The Problem Isn't Telecommuting—It's Management

Results, not miles, are the measure of management.

Posted Mar 14, 2013

So I was thinking about the situation with Yahoo and telecommuting, and then I saw Best Buy was making headlines for reining in telecommuting too… when I read on CNN this quote from a Best Buy spokesman: “It used to be a right about which a manager had no say. Now it’s a conversation.”

Now I may at one time have read something stranger about management, but I can’t remember when.

Since when does an employee have a right to telecommute?

And since when does a manager have no say in the matter?

This may be something, but it isn’t management.

Last time I checked, a key managerial function was “control.” Not control as in being overbearing and demoralizing, but control as in having an idea of what’s happening on your watch and being able to take action when needed.

My first thought when I read that Best Buy spokesman’s quote was, as the old saying goes, the inmates are running the asylum. My second thought was, the problem isn’t distance – it’s management.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with telecommuting. It can be efficient, employee-friendly and environmentally preferable – a constructive morale booster for all. But it has to be managed. Thoughtfully. Dollars to doughnuts at both Yahoo and Best Buy a well-intentioned policy spun wildly out of control. Human nature being what it is, if a person is working from home and hardly anyone is ever checking in on him or her, there’s a reasonable chance there will be, shall we say, less rigor in the operation.

The company I worked at for most of my career permitted telecommuting… but carefully, and only in cases where it made good business sense. Like many managers, I had a few employees who telecommuted with some regularity… because of exceptionally long travel distances … or in bad weather… or because the function (e.g. editing marketing materials) could be better done in a quieter home setting. But in these instances telecommuting was a privilege not a right, permitted only after consultation with management. And if it wasn’t working out, reins would be quickly pulled in.

Net-net, my own experience was that telecommuting was fine, but that it had to be managed. Was there potential for abuse? No doubt. But preventing it was, after all, the role of management.

Results, not miles, are the measure of management. If a person delivers consistently great results, it doesn’t really matter to me whether he or she is working from Tanzania or Saturn. If they can’t, it doesn’t matter if they’re sitting five feet away.

When I hear about employees having “a right to telecommute,” it does give me pause for thought. My strong suspicion is the issue isn’t telecommuting, or distance, or even employees. It’s management.

Or lack thereof.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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