COVID and remote work: no longer advocating the indefensible

Until now I kept my bloodshed to myself, preferring for my blog the more constructed and argued things, even if they can be disturbing. I have always preferred to blame the system rather than individuals because as the famous “tell me how you measure me I’ll tell you how I’ll behave” illustrates very well, the actions of individuals, however stupid they may seem, are mostly conditioned by factors external to them.

One cannot always hide behind the system

When you put a person into a system that through control and measured goal setting pushes people to behave in certain ways in a totally rational way, it is not surprising that they do so. And most of the time they are aware of it, but they obey the system and the authority. From time immemorial, those who have done wrong have been punished on the basis of an a posteriori observation, whereas until the consequences are observed, they were considered normal. But we have never sanctioned the person or persons who created the context, the rules, which led to this.

But sometimes individuals alone are to blame. This is the case when they alone are responsible for their decisions, and take them in their soul and conscience on the basis of values, dogmas or appreciations that are theirs. Or simply because of a lack of courage.

Doing the same thing over and over again while waiting for different results

So France is reconfining. So be it. In full knowledge of the economic and psychological effects of the thing that take second place to the health emergency. Unquestionable. I won’t comment on this decision, which in the end is based on a certain logic, even if we can ask ourselves if “by dint of doing more and more of something that doesn’t work, we shouldn’t expect it to start working”. It is true that everyone likes to refer to this quote attributed to Einstein to stigmatize the fact that when we persevere in a path without results, we may one day have to tell ourselves that the path chosen is not the right one:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results

Note : most of the links in this post refer to french articles but I translated enough quotes in this post so anyone could get the full story

But there are things in what has brought us here that I find hard to understand.

A few weeks ago, I saw a classification of the main clusters according to figures from French Health Authorities (Santé Publique France), which caught my attention.

Not surprisingly, the main sources of transmission were business offices. That’s where people spend most of their day.

So of course there is a strict sanitary protocol, but I will not be taken away from the idea that it is very difficult to enforce. 8 to 10 hours with a mask in an office is theoretically possible, humanly unbearable in the long term. And when in a day you spend 8 hours with your colleagues and 3 with your family, mask or not, you can think that at one moment one is not more protective than the other. All the more so because when the contamination happens it is not 3 or 4 but 10 or even 50 people who are exposed and then … in short you understand.

Where are the bars and restaurants? We are looking for them. For some they would be classified in “Public or private event”, for others they are not significant so do not appear. It was not possible for me to know more about it so I decided to put them in “Events” so as not to seem to minimize their role even if it means totally overestimating it.On the other hand, when you know that it was not necessary to use even once a reminder notebook in a Parisian restaurant to call clients back because a COVID case was detected, you can ask yourself questions.

When one privileges ease over efficiency….

So the bars were closed and the restaurants were limited. Why not after all. But when you focus on what is at best the 4th (and maybe the 10th) most important problem in order of importance, you might wonder why you don’t deal with the ones that are ranked first. And here you see me coming: why didn’t we “close” the offices? I say the offices, not the companies. In other words, why hasn’t remote work been imposed on the professions to which it can be applied? OK, it doesn’t concern all employees, but it already does a lot. This is the typical case of a decision that does not obey any rule except that of the free will of the decision-maker.

It reminds me of the story of the drunkard looking for his keys at the foot of a street lamp in the middle of the night. One, then two, then three, then 10 people come to help him but nobody finds anything. At one point someone asks him “but are you sure you lost them here?”. And he answers “not at all, I lost them somewhere else but here is the only place where there is light to look for them”.

Bars and restaurants should be the only places where there was light, that’s to say the easiest ones to close. Only consumers and small business owners were bothered. For offices, you understand there are the trade unions who are not always in favor of remote work, there should be a discussion between the unions and leadership on the psychosocial risks linked to remote work…. and after all it’s the job of the CHROs who has all the cards in their hands.

Easier to confine 70M people than to impose remote work

We are therefore able to confine nearly 70 million people in a snap (and thus de facto all those who can do remote work), but to impose remote work since the beginning of the 2nd wave, or even as a prevention measure since the beginning of the summer, or even not to let employees capable of remote work come back to the office, was too complicated! Yes, for some employees it was difficult and even painful, but choosing the lesser evil is better than saturating the intensive care beds.

