Managing remote workers, e.g., teleworking IT staff, requires—by definition—“remote control” of them. But there’s a potential, big problem with this process—a problem evident in merely thinking about what “remote control” means.

Most conventionally and positively, it means “effectively controlling from a remote location”. Most negatively, it means “disconnected control”, i.e., poor control in virtue of management’s or the worker’s being “remote” in the sense that drives frustrated husbands and wives crazy—namely, in the sense of one or both parties’ being disengaged, distant, indifferent, really busy, or, for whatever other reasons, not communicating enough, at least from the perspective of one of them.

Unfortunately, positive remote control can easily deteriorate into negative remote control, especially with rapidly growing enterprises in which even onsite face-to-face communication and interaction decreases as the pace and scope of operations increase.

The authorized autonomy that comes with remote work can, if over-estimated or misinterpreted by management or the employee, backfire, and instead of increasing productivity, loyalty, efficiency and implementation of the organizational mission, create uncertainty, doubt, anxiety, confusion or a misdirection of effort and resources.

Two Failed Remote-Control Scenarios

For example, imagine Ranjeet in New Delhi has taken on a UK  software project as a key programmer. Management has a lot of faith in him, because he’s good and deserves it. From management’s standpoint, this is as close to a “fire-and-forget” project missile launch as could be hoped for—fire off the task, forget about having to monitor or spoon-feed or baby-sit Ranjeet. He knows what to do.

After completing the first module, Ranjeet has questions, despite his confidence that he’s met, and even exceeded the stated expectations. That’s because, in the meantime, he’s had a great innovative idea for a change in at least the modules to follow, which he believes would be a huge plus. Also, he’s concerned about some ambiguities in the project specifications for one of the subsequent modules.

So he forwards a request for consideration of his ideas and his concerns. At first, there is no reply. Concerned that his email got lost, he re-sends it. Time passes; then he receives a warm acknowledgment of receipt of his PDF proposal and update. But, after that, nothing more.

Over time, Ranjeet starts to feel more like a rejected job applicant who never hears back from a recruiter than like a valued team member. Overwhelmed with his own work and unaware of Ranjeet’s stress, the UK manager is guilty of “benign neglect”—best of intentions manifested or even idealized as “hands-off”, non-interference in a task handed off to the very capable Ranjeet. Now, the ambiguities of the project specifications have spawned new ambiguities, simmering suspicions and growing resentments regarding the working relationship.

In a different, flipside scenario, it is Ranjeet who is misinterpreting the autonomy granted him and confuses it with license and with having a completely free hand in handling the modules. In the previous scenario, Ranjeet was experiencing “out of sight, out of my mind!” stress; in this one, it’s management’s turn, after Ranjeet goes incommunicado for extended periods of time or responds to queries and requests with haiku-length emails—if only because it is he who is really, really busy.

So busy, that he is predisposed, through “cognitive dissonance reduction”, to underestimate the urgency of management’s communications. Now, the second, negative meaning of “remote control”—in this case, Ranjeet’s remote, i.e., uncommunicative, control of the tasks assigned him—gradually dawns on management.

Fortunately, even though these confusing, potentially catastrophic scenarios can all too easily come into play, they are equally easy to prevent: All that both parties have to do is to remember the distinction between “positive remote control” and “negative remote control”, respect it and make sure that they do nothing to cause a slide from the former to the latter.

And how, exactly is that to be accomplished? It’s simple.

If you don’t ask questions, at least answer them. If you don’t request feedback, at least provide it.

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