Marvin Humphrey marvin at
Sun May 6 17:09:40 BST 2007

On May 6, 2007, at 2:52 AM, Richard Foley wrote:

> And as you inferred the team/project needs to be managed  
> appropriately,
> whatever that might precisely mean in each individual scenario.

I think there are some common principles that always apply.

Nearly everyone if not everyone needs consistent human contact: voice  
contact at least, and face-to-face contact when possible.  Phone  
plans with unlimited calling are extremely helpful, verging on  

There has been much study of late as to how written communication  
over the web tends towards incivility.  Consensus seems to be that  
this occurs due to the absence of certain cues which are present in  
live communication -- body language, voice inflection, etc.  The same  
problem can impede the productivity of telecommuters, so an  
enveloping virtual workplace environment must be aggressively  

Whip-cracking is not needed so much as firm, clear, consistent  
communication of expectations and appreciation, from both management  
and peers.  People have to *feel* that what they do matters -- that  
failure to perform will cause disappointment and that success will  
please others and bring rewards.

As a corollary, it's easier to manage telecommuters who can make  
frequent appearances on site.  In my experience one day a week works  
well, and from what I see out there, others have reached similar  
conclusions.  (Some day I'd like to try video conferencing as a  
substitute for the weekly meeting.)

Another challenge is coordination, but it's possible to turn that  
from a liability into an asset.  Having workers spatially dispersed  
can enhance goal-orientation, because everyone has to continually  
justify their employment -- just showing up and punching the clock  
doesn't give you anything to show to upper management.  I'm a big fan  
of using a daily conference call to keep everyone focused and motivated.

> Part of the
> problem with telecommuting is that many managers don't trust  
> themselves, or
> don't have the skillset, and/or experience to manage even partially  
> remote
> teams.

Another problem is simply a dearth of project managers.  One  
prominent company I'm aware of has a worker-to-manager ratio of 37 to  
1.  I think that's nuts regardless, but it's probably going to make  
getting the best out of telecommuters next to impossible.  Not  
coincidentally, this company doesn't offer telecommuting as an option  
(to the best of my knowledge).

> We all tend to put up with an awful lot of crap, in our daily lives,
> (hour long commutes on suburban trains is one example),

In return for freeing workers from such unpleasantness, you get to  
insist on high productivity.  You get to say: I don't necessarily  
need more hours, or exactly these specific hours, but I need all of  
your hours to be good hours.  If you're having a bad Friday, work  
Sunday.  Take a nap when it suits you (outside of the "office hours"  
where you guarantee availability to the rest of the team).   Just do  
good work and show it to me.

Management cynics take note: teams built around this ethos are no  
less capable of rising to meet major challenges like product launches  
because they're happier and they care more.  People sometimes put in  
extra hours out of ambition or stubbornness despite the admonition  
against it, but in general, keeping knowledge workers fresh pays  
dividends competitive with setting them up to work unpaid overtime.   
"Bill Gates has been quoted saying that his programmers can program  
for 72 hours straight, and I say, yeah, but their product is  
Windows." -- Harvard sleep researcher Robert Stickgold.

Marvin Humphrey
Rectangular Research

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