Theory X doesn't work with telecommuters

by Andy Lester

Thomas Wailgum's article, "Out of sight, out of control," in the May 1 issue of CIO magazine was an excellent illustration of why telecommuting can be a dismal failure. Wailgum imagines scenarios like a remote colleague who "seems distracted" on a phone call, presumably by texting on her BlackBerry, and how it's best to "'accidentally' shut down her BlackBerry service" in response. The message is clear: Remote workers just won't do the work you want them to do (at least so long as you distrust them).

At first I thought Wailgum might be joshing us, humorously holding up anti-patterns in management of remote workers (indeed, in any type of management), but I'm sad to conclude that he's serious. What's clear by the end of the article is that Theory X management, suboptimal for knowledge workers in general, is doomed to failure when applied with extra vigor to those workers that don't benefit from overview of his watchful eye. I imagine Wailgum in the 90s, assigning his IT staff to a search-and-destroy mission for C:\WINDOWS\SOL.EXE, secure in the knowledge that he's removed the siren call of Solitaire, preventing all slacking of his peons. Then, as now, his expectations of his grunts slacking during the day are sure to come true.

No one denies that telecommuting has its own challenges. It's radically different from life in a cube farm, and yet both rely on one concept to get the most from those on your team: You must expect the best from your team, and trust them to do it. Many of the challenges are the same. Just as people game the system to make it look like they didn't come in late to the office, people can use automated scripts to check and receive email to simulate their "being at work." The answer isn't to make the command-and-control system harder to get around, but to throw the system away.

People do their best work not because they have to, but because they want to, and it's a rare IT professional who wants to do their best work under the iron fist of someone who looks to Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss for inspiration. When telecommuting works, as it does for so many of us, it's a thing of beauty. Mr. Wailgum, I invite you to work with your team, not against them, and see what magic comes out of a team that doesn't have to be a slave to geography.


brian d foy
2006-05-08 16:16:46
At first I thought the CIO article must have been their humor column, but none of the other articles by Wailgum seem to be in the humor category.

You can expect the best, but you also need "trust, but verify" because you "can't expect what you don't inspect". Simply leaving workers alone doesn't mean they'll do their best. Often, you have to do different things with different workers. Wailgum's problem in this article is that he's passive aggressive and afraid of confrontation, and his answers are based on his need to establish and maintain a power base. His solutions are malicious. If he could get over that, maybe he wouldn't have so many problems with people not talking to him or not telling him the truth. I imagine he would have the same or similar problems with on-site employees.

Having said that, here's one of my favorite stories: in grad school I had to work with a scientist who liked to use the output of who(1) to see which grad students were working. Knowing Expect, I simply created a bunch of scripts and let them go off at seemingly random times. Not only did they log in, but they could run commands, interact with things, and even send messages to other users. I didn't do it in secret because I wanted to poison the well so he would stop doing that. Despite whatever he thought of me wasting time getting around all that, I learned quite a bit of Tcl that I used later to do real work that saved me literally weeks of time.

2006-05-12 05:57:56
Endlines is an often humorous or ironic or startling end page of CIO magazine. In this case, definitely humorous.
Tom Wailgum
2006-05-12 07:49:28
Well if it's true that any publicity is good publicity -- as long as they spell your name right -- then thanks Andy for the column.

A couple of things. First, our Endlines column is a humor column, and I was trying to be funny. (I won't quit my day job.)

Second, I think Andy makes some great points in his column about the challenges of the old school, command-and-control thinking when it comes to telecommuting and remote workers. Many enterprises today, however, are realizing that inflexible work arrangements just aren't cutting it with today's increasingly mobile workforce. Last week I was on the phone with credit-card company Capital One, talking about its Future of Work program. Using new technologies and new ways of thinking about office space, the program gives some amazing and flexible options to its workers. And execs at Capital One have had to work very hard at changing the ingrained culture of the company to make this work. The lesson they learned is that this kind of a working arrangement won't work for everybody, but for those who want it, it's a huge boost to morale, productivity and retaining employees.

And last, I'd like to point out that I am a telecommuter. I (and four other writers for CIO) work out of my home. And I love it.

Senior Writer, CIO
(My blog:

2007-02-25 00:12:37
I think the Theory X and even Theory Y are not affordable to the IT professionals, or other scientists, because they have unsual thinking style and different values than people of other profession. It professional desires to do what he want to do but not what others want him to do. this is the fact, that we should not forget. This is also case for me.
The best approach for the managment is to combine features of Theory Y and Thoery W (Win/Win theory).