Thomas Wailgum’s article, “Out of sight, out of control,” in the May 1 issue of CIO magazine was an excellent illustration of why telecommuting can be a dismal failure. Wailgum imagines scenarios like a remote colleague who “seems distracted” on a phone call, presumably by texting on her BlackBerry, and how it’s best to “‘accidentally’ shut down her BlackBerry service” in response. The message is clear: Remote workers just won’t do the work you want them to do (at least so long as you distrust them).
At first I thought Wailgum might be joshing us, humorously holding up anti-patterns in management of remote workers (indeed, in any type of management), but I’m sad to conclude that he’s serious. What’s clear by the end of the article is that Theory X management, suboptimal for knowledge workers in general, is doomed to failure when applied with extra vigor to those workers that don’t benefit from overview of his watchful eye. I imagine Wailgum in the 90s, assigning his IT staff to a search-and-destroy mission for C:\WINDOWS\SOL.EXE, secure in the knowledge that he’s removed the siren call of Solitaire, preventing all slacking of his peons. Then, as now, his expectations of his grunts slacking during the day are sure to come true.
No one denies that telecommuting has its own challenges. It’s radically different from life in a cube farm, and yet both rely on one concept to get the most from those on your team: You must expect the best from your team, and trust them to do it. Many of the challenges are the same. Just as people game the system to make it look like they didn’t come in late to the office, people can use automated scripts to check and receive email to simulate their “being at work.” The answer isn’t to make the command-and-control system harder to get around, but to throw the system away.
People do their best work not because they have to, but because they want to, and it’s a rare IT professional who wants to do their best work under the iron fist of someone who looks to Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss for inspiration. When telecommuting works, as it does for so many of us, it’s a thing of beauty. Mr. Wailgum, I invite you to work with your team, not against them, and see what magic comes out of a team that doesn’t have to be a slave to geography.