During a class the other day, one of our participants said he was thinking of leaving his employer. This was a surprise because it’s a good company that just started letting people work from home and they were bragging about how it’s increased employee satisfaction. So why was this employee so angry he’d leave a sweet gig? The problem was a $9 mouse for his laptop.
One of the compelling reasons for companies to encourage telework and flexible schedules is that it saves money. Travel costs, real estate, even doughnuts for the meetings can all be eliminated, or at least greatly reduced, if people never leave their homes or have to come into the office. That sounds great, but can you take cost savings too far? This young man certainly seemed to think so.
A Common Problem for Remote Leaders
When he started working from home, there was an agreement over what equipment he’d need, what the company would and wouldn’t pay for, and what the expectations were. Everyone seemed happy with the deal. This all started out pretty much as it should.
As he started working from home, (on a laptop rather than the multi-screen desktop at the office) he realized that using the laptop was frustrating. First of all, the keyboard wasn’t as big and ergonomically friendly as he was used to. That took some adjusting, but it didn’t slow him down much. The second thing, though, was more insidious.
His laptop had a touchpad that served as a mouse and (if you’ve ever relied on one you know what that’s like) it was making him crazy. Without going into details, it was frustrating him and interfering with the way he usually worked. The answer seemed simple enough, he’d just get a new mouse.
During a coaching session he expressed his frustration to his manager, and asked if he could purchase a USB mouse. His manager sympathized, but told the young man there was no budget for it, and that if he wanted it he would have to purchase it himself. Now, the worker was already paying for his own paper and printer cartridges, and this seemed an example of the company just being cheap. He let the subject drop, but with each Excel spreadsheet it took too long to complete, or document that took a while to type, the resentment grew.
Soon that mouse became the symbol of everything the employee didn’t like about the company and his manager… they demanded a lot but didn’t seem to want to help. They were “cheap” about little things but wasted money on useless projects. His manager didn’t want him to succeed…. The list grew.
And to the manager, it was nine bucks, what’s the big deal?
I’m not saying the company should have paid for the mouse. Policy is policy and the rules were clear. Still there are a few things here that Long-Distance Leaders need to take into account:
What’s agreed to when the rules are set might need to be revisited from time to time. Nobody can anticipate every possible obstacle at the beginning of a work situation. Leaders need to constantly check in and assess how things are going.
One person’s whining is another person’s big deal.
Part of being a good listener is understanding when people need to vent, when they have legitimate complaints that should be addressed, and when you need to counsel people to just deal with the situation. Are you actively listening, or just being transactional in your communication?
Even if there really was no budget, there might be other ways to help.
It’s a strange office that doesn’t have stray computer peripherals kicking around. Maybe there’s an unused mouse in a closet. Or an unoccupied desk has a computer sitting around unused. The problem isn’t just that there’s no budget, the problem was this guy needed (or at least wanted) a darned mouse. Surely there’s a way to get one that won’t bring the CFO banging on your door.
Often, the little things are symptoms of larger issues.
Napoleon once said that if you want to avoid war, you avoid the thousand little pinpricks that lead to war. Anyone who’s ever been in a romantic relationship knows that what you think you’re fighting about isn’t what’s really bothering people.
An engaged employee who’s eager to do the best possible work would have already worked this out. They might even have spent the nine dollars voluntarily, but now this has become a matter of principle for him. Every day it goes unresolved becomes another reason for resentment and unproductive energy expenditures. This once-eager employee is now at least partially disengaged and likely to tune out completely if this isn’t addressed.
I don’t know how this particular example resolved itself, but if the young man finally quit without warninig, it will cost thousands of dollars in recruiting and lost productivity to replace him. All for a computer mouse you can buy at the drugstore.
Are you really having the important conversations with your employees that can identify small challenges that may become big ones?
If you would like to assess the employee turnover in your organization and learn some steps to address it, we’ve got this free diagnostic tool to get you started.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.</em