I’m glad it sounds like several people had been complaining up, though.

      1. DramaQ*

        I’m surprised there weren’t half a dozen people glued to the wall with popcorn listening to the verbal beat down. It sounds like quite a few people had had enough of Karen by that point.

    4. Random Dice*

      Oh thanks! I didn’t realize this was so old.

      Wow the nerve, to pester the CE-freaking-O at a funeral – his FATHER’S funeral – to sign a contract.

      How is she still employed?!?!

    5. Beany*

      Thanks! I’m not sure what the logic is for which old letters get a new view, but it’d be nice if the follow-up letter(s) were linked to as well.

      1. Snell*

        The logic is that the AAM Q&A is getting republished on Inc., so the blog is redirecting traffic to that site. Just another way to support Alison so she can continue to do what she does

  4. Dr. Rebecca*

    “When I say I’m busy, Kate says, “Oh, I knowwww, we all are,” and continues with her behavior.”

    “No, Kate, I mean I am specifically busy doing something else at this moment, and I will get back to you when I have a moment.”

    1. Baron*

      Thank you! I really hate “I’m so busy!” culture, especially when it becomes a state of mind and distracts from whether the person is actually engaged in a task at the moment.

  5. Specks*

    If none of what Allison recommended works, how much does Kate actually reach out with urgent items? If it’s less than 5% of the time and nothing would literally burn down even if those items are missed, I would consider informing Kate and Kate’s manager, as well as your own manager, that Kate is now blocked on your phone and page system, and she can only reach out to you via email and chat from there on, if that’s politically feasible.

    1. Corelle*

      Even if it’s not feasible to block…just factor Kate’s urgency quirks into your decisions about whether to pick up the phone. I have a coworker who routinely calls my cellphone to ask questions that aren’t urgent and she doesn’t check my availability before she dials. I don’t answer her unless I’m very available. I get calls from her and others all the time when I’m in meetings or even on vacation. I answer when it’s convenient, if something is on fire they’ll call me repeatedly or text. If they wonder where I am, they can check my calendar to see if it’s blocked for a meeting or see if I have an out of office message on. I know every workplace has its own culture around these things so maybe mine is warped, but seems like one easy way to send the message that you’re not available is to not be available to respond in person right away, even by chiding them that you’re not available.

      1. Rainy*

        Yup. If you pick up the phone to say “I can’t talk right now” what they’re seeing is that you picked up the phone. If you don’t pick up the phone because you can’t talk right now, most people will EVENTUALLY learn to check your availability before calling.

  6. HotSauce*

    I had a few of these in my department and I learned long ago to start blocking them and letting them know that I’m blocking them. I tried explaining over and over again that not every situation is an emergency and told them to look up the story “The boy who cried wolf”.

    1. zuzu*

      I’m not sure I’d want to let some people know I’d blocked them. They might just use another phone number to try to get hold of me.

      Someone like Kate/Karen is absolutely perfect for muting, filters, and folders. All her emails go into a folder you can check at your leisure. Phone calls and texts? Same. IMs and chats are muted. You never hear the ring or the page unless you want to. As far as she knows, the message has been delivered, you just haven’t responded.

      The more you respond to someone like her off-hours for trivial things because she has decided they’re urgent — and she’s the type who thinks everything is urgent, so you never leave the decision about what is or what isn’t in her hands — the more she’s going to keep hounding you. If she knows you’re upset, she’s important.

      And oops, her number got blocked from your personal cell. Don’t know how that happened.

  7. HonorBox*

    It sounds like Kate is the one problem in an otherwise understanding workplace. That means being direct with your expectations OF her. Not to pull rank, but it sounds like the LW is above her since Kate is the main admin. She needs to figure out how to work with LW. The LW posts their working hours, sets away messages even when stepping away for a few minutes to use the bathroom, and seems otherwise responsive. Paging outside of normal hours, and blowing up personal cell phone with calls and texts for non-urgent things is far too much. LW needs to put their foot down and then loop in management since management seems to not have an issue with their work process.

    1. Rainy*

      I’ve been having this issue over the last few years with our admin staff. I have a policy. They know the policy. The policy will not change. I used to explain (again! every time!) what the policy was and why, and I eventually realized that it didn’t matter–until I started shutting it down every. single. time. they weren’t going to stop.

