Myths of Remote Work: No Control

Developers have to retool their skill sets on a regular basis if they want to stay relevant. This has been true for a very long time and it’s widely considered part of the job. But today, managers have to retool their skill sets from time to time as well. This is a new development.

There are two strong, recent examples of this in tech: the transition from waterfall to agile (or Agile) development, and the phenomenon of remote work.

Obviously, managing software development on a warehouse-sized computer in the 1950s was also quite different from the pre-Agile days of the 1980s and 1990s.

These examples are all separated by many years, and I don’t know how many others exist yet. Moore’s Law drove all three of these changes, although the Internet is a co-driver in the latest one. Robotics will probably create another paradigm shift for managers. But management, as a field, changes more slowly than programming. And maybe that will always be the case.

Still, the luxury of less frequent retooling doesn’t change the fact that in a field that changes as much as technology does, you have to keep your skills fresh if you want to stick around. Nor does it change an unfortunate side effect: in the same way that generals are always fighting the last war, management schools are always teaching how to run a company which couldn’t get off the ground today.

And, since so many managers don’t even realize that retooling is a part of the process, it’s easy to find businesses with out-of-date management and modern technology.

Consequently, although companies like Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) have been advocating remote work for many years, a lot of managers are still just learning about remote work for the first time.

And managers who aren’t experienced with remote work often fear a loss of control.

The idea, basically, is that if you can’t see your staff, you can’t assume they’re working.

So here’s a little story.

Once upon a time, a CEO came to a CTO at around 6pm or 7pm.

“Where are all our programmers?” the CEO said. “We’re supposed to be a startup.”

“Don’t worry,” the CTO said. “It’s my job to know if they’re doing their jobs. If we’re having a productivity issue, I’ll let you know.”

A few weeks later, an emergency came up. Servers crashed, bugs ran rampant. At midnight on a Saturday, four programmers fixed it. The CTO got them all together on the phone and via IRC. He had no trouble getting them together, even though one of them was out celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday. This programmer fixed problems on the server while using ssh through his iPhone, despite having had several beers. The whole problem was solved in about twenty minutes, maybe half an hour.

Soon after, the CEO held a post-mortem discussion with the CTO. “Why did the server crash happen?” asked the CEO.

Questions the CEO didn’t ask:

If you’ve ever been in a startup, you’ve seen some emergency crop up. What matters is how people handle them.

A paranoid mentality is not the best way to deal with your team in the first place. If you don’t trust your team, you should develop that trust. But even in the worst-case scenario, bodies in chairs make a terrible proxy for trust. Plenty of unproductive or counter-productive employees are great at showing up to a building on time and sitting in a chair for a while. In fact, you can lose staggering amounts of productivity to the tiny interruptions which seem inevitable and harmless in the course of a normal day.

Distributed teams even have an advantage when it comes to assessing team productivity. Consider the type of employee who never gets anything done, but always has a reason why not. Social skills, charisma, and subtle manipulation make that possible. It’s a lot harder to get away with that kind of thing when you have a distributed team.

And if you really don’t trust your team, then you need to hire people who you do trust. So how do you do that? You can’t find great people as simply as putting an ad on a job board — unless you hire remote. This “perk” is still sufficiently rare that it can draw amazing people.

Which means that working remote is not so much a threat to your control as a healthy reason to let it go.