The Most Important Work from Home Tip – Be Clear

Story time – once worked with someone who was constantly leaving early, working from home, and needing to take off work for various “emergencies”. She would work from home without letting anyone know, so when people went to find her they couldn’t. She would say she was working from home, but then when people would try to e-mail or ping her on the instant messenger, she couldn’t be reached. She would take off from work for everything, and constantly had appointments in the middle of the day. It really impacted her reputation at work and she missed out on promotions. Eventually when layoffs came she was laid off. Now, I empathize – she was a single mom of a teenager and she did have a lot of things going on in hear personal life. Unfortunately she wasn’t good at managing the time she needed to be out.


Sometimes things happen and you need to leave work unexpectedly, and sometimes appointments are urgent and need to be in the middle of the day. We all understand that. The important thing is to build up a reputation for being reliable and reachable when you need to be, so if an emergency happens people will know this must truly be urgent. Find a dentist, doctor, and hairdresser that have very early and very late appointments (or even better – weekends!) so you can go off hours. If you need to do something mid-day make sure to let people know in advance when you’ll be away from the computer. When you can’t attend a meeting, be sure to decline and let the organizer know. If you would be available for a call/text, give people your number – and if you won’t be available, let them know the times when you can’t be reached and return messages when you say you will. An emergency happens? As soon as reasonable contact everyone you can, decline all meetings, and put on your out of office that you’re out due to an emergency.


Also, it’s important to evaluate what’s really urgent vs. what can wait until after work. If you have a family member that’s ill or you know you’re going to need to be unavailable frequently for a while, don’t abuse the work from home flexibility. Talk with your manager about what’s going on and take FMLA, short term disability, or bereavement leave as needed.

A tale of one emergency – death and birth within a week

Last year, when I was pregnant with my youngest son, my grandmother became very ill with cancer (mesothelioma specifically). Now this particular situation is full of unknowns. I didn’t know how quickly my grandmother would decline or how often I would have to miss work for appointments. Unfortunately, OBGYNs are not known for their early and late office hours, and babies disrupt the best laid plans. Also with my grandmother so ill I only knew that her cancer would take hold quickly-the average lifespan after a diagnosis of mesothelioma for someone over 75 is only four months. My grandmother was a very special person in both my life and my kid’s life. She was the one that always went to the kids plays, events, writers workshops, “special person day”, book fairs, pasta suppers, and birthday parties. Christmas was always at her house, and she watched my kids when my husband was in the ICU/hospital/rehab center. We were all very close and this was devastating news. Babies and pregnancy are also full of unknowns. Will something go wrong? When will they be born? It’s difficult to plan around them.

So what could I do? I controlled what I could, and when things happened that were outside of my control, I made sure to quickly and clearly communicate my availability. I also made sure to complete my transition well in advance of my due date because the last few weeks of pregnancy are so unpredictable.  Appointments were scheduled before work, in the early hours wherever possible – and late hours where there was nothing in the morning. “Very early or very late” was my request whenever the receptionist asked what time I wanted my appointment for. In the case of urgent appointments (I had some pain, and some scary bleeding at one point, that necessitated urgent appointments) I made sure to keep my management in the loop and was clear when I would be available/unavailable. Even an urgent appointment can usually be scheduled at a more convenient time where I wouldn’t have meetings or could dial into something from my car. For my grandmother, fortunately she was local so I made it a point to visit every weekend and some weeknights after work. If she were not local I would have taken time off to visit.

The last two weeks of my pregnancy I had arranged with my manager to work remotely. I live 45 minutes away from work and I wanted to be close to my OBGYN and hospital should I go into labor. I also knew that in the last few weeks you have to go to appointments every few days, and being close to my OBGYNs office let me get to and from the appointments more quickly. I had completed my transition by then and was working in a supportive role by that point.  I knew I was going to be out for six weeks and it was important my temporary replacement was comfortable with the work.

My grandmother passed away the day after Easter, only eight days before my son was born. I got the call on a Monday morning from my mother, letting me know my grandmother did not have much time left-hours, likely.  I contacted my manager to let them know and finished up my workday from my grandmother’s house. I also gave a heads up to everyone on my meetings for the rest of the week that I may be out, and arranged for them to be covered just in case. The rest of the family joined that evening and she passed away shortly after 11 PM.