So, on the eve of the announcement of an unavoidable lockdown, we have a Minister of Labour who announces that “we must go as far as possible on remote work for jobs that allow it. Going as far as possible: this lacks either ambition or courage or both. One takes less care with sectors that pose fewer problems than companies. We are talking about confining 70 million people, about putting a lead over a large part of the economy to curb the spread of the virus, but remote work will remain strongly wished for but not imposed. It is also announced that negotiations with unions and management will begin on the following Tuesday, i.e. 5 days after the start of the containment. I hesitate between saying that I would not like to dance with the Minister as she lacks a sense of rhythm or that she has the same sense of urgency and priorities as the orchestra of the Titanic which continued to play while the ship was sinking.

Culpable Inaction to Protect Employees: Exceeding the Limits

Then containment was announced. “Remote work will be generalized wherever possible“. It was about time, but the sentence lacks conviction. They are much more directive, even imperative on other subjects, as if they were afraid of tackling a subject that is annoying. By the way, we are no longer waiting for negotiations with unions and management?

Here again the words are beautiful. There is even talk of sanctions and fines for companies that do not implement remote work when it is possible. But words will all we will get. As this article points out, these statements have no legal value and do not impose any new constraints on companies. Believe it or not, it is legally impossible for the government to impose remote work. It can do almost anything, the state of emergency allows it to suspend almost all freedoms, but imposing remote work is impossible. This is the reality. But don’t tell me that in almost 6 months it would not have been possible to change the law to make such a decision possible, or else we live in a country where the power of the lawmaker applies to everything except remote work, which would be a subject above the laws and even above the constitution!

We must still make do with the “old” texts saying that the employer must do everything possible to preserve the health of his employees. Given what it was used for in the spring, it is unlikely to change in the autumn. A lot of noise for nothing since if the government has become a machine for producing protocols, these cannot be used as a basis for legal action. If airing the premises helps to fight COVID, if there are no rules that can be applied to companies, at least we know how to produce wind. So get this into your head if you thought you understood something else: no, there is no specific penalty for companies that do not implement remote work during this second confinement .And the minister can say what she wants on television, that won’t change anything: the government hasn’t made any legally valid decisions on the matter and is trying to hang up on old texts that it hasn’t made the effort to apply since the beginning of the crisis in order to put up a front.

When it comes to the health of employees and the risk of importing a virus caught in the office into their homes, in a family context where we are less vigilant, I don’t know if we are facing a lack of understanding of the subject, unclear communication or a lack of courage, but we are not far from needlessly endangering the lives of others through inaction. It doesn’t matter whether we were unprepared in March or not, but now we are beyond the limits.

Government passes the monkey to CHROs

So one preferred to pass the monkey to companies and thus to the HR departments so that they could do their own cleaning . It’s up to them to deal with the unions and the whining of certain managers who have a hard time playing little bosses with teams that they no longer visually control. It’s up to them to assume being in a legal “no man’s land” due to the lack of an emergency health emergency framework that would have allowed them to take drastic measures. But as we have said, closing bars and restaurants and reconfining 70 million people is simpler than having imposed remote work by virtue of a precautionary principle that we have been used for everything and anything since the beginning of the pandemic but which disappeared as far as remote work was concerned.

So the CHROs took their responsibilities, at least those that others did not have the courage to take. Strict protocol, meticulous preparation, vigilance at all times. But once again, a full day with a mask, for several months…slackening or “careless mistakes” were inevitable. With the results that we know.

So yes, it is not easy for everyone to work remotely. As some don’t want to go back to the office, others don’t want to work at home. My experience with the subject has led me to a simple conclusion: there is no rule that works for everyone in this matter. Imposing or prohibiting uniformly, imposing the same model on everyone does not work. We must leave everyone the choice to come back or not, all the time, from time to time, never. But that’s in normal times. But remote work in times of health crisis is not “normal times”. There is a public health issue at stake.

In this interview an employee said “I miss very much not seeing my colleagues, not having social interactions with them”. It’s totally human, understandable and audible in normal times. In times of health crisis, it is precisely to avoid what this lady is looking for in the office that bars were closed and a curfew was instituted. But remote work was not imposed.

But if the government didn’t want to impose it, each company was then free of its policy, right? And what I heard reassured me. Maximum security, no risk, free choice for the employee. Not forcing anything, since we know that by definition coming back to the office involves a risk, even if HR has done everything for it tends towards zero, but making sure that those who for whatever reason want to get out of their homes find a healthy workspace in the office. That was the promise and it was beautiful. Thank you to the HR managers who proved they were responsible HR.

70% of employees back at the office. On their own free will?

Result? Only 12% of employees are still working remotely on a full-time basis (I guess that includes those who have the choice to practice as they please and those who don’t). 70% are back in the office. By the way, 12+70 makes 82…does that mean that 18% are missing after losing their way between home and an office they forgot the way to?

