Telecommuting – A Technology Killed By Management

by Henry Johns

Many people say that there is nothing like a face to face meeting to get things accomplished. But is that really true? With today’s internet and collaboration technologies corporations should be less concerned with its professional staff’s physical location and take a hard look at their manager’s management skills for remote workers. It is expensive and competitively limiting to only consider talent within a commuting distance when superior talent at a lower cost may be available in the next town or across the world. Is your management team ready?

Internet collaboration is a destructive technology kept in check by legacy management practices. Keep the water cooler and coffee service because the need for professionals to be in the same office from 8am till 6pm in order to be productive, collaborate and share ideas is mandated by your management. The baby boomers that are still senior managers in charge can not let go of the norm of being in the office. If you are not in the office, how do they know you are working? This visual management style, “are you present productivity metric”, is out dated and very costly. Why is it alright to telecommute from Russia or India but not from 150 miles down the road?

The business world in the U.S. is still run by mostly 19th century style managers. The first measurement of an employee’s contribution is getting to the office each day on time. The second is how well they get along with co-workers when they get there. The metric for tangible productivity is too often subjective and harder to quantify. Colleges have discovered that they can teach courses globally to student that they never see. The online gaming industry makes billions of dollars managing global poker games. Open Source developers collaborate globally on coding applications and operating systems. Why can’t a project team leader conduct a meeting or a manager review an employee’s deliverable remotely? In today’s world there is no reason for most technical professionals to see each other or their client in order to work together, provided they have the right technology. Low cost virtual private network technology (VPN) provides remote access to corporate network resources and data. Where your staff sits will not affect the out come of your effort as much as the management skills directing them.

A poorly managed team or meeting is just that. It is much easier to host a face to face meeting without an agenda or proper planning. All meetings should have an agenda and objectives. If done correctly meetings are of minimum length, minutes are recorded, and objectives and tasks are assigned. How many face to face meetings have you been to that don’t have these? If remote meetings do, the outcome is just as efficient as face to face meetings. There is also the personality variable in a traditional face to face meeting. A shy person may be timid about making suggestions and an extravert may dominate meetings. Does the less dominant person have less to contribute? A good facilitator wants all members of the team to contribute ideas freely and equally.

These are the skills needed to be a good project team manager for onsite or virtual teams.

  1. Meeting facilitation skills
  2. Meeting planning and documentation skills
  3. Project planning skills
  4. Excellent interpersonal skills
  5. Team building skills
  6. Documentation skills
  7. Knowledgeable regarding functional area
  8. Internet collaboration tools skills

Having a telecommuting professional workforce is more dependent on the skills and disciplines of your managers than those of your staff. Having large or small groups of people in a corporate department come to a central work location everyday and remain there for an 8 hour workday is a legacy concept that only time and brave managers can change. It is a lot easier to look at how many hours a person spends at work than it is at how productive they are. With a remote work force the manager/leader has the challenge of building relationships, establishing clear expectations, and providing clear feedback. How many managers can do two of these three with a resident staff? The companies that thrive in this new age of telecommuting will hire a management team that can bond together a global matrix of the best minds and master new types of non-verbal communications skills to motivate, reward and lead work groups.

About the Author…
Mr. Johns is President of Vision TRE, Inc. ( on the web at http://www.visiontre.com ), a Georgia based software development company with offshore facilities in Brazil. He has held senior level positions managing global projects for the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service, MCI Telecommunications, and EMS Technologies.

8 comments

  1. Lisa,

    I am writing to give an update on my earlier comment which is actually relevant to this post. Earlier, I had written that myself and my co-workers would not be getting the chance to telecommute one to two days a week. Now, management has somewhat reversed itself and is considering starting a ‘trial period’ of telecommuting, but only after we find out if the contract with our major customer is renewed. The caveat is that if one person messes up, telecommuting will be taken away from everybody. Personally, I don’t agree with this position. In my view, if four out of five employees are more productive from home, while the fifth one decides to go off on a three hour shopping spree during work hours on a telecommute day, the fifth one needs to be put on performance review or have telecommuting privileges revoked. In some ways, I think management treats adults like children.

    But anyway, it’s progress and I am not complaining.

    Great article by the way. I might slip it ‘accidentally’ in my manager’s inbox.

  2. Miguel – I remember your earlier note and am glad to see they are at least considering a trial period, but since everyone’s not equally cut out for telecommuting, I agree it’s not exactly the best decision to lump everyone into the same boat. It is like treating the work force a bit like a classroom full of third graders. My son was just complaining the other day how the entire class was punished for the actions of a small few.

    Wishing you luck!

  3. I worked for a large company that was somewhat reluctant to allow telecommuting, but it gradually allowed it to some employees on a limited basis. Most employees weren’t willing to even ask, however. I’m sure part of the reason is that company culture and past shapes a lot of behavior. I also worked for a company that was a strict 8:30 to 5:30 company; the idea of telecommuting seemed outrageous, other than the occasional employee who was allowed to stay home with a sick child. I often arrived at work around 8:45 to 9:00 and felt this put me in a bad light, despite the fact that I was up at 5 am and generally worked for about 1.5 hours before I got to work, and worked for another hour or 2 when I got home at night. It did not make for a pleasant work experience. And oh, by the way, I got more work done in those hours at home than I did in the 8 hours at work. Go figure. Well, now I work from home, Starbucks, etc., and it is fantastic.

  4. I’m actually of the opinion that face to face meetings accomplish less than meetings in the form of IMs, teleconferencing, etc. When employees are “plugged in” during the actual meeting, they’re more apt to be productive and can show immediate turnaround on what’s being discussed.

  5. Mike Sullivan,

    I find your experience interesting. I am going through a little bit of the same thing. I have a manager who, though she is a nice person, likes to manage people’s TIME as opposed to their WORK PRODUCT. I don’t think she understands that we are all professionals, we don’t need someone to direct our schedule. For example, I may only put in 6 hours in a given day at the office, either because I had to drop my daughter off at school late or decided to take a prolonged lunch to go to the gym. But I might put in an extra hour or two at home that same day. Or I might work from home 5 to 6 hours that weekend. It pretty much evens out in the end, though I don’t do an exact accounting. Why do I not do an exact accounting? Because I am not paid by the hour! I am paid to get a job done and a job done on deadline and in a quality manner. If my boss thinks I should be working more, then she should give me more work.

    Another example: I knew a brilliant engineer who habitually walked in at 9:30 am. All the older guys grumbled that he was lazy, and the younger generation just did not have the greatest work ethic. That guy is now V.P. for a major telecom company. He was the most productive worker, but some of the older school folks think of work like it was a prison sentence: you must “serve” your time in order to move up in the world.

  6. I understand how the economy can affect a person’s outlook on the job market. But the best thing to remember is: There is always a way around everything in this old world and someone willing to step up to the plate and give a solutionto the problem. According to job market telecommuting experts, in 2012 the percentage of companies and corporations that have increased their telecommuting job offers will be 35% and another 41% have already done so. That is good news for people who can’t leave home to work or need to stay home with their children but still need additional income to survive.

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