      So now that’s what I do.

  8. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Boundaries. We needz them.

    Our firm once trialled out a wfh thing back in 2010 and a lot of complaints came in about managers and coworkers who literally wanted you to response immediately to anything which wasn’t even something you could expect in the office!

    For me, on the days I wfh, the work phone (I will not set up work applications on my personal phone ever) goes onto ‘ignore everything except these numbers’ mode and the only numbers allowed are helpdesk management and system monitoring.

    I also don’t respond to badgering. Send me 20 instant messages because your computer threw up an error? I don’t care, call Helpdesk.

    After hours I’m bra off, Diablo on and you’re not getting an answer.

    1. I Have RBF*


      Unless I’m on-call, or you are literally the VP above me in the food chain, don’t call out of hours unless it’s a “shit is on fire or down and we need everybody’s help” situation. If you call during my sleep time? I am just shit enough to pick up then hang up, or just decline the call.

      If you need me available during certain after hours time periods, fine, just tell me. I will rearrange my hours as needed, if I have enough notice. But don’t expect me to teleport to my computer, log in to the VPN and fix your problem at 8 pm my time. I’m not a genie, damnit.

  9. INeedANap*

    People like Karen confuse me. My whole team is mostly WHF, but even when we were in the office, that didn’t mean people were always available. Sometimes folks were in meetings, or working with another colleague, or in the bathroom, or taking a short walk to stretch our legs.

    I have a colleague like Karen now and I mostly just get bcak to her when I can. I don’t trust her assessment of what is and isn’t an emergency anymore and I told her as much.

  10. Justin*

    Wait is it Karen or Kate?

    Anyway, you gotta go to her supervisor on this since you’ve asked directly many times. Not to “tattle” but to demonstrate it’s become an obstacle.

    1. Antilles*

      The original letter used Karen, then it was changed to Kate in the update/re-print for Inc. Looks like there were a couple references missed.

      1. Baron*

        I’m wondering if this was motivated in any way by the increasing use of “Karen” as a pejorative, which I feel like wasn’t as much of a thing when this letter was originally published.

        1. linger*

          Also, in the original, “Karen” was originally viewed only through the lens of being Too Much. The updates revealed background that strongly suggested the behaviour did not come from her baseline personality — i.e., (i) it had developed over time working for a boss who prioritized speed of response, and (ii) she was able to stop immediately when new boss Norman directly told her to do so. So “Kate” was not a “Karen” in the popular pejorative sense.

  11. LizardBreath*

    I would consider picking up the phone when it’s a call from her with “what level emergency is this?” and then hanging up if she doesn’t have a convincing answer. Have a call with her (during work hours) to explain that’s what you’re going to do first — that if you’ve identified yourself as unavailable, you simply will not talk to her when she calls — and then just do it.

    This would be too obnoxious for a superior, but for an admin, I think it should work.

  12. lilsheba*

    Do what Veronica would do and block their number lol. If you watch TikTok and have seen @saraisthreads’ videos you know what I mean. I love her character.

  13. JP*

    My first thought reading through this is that she’s going to get passive aggressive when OP discusses this with her and start painting OP as unavailable or not working when they should be. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, but I’ve rarely seen positive outcomes with people who disregard boundaries this seriously.

  14. Akcipitrokulo*

    Also, if that doesn’t work, don’t give her her reward! If she calls asking you to do x, tell her you’ll look at it in the morning. Asks you for info, tell her it will be top of your list in the morning to call her with answer.

    Every time she gets you to perform a task, it’s ingraining it to keep calling, even if you object.

  15. Jenga*

    if you’ve indicated you’re unavailable, be unavailable. Don’t answer. Once she learns she can’t get ahold of you when you’ve stated you’re unavailable, she’ll stop trying.

    if you’re afraid of missing an emergency, answer the call. If it’s not an emergency, say “I’m only available for emergencies right now, this isn’t one, so it will have to wait until after lunch/the start of my next shift etc.”

    1. sofar*

      Yep. When you’re outside working hours (or on vacation), you play dead. Only thing that’s worked for me is ignoring ALL communication (not answer phone, email or Slack) when I’m off for the day.

      When I get back on, I respond with, “Hello! Just seeing this now. The answer to your question is XYZ.”

