The strikes we experienced in Paris at the beginning of this year have led many companies to experiment teleworking willingly or unwillingly and the Coronavirus episode puts the subject back on the table in an even more critical way. This is an opportunity to come back to the subject and perhaps finally bring it back to its proper level.
Remote working: a rare employee benefit that has been hard-fought from the company
Let’s face it: except in sectors where remote working is the norm (consulting…) or in young companies built on a ” no office ” model (without knowing how scalable the model is), remote work is a benefit that has been hard wrenched from the businesses by the employees. When it has been conceded to them, it has been granted only sparingly and in the name of the company’s competitiveness in a tight talent market…and of savings on office space.
In short, it is a “soft benefit” that is most often seen only from an HR perspective, especially in France, where the implementation of such a system from a legal point of view is a road strewn with so many pitfalls that we forget the real questions it raises.
Lessons from the January strikes
The January strikes left businesses with little choice. Of course there was the possibility of forcing employees to take a leave of absence if they could not get to work. But for remote work compatible jobs this meant two things: they stopped working and there was a clear guarantee that at the first opportunity they would look to a more open-minded employer.
So many companies that used to practise telework in a regulated way (limited number of days per week or reserved for certain people) have extended the system and others for whom it was not a usual practice had to start working on it and forced themselves to experiment it, otherwise their organisation would be running in slow motion.
The problem with remote work is not “remote”, it’s “work”.
That is when people realized that the problem had been caught at the wrong end all along. Many felt that the sticking point was just to accept, intellectually, that people work from home, or more broadly from a place that is not controlled by the company. Because distance has never been the problem.
In all large and many medium-sized companies distant working between colleagues is already a reality. We work on projects with people who are in other countries, other cities…but we all do it on the company’s premises! And that’s accepted.
One in an office in Paris, another in an office in Bordeaux and the third in an office in Stockholm is intellectually acceptable. The same in the same cities but at home instead of in an office it wasn’t.
And yet the experiences of remote teams should have borne fruit: in organizations that are not mature in this type of practice, the problem is not distance. If we can at least phone each other, make video conferences, share and co-edit documents, distance is not the problem. The problem is how we organize ourselves, how we collaborate and that, the work itself, technology does not solve it.
What we’ve learned from the strikes and will learn from the Coronavirus
So people were put at a distance in a somewhat improvised way and unexpectedly. And what did we learn? That as in traditional remote teams that were not mature enough, it didn’t work or it didn’t work well.
Yes, people talked to each other. Yes they saw each other on screens. But working is much more than that.
It’s organizing, it’s validating, it’s deciding. At the very least. For everyone. Individually and collectively.
For the manager, it also means changing his posture, his role, learning to trust, getting out of the control/presenteeism model.
It also means knowing how to manage one’ s availability. In an office everyone can see whether one is busy or not. Not remotely. And if one reacts to every email or chat of those who want to know if one is available, one spends one’s life being even more interrupted than at the office. To avoid this, for example, block work (unavailability) and availability slots in one’s diary on the one hand and check before contacting someone that the person has done the same and is available. These are things that should already be done when people work in the same space but are poorly done and that become critical when people are at a distance.
In short, when people are at a distance they can’t “just pretend” to be together thanks to technology. Using technology well and making it effective requires rethinking individual and collective practices.
But that’s not all. It takes practice and it’s not something that can be dictated overnight.
When technology doesn’t do everything
So yes, all large companies are equipped for remote working today. More or less well, with more or less powerful tools, but at least all of them can “tinker” in the face of a crisis situation. That’s not the point.
What I saw in January were companies that were equipped, employees used to chat, to video, to co-editing documents, regardless of the size and culture of the company, but that became dysfunctional as soon as distance was introduced into the equation.
Everyone knows how to work on their own with a minimum of coordination. Working together on a document and not on a version that goes from email to email becomes more complicated. Distributing tasks and monitoring the workload even more. Validating becomes difficult and deciding is impossible.
I was even surprised to see how often, despite the availability of adequate technology, the higher up the hierarchy, the less people were able to decide remotely without meeting in an office.
Technology has changed certain practices, but not the organization or management.
Conversely, in too few companies where employees have a mature practice of remote working, the organisation and management have adapted without problems to the impossibility for employees to reach their workplace.
A big hole in the continuity plans
All large companies have a business continuity plan, some intermediate companies but too few medium-sized companies and even fewer small ones.
What is a continuity plan? A plan that allows the company to continue to operate despite a major disaster or an event that disrupts its operations. In most cases they address the vital areas: production infrastructure, IT, legal and through two channels that are the technical means and procedures.
What we learn from recent events is that the risks we are facing today have been largely underestimated and their consequences (nobody can go to work) ignored, otherwise we would not have seen so much friction or hesitation when telling employees to stay at home (if the company’s activity makes remote working possible, of course).
Continuity plans are like fire evacuation plans: the procedure may exist, but without regular training it is not enough to simply pull it out of a drawer. Perhaps some plans include remote working, but in this case it was considered sufficient to send people home with a computer and an internet connection on a one-off basis instead of training them to work at a distance on a long-term basis.
The lesson from the January strikes and, without a doubt, from the Coronavirus handling is that for many companies remote working is just an ill-prepared response to an anecdotal risk, an HR giveaway that can occasionally help out in a crisis.
I hope that now everyone has understood that remote working is a real response to proven risks, but that without daily practice it’s just a cautery on a wooden leg and that it’s not something that can be dictated at the last minute.