Talent   //   April 22, 2024

‘People think they can distract you more’: Remote workers grapple with work ethic stigma

Olivia Dreizen Howell is an entrepreneur and business owner. That means she wears many hats and works long hours. But she believes her workload is invisible to others because she works from home.

Because of that one small detail, most people in her life don’t believe she is actually working that hard and instead give her a laundry list of other tasks to do at home. 

“I’ve found it is very, very difficult for people to understand that although I work in my home, in an office in a bedroom in my house, I’m not simply hanging around the house all day, and I’m working,” said Dreizen Howell. “This is especially true when you’re a wife and mother.”

The assumption has been that because she was home, she should take on all of the domestic and childrearing labor, but she owns a marketing agency that required her to be on calls, meetings, writing copy, designing graphics, all day. In between all of that, she would also have to do the laundry, dishes, make sure dinner was prepared, and anything else. 

“Anyone who has worked from home with children knows that you simply cannot actually work from home and take care of kids at the same time,” said Dreizen Howell. 

Dreizen Howell got divorced, but even the lawyers still did not understand that her work was valid, despite running a global social media agency from her kitchen table. 

“I've found it is very, very difficult for people to understand that although I work in my home, in an office in a bedroom in my house, I'm not simply hanging around the house all day, and I'm working.”
Olivia Dreizen Howell, CEO of Fresh Starts Registry.

“It was written into my divorce stipulation that I needed to cover all costs for any childcare if I needed it because I worked from home. But, if for some reason I had to work ‘outside the home,’ we would split the childcare costs,” said Dreizen Howell. “The narrative of mothers working from home is that they aren’t really working, and therefore, I could both manage childcare and work full time from home without help.”

Dreizen Howell is just one of many who work from home today and are dealing with the stigma of it. In some instances, the negative connotation of remote work comes from your partner, kids, or even the courtroom, but in other cases, it’s from your siblings, parents, landlords or handymen.

If the people in our direct lives don’t believe that remote work is real work, why are employers going to either? Why does remote working seem to carry this stigma?

We spoke to several remote workers to better understand how the people in their lives view their remote work setup. Here’s what they had to say, in their own words.

Lucy Jeffrey, founder of bamboo socks brand Bare Kind:

I certainly notice this as someone who runs my own business from home alongside my partner who is CEO. Yes we have flexibility as it’s our business but with that comes ultimate responsibility. 

We find that when we are around family, usually older generations, they see us as much more interruptible. I’ve said many times that you wouldn’t just walk into a meeting in an office and start mouthing things at you but it seems if you are on a Zoom call people think they can distract you more. 

If you’re working from home you have to be away from people that aren’t working. 

Jordan Cathleen, communications strategist:

I feel like I’m a bit of a special case in that I have several friends who work in nightlife and entertainment as bartenders, managers, hosts, and promoters. In other words, my 9-to-5 life is completely foreign to them. Because of this, there are incessant requests for events or hangouts happening during the day when I’m unavailable. I even have to ignore 1 p.m. calls from my dear dad who works as a station manager for Washington, DC’s public transit, WMATA. 

Beyond their frustration and confusion with my schedule, I’ve also noticed resentment from a few people who must think I get paid to chill on my couch and watch TV all day long when the opposite is true. As a knowledge worker, it can be ironically difficult trying to explain how demanding my publicist gig truly is. While it may not be physically challenging like their jobs, mentally, it’s draining, which can be hard to convey to others. 

My fellow 9-to-5 girlies get it, but these assumptions persist amongst some people in my circle four years into the WFH game.

"There just seems to be a difference between knowledge workers and people who are doing labor physically."
Jordan Cathleen, communications strategist.

It can be anything from not being clear on what my availability is for the day or assuming that because I work from home I have a looser schedule or things are more relaxed. There just seems to be a difference between knowledge workers and people who are doing labor physically. Obviously, my job isn’t demanding in that aspect, but it still requires my full attention during the day.

I try not to even do a quick Target run during the day because I know I can get easily distracted and veer off course. A simple task like that can interfere with the actual work tasks I have to get done. There are a lot of misunderstandings thinking that I have a lot more flexibility than I do.

I’ve consistently reinforced the boundaries, it’s something I’m willing to do and not bend on. The times I have bent, have been to my detriment where I have fallen short on a deadline or whatever the case may be because I was trying to accommodate other people or felt guilt-tripped into making myself more available. That’s not something I can afford to do. I’ll offer a late dinner or drinks for after work. Typically now people know to reach out after 6 p.m.

Gabrielle Saulsbery, reporter at Banking Dive:

I’m a journalist and I definitely run up against challenges working from home, in regard to my partner’s expectations. We also run a business together (we raise goats and rent them out for brush clearing) and are renovating the bathroom, but during the day, I obviously want to focus on my job because it’s what pays the bills.

The challenge I have in getting my partner to understand that I can’t be expected to do things during my workday are tied to the fact that he has only ever worked with his hands. I’ve talked to other WFH women about this, too. Looking at a computer screen and typing into the void simply doesn’t look like work to them. Their jobs are physically demanding, and therefore obvious when they’re being done. As a journalist, the bulk of my hard work is internal, putting together the building blocks of ideas and sentences to write articles. It’s a different kind of heavy lifting.

From the outside it doesn’t really look like you’re doing anything different than playing on the computer if you don’t have the experience of work as being at a computer. Because of that, he’ll routinely come into my office or see me at the kitchen table and start talking to me about something else. I’m like ‘dude, I can’t listen to you right now.’ Every time he’s like ‘I’m sorry, it didn’t occur to me’ even though it’s between normal working hours.

Just now he came into my office and sat down with a cup of tea and started talking to me about unrelated things besides my job. I can’t pretend to listen. I have to tell him I’ll be free in a few hours and we can engage then, but right now is not the time. I just met a deadline and now I have to do work ahead of my next deadline. But if I were in their position, I would also have such a hard time having it click.

Sara Batchelder, account manager at AM Public Relations:

I’ve had customer service jobs in retail, theme parks, and restaurants. Now, I’ve got a marketing master’s degree and a senior-level, full-time position at a PR agency where I’m fully remote. But oddly, people take my old hourly jobs more seriously than my current corporate one.

I also teach yoga part-time, and when my family asks about ‘work,’ they are referring to my one-hour class. They think working from home isn’t real work. It doesn’t bother me much anymore, but it’s frustrating that they don’t get it. And they assume that because I work remotely, I can easily balance parenting, not realizing it’s still a job.