So You Want To Telecommute? Part 1 - Building Trust

I had been planning for a while to write a series of articles about my experiences with telecommuting. Prompted by Cal Evans blog post about remote developers I decided it was time.

My current position as a "software engineer" for XML Team Solutions is a 100% telecommuting job. In fact, all of us telecommute:

  • I'm in Milton (about 40 minutes or so west of Toronto)
  • two in Toronto
  • one in Sauble Beach, Ontario, Canada (a small town on the eastern shores of Lake Huron)
  • one in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
  • one in Beverly Hills, California, USA
  • one Connecticut, USA

Now, when you have a company where none of your fellow employees works in the same city, let alone the same country, you quickly find out what the key issue really is: trust. If you don't trust that the people who work with are professional enough to GET SHIT DONE then telecommuting will not work. It really is that simple. I've met my boss in person a grand total of 3 times. Sure, there have been some video chats and phone calls but we've only actually been together on three occasions: our corporate retreat just after I got hired, once to attend a trade show in Florida, and once just recently to attend a trade show in Pittsburgh. Unlike a lot of people, I do not dread meeting my boss. ;)

Look, I know that some people who manage developers are convinced that if they were to allow telecommuting on a regular basis that people would instead spend time screwing around instead of getting work done. This attitude is unfortunately very common. Even more disappointing are the people who *do* screw around when telecommuting instead of actually working. I guess they don't realize how it's hurting their chances of doing it going forward.

The "command-and-control" management style that seems to be applied at some software companies creates an adversarial relationship between employees and employer. By forcing you to come into an office to work every day, it is a not-so-subtle message that you are not trusted to get things done without supervision. I've been through this in my own professional career, and sometimes this attitude is warranted. If you've had the misfortune of having (or working with) a group of employees more interested in goofing off than doing the job that the business requires, then you know what I'm talking about here. However, I'm more interested in the idea of the value of trust in telecommuting and hiring employees that you can trust to get work done.

Now before you start dismissing what I'm saying here, I understand that there is usually a really good reason to have all your developers in one place other than you want to keep an eye on them: meetings. But then again, don't people have conference calls all the time? Or is there something about collaborative developer work that people think does not work with telecommuters? In my next installment I will talk about what I think are the critical tools for managing collaboration amongst telecommuting developers.