Making Telecommuting Work

Telecommuting remains a fringe activity, particularly in software development.

Would you allow your manager to monitor your remote activities through a webcam 9-5? Would you allow them to
monitor your computer screen?

Despite all of the technology that we now have available. Despite pervasive, inexpensive, high-speed communications networks. Despite the rising cost of transportation, and literally choking urban congestion. Despite all of these changes, we still live in a world where the luxury of telecommuting is afforded to only a few. Indeed, we live in a world where most organizations are more likely to outsource work to a faceless team half a world away before they’d let an employee work more than a marginal amount of time
on-the-clock at home
.

Many organizations would counter this by claiming that they do offer some sort of telecommuting foundation. Many, for instance, offer Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), allowing you to hook into the corporate network from home. However the motivation
driving the adoption of such technologies isn’t generally to replace in-office work, but rather to enable workers to work additional hours from home. It’s also to ensure that there
isn’t a minute of downtime when on the road.

So why is legitimate telecommuting so
rare?

The most common suspicion in the industry, and I believe that it’s accurate, is the need among managers for face time of their charges. If you’re physically present and occasionally visible, regardless of output, the presumption is that you’re “doing work”. Your contribution is measured not by your actual output, but rather by your mere presence (and your grunting and groaning and presentation of great exertion). If you aren’t physically present, however, the presumption is that you’re slacking. When you’re remote your contribution is measured only by actual output, and you’re an easy target for the non-telecommuters to use to explain their troubles.

The root problem is that output in the software development industry, indeed in most industries, is often less than predicted (which is why estimates are almost universally low-balled). For every delivered component, there were likely half-a-dozen false starts. For every neat looking GUI, there is a massive bulk of praiseless code behind the scenes that
actually makes it happen. For every technology chosen there were dozens evaluated, and for every design agreed upon there were hours of planning. Outside of some assembly line coding, this is an industry where a lot of effort and brainpower goes into even the
smallest creations.

Thus when you’re a manager and after a week your remote worker submits a small component, it’s much less satisfying than seeing a team holding onerous daily meetings, ruminating loudly around the water cooler about the trouble that damn Microsoft
caused them, and so on. Face time, and the illusion of work, is a powerful force in overcoming the slow pace of most development.

The Solution

There is absolutely no doubt that this is a serious problem, and it will be exascerbated as fuel prices rise.

The solution is fairly simple:

  • An accessible webcam monitoring the remote employee’s workspace during work hours.
  • An accessible screen monitor allowing managers to monitor computer activities.

Would you allow your manager to monitor your remote activities through a webcam 9-5? Would you allow them to monitor your computer screen?

Most tech workers would gasp at these conditions, however I think they are the necessary groundwork for pervasive remote tech work. Allow the managers throughout the land the ability to assauge their fears that their remote employees are playing Battlefield 2 in their underwear during work hours, and give the remote workers all of the advantages that pseudo-“face time” affords. Win/win for everyone.