      It was pleasantly surprising how well this conditioned folks to understand that, when I’m off, I might as well be dead. Folks figure who they can bug outside work and who they can’t, and I tried to put myself in the “can’t” category. But I’m also making it clear that I WILL get back to you when I am back.

      As for emergencies, sure, some jobs you have to be on call. But I think, in the corporate world, that’s actually relatively few jobs (although employers and clients want you to believe otherwise), or at least only during certain times of year.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        This, 100%. I’m eating my lunch? I don’t answer your ping/call/email. I’ve left work for the day (whether at home or the office)? I do not respond.

  16. Bookworm*

    I’m sympathetic. Except it was the owner who believed we should be available at all times, with at least no set core hours, etc. Since this is the admin, it sounds like it’s past time to loop in a manager.

  17. Whyamihere*

    How often is something a true emergency no one else can handle? I think we have forgotten what an emergency is anymore. We are all cogs in the machine and at least in my job every escalation I have ever been given involved a little investigation. In fact the one I handled this morning never should have been escalated and we should have told our client months ago we did our job correctly and it was a government agency that messed up when their client moved. It took me 3 minutes to solve the problem. But then again my company is an untrained unorganized mess so everything is escalated. But that doesn’t mean I need to jump when I am on break.

  18. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    People who cry wolf like Kate eventually get to a point where they get ignored by everyone and find themselves up sh*t creek with no paddle when there’s a real emergency. I’d set her number to go to VM, no notifications for her texts and pages, and just communicate with her by email. If everything is multiple-calls urgent, nothing is.

  19. Pizza Rat*

    I’m reminded of a former co-worker who would tell her teens when they called her, “I don’t want to be disturbed unless someone is bleeding on someone is on fire.”

    Kate needs a course in situational awareness and respecting boundaries.

    1. Ginger Baker*

      I am usually pretty flexible at work – I have very few meetings and interruptions aren’t a big issue for me with the nature of the work – so when my family members call it’s usually fine. But sometimes I am deep in the middle of chaos (or a meeting) and those times I have been known to pick up my cell with “Are you on fire?” lol! (Usually of course the answer is a solid “nope, will talk to you later!” and very rarely it’s something like “I urgently need you to venmo right now so I can get these meds”).

    2. Guin*

      That is what I always told my babysitters: Do not call me unless there is blood, an exposed bone, or a fire. This became my rule after our dog chewed on my son’s baseball hat and the babysitter called us at the restaurant.

  20. Raida*

    Talk to your boss.

    “Hey I have an issue that I’ve tried to resolve 1:1 with Kate and nothing is changing, here’s a summary of it.
    Behaviours are a, b, c.
    I have taken steps 1, 2, 3.
    I feel x, y, z.
    Clearly there needs to be some pushback from someone other than me – can I rely on you to take it from here? Is there anything else I can provide you to help with that?”

    If it were *me* –
    Tell my boss: “From now on if she calls me fifteen minutes into an hour blocked off as unavailable to my personal mobile phone and it’s certainly not an emergency I’m not going to give her what she’s asking for, I’m hanging up, and I’m gonna shoot you a note that I’m being interrupted for BAU. I’ll change my phone number and not provide it for work emergencies, if that’s what it takes to cut this sh*t out. M’kay?”

    then “Hey Kate, I use the standard approach to let people know when I’m unavailable. Read them. And either send an email or IM that I’ll action when I’m available again or call if it is an emergency. If you think I’m out of line then talk to Boss”

  21. April V*

    Don’t respond. When my away message is on, I’m away. When I return, I respond. If you call my cell, and I’m on my own away time, I don’t answer. Eventually she’ll figure it out.

  22. SB*

    Is it EVER an emergency though? Since I left healthcare literally none of the so called emergencies have actually been emergencies.

  23. lectricpharaoh*

    If this ends up needing to be escalated to Kate’s manager, I’d recommend insisting that all contact from Kate to OP (aside from days OP is in the office) go through Kate’s manager.

    This will serve three purposes. First, it insulates OP from constant frivolous questions. Second, it will (hopefully) act as a deterrent to Kate’s behavior, as she asks herself if it’s *really* important enough to bug her manager with the issue. Third, it might allow the manager to see just how frequent the problem occurs.

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