The next morning, I called my manager. I was a wreck. I was nine months pregnant and due any day, and my beloved grandmother – great grandmother to my children – had just died.  Think about how crazy emotions are during pregnancy, and multiply that times a huge loss. I knew I could not work, so I told my manager I needed to take bereavement leave and then go on FMLA.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus and wouldn’t be good at my work. It was better to be out for a while. Had I not been pregnant I would have taken bereavement leave and PTO the rest of that week (which was 4 days) and gone in the next week when I could focus again. But seeing as I was pregnant and due the following Wednesday, I simply needed to take the time off to grieve and to prepare for the imminent birth of my son. I knew I could have “worked from home” but I was going to need to be away so often, and I was so scatterbrained, that it was better to simply be off.

It’s important to note that this is where your reputation matters and can save you. If people have seen you working hard consistently through the years, know they can trust you when you say you’re available/unavailable, and can see that you work life around work as best you can, they’ll support you when you need the time off or flexibility. Maybe your coworkers have seen you pitch in when someone’s father was ill, helping to cover their work when they needed support. Your reputation helps your coworkers know you’re not trying to take advantage of the system or pushing work off on others. Instead they’re eager to support you because you’ve helped them in the past.

Taking time when an emergency happens – or a significant loss – is very important. You may think you’re good to go back to work, but you need to really take a hard look at how you’re going to be. Everyone is understanding when you experience a major loss, they want to help, and they will cut you some slack. If you need to take time off to deal with logistics, or simply to recover, don’t be afraid to do so.  People may be understanding but not everyone you deal with will know you’ve just experienced a major loss in your life. You don’t want to impact your reputation at work by coming back and being physically present, while missing deadlines and not meeting your commitments (yes, I know people who have done this). Take extra care when you return to write things down and stay organized – I know my mind is like a sieve when something major is going on in my personal life. Put follow-ups on your calendar and don’t count on your memory.

Even in a real emergency, being clear with your coworkers helps both you and them. If you really won’t be available, let everyone know as quickly as possible. Send an e-mail to everyone you work with that you’ll be out due to an emergency and will update them as soon as possible. Put your out of office message on that you won’t be available and won’t be checking emails, and who your backup is in the meantime (or direct them to your manager). If you don’t know when you’ll be back to the office just say that, and update your coworkers and out of office message on the date of your return as quickly as possible. In a real emergency like when your husband is in septic shock in the ICU and you don’t know if he’ll live until tomorrow (ahem, me four and a half years ago), keep in constant touch with your management. Call or e-mail them daily to let them know what’s going on, and once things are more stable plan out your return to work.


Being clear on your availability and being truly available when you say you will helps build your reputation at work. Nothings worse than someone who doesn’t show up for work, or who says they’re “working remotely” but isn’t online on instant messenger and doesn’t show up for meetings.  Carefully evaluate where you need flexibility and make sure all your coworkers are clear on your plan. Message your coworkers with your schedule when you’ll be remote for the day, and put up your out of office if you’re going to be unavailable for a while. When a real emergency strikes, take the time off that you need to recover, and keep in constant touch with your management as to what’s happening and when you’ll be able to return. Showing your commitment and being clear with your coworkers at all times will give you a reputation as someone who’s available when you need them, and helping to cover when your coworkers need assistance shows that you’re a team player.

Have you seen a situation where someone torpedoed their reputation by not doing what they committed to? Let me know your best stories in the comments.

6 thoughts on “The Most Important Work from Home Tip – Be Clear”

  1. So very true. When I use to be a manager nothing would aggravate me more then not being able to locate my employee at a crucial time where they should be present. Working from home and flexible time is a flexible privledge, but ultimately you need to respect it if you want to continue. Also, if you truly want to advance your career you want face time with those who can influence your future, so do whatever you can to be present for meetings with higher ups.

    1. Great point about the meetings with higher ups. I’ve known people that think because they take most of their calls from their desks or from home, they’re fine doing those meetings remotely as well. But those are key meetings to attend in person, so they get to know you and your work personally. I run an onsite meeting every 10 weeks located midway between three key offices, with the expectation that folks will drive there. Most are happy to because we all get a rare chance to connect in person, but we have a few people that always resist and want to be remote. They’re just hurting themselves in that case.

  2. First off let me say how I sorry I am for you loss. I can’t imagine the emotions you must have been going through with a beloved grandmother’s passing and the birth of your child.

    It sounds like you have a rock solid reputation and the time that you put in to develop your reputation has paid off.

    I once had a co-worker that was out for everything as well. She kept getting passed over for promotions and couldn’t understand why. Finally, she left when it became apparent that she had hit a ceiling.

    1. Yes it’s your reputation that can save you in an emergency, or make you the one who’s passed over for promotions. I’ve found that if people know that you’re generally reliable – even in an emergency – then they want to help you and they know they can trust you. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re generally unreliable then they don’t trust you even when an emergency happens. It’s almost like “the boy that cried wolf”.

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