Enough joking: don’t tell me that if they really left their free will to the employees 70% came back on their own free will and only 12% wanted to continue the experiment. This does not correspond to anything, not even to the most negative and burdensome study figures in relation to remote work.

Arnaud Rayrole, from Lecko, a consultancy company known to be at the forefront of “digital” ways of working, pointed out a few days ago on Linkedin that :

“By the end of March, the time spent by French people in the office had decreased to -69%. Will the measures of this new confinement lead to the same consequences?

The decrease in workplace attendance is due to remote work and the decline in activity. In June and September, attendance was back to -15% of what it was in January. Whatever the share of remote work, it remains low“.

So what happened between the HR discourse and this reality?

Double game? One message for public opinion and another for employees?

The fear of perpetuating a system with which they are uncomfortable, which creates too many legal uncertainties?

The refusal to oppose certain managers who, for their part, wanted their teams to come back because for them there was no other option than presenteeism?

The refusal of an argument with the unions who see in the subject a reason to exist and who are not yet ready for a world of remote militancy?

In any case, beyond the fine intentions and the words that go with them, there was not the will or the means to fight to move from intention to action and to defend a principle of health precaution that would allo an employee who did not want to come back, or not every day, to do so.

Let there be no mistake. This is not a plea for remote work, of which I am the first to know that it is not simple to implement on a large scale, because it is up to each employee to invent, for himself, the life that goes with it, provided that the company has the maturity to avoid a “one size fits all” approach. It is a matter of dealing with a health reality. We are not talking about convenience or comfort, but about public health. We are talking about the health of employees. The health of their families.

The only good news is that by pretending to impose remote work, the government has just implicitly acknowledged that it should have done so before. We all knew that, but obviously this fact must have been overlooked by our Mr. Deconfinement, who earned his prime ministerial credentials in the process. It is not only in business that people are promoted after a failure.

Those who don’t want to come back will be the first to be fired.

A representative of the National Association of CHROs says in this article: ““It is better to let company managers and union representatives choose the best method in view of the reality of their company, its location and its activity“. Evidence that the profession has picked the wrong fight. This line of conduct applies to remote work in normal times and corresponds totally to the challenges of the new forms of work that must be understood as closely as possible to the reality on the ground. But here we are not talking about remote work “in normal times”, we are talking about remote work in times of health crisis where convenience must take second place to the search for zero risk.

It is regrettable, but it is the responsibility of the individual if he or she catches COVID through risky behaviour. Catching it because they were forced to engage in the behaviour is not acceptable. It is even criminal.

“Those who don’t want to come back will be the first ones fired”. No need to play the innocent: this has been said implicitly or explicitly in many more companies than one thinks. Sometimes by managers that HR has not opposed. Sometimes by HR in a hurry to go back to the old world, even if it was said in a more politically correct way. Sometimes by both making common cause.

Nowadays we know what happened to it and companies have managed to do worse than bars and restaurants as far as the spread of the virus is concerned. Hats off.

Should we expect something else with this second containment? We have seen that government announcements were just a smokescreen, but what about at the business level? I expect the worst. As an example:

  • I was listening to the radio this morning to the testimony of an employee of a large company. His management does not trust employees to be productive from a distance, so during the confinement it will be mandatory to be present in the office two days a week.
  • A friend of mine who works for a big company informs me that for them it will be a one day mandatory presence.
  • I saw an internal memo circulating from another large group that said more or less: “the health crisis is a real challenge, but it must not make us forget the economic imperative. Be all ready to come to the office as soon as you are asked to do so… in fact it would be good not to leave it”.
  • A candidate I was interviewing said to me a few days ago: “I’m on assignment at a client’s, in-house staff are entitled to full remote work but service providers have to come to the office”.

Yes, they’re picking up the wrong fight. When things are back to normal, it will be time to discuss remote work, its modalities, its supervision, but we are not talking about remote work here. We must not confuse “normal” remote work and remote work under health constraints. The one is discussed and negotiated, the other is not. The stakes are not the same.

When everyone is guilty no one wants to point the finger at the other.

So yes, some HR have been and are quasi-criminals through inaction. But who will turn against them? A sick employee? He alone will weigh nothing. A trade union? They are accomplices because they didn’t want remote work. The government? It’s the one who, through inaction, passed the monkey to them.

Between the lack of courage of some and the quasi-criminal hypocrisy of others, we cannot defend the indefensible: in far too many cases the health of employees has been less than a concern. So much so that we will forget those who really did the job and did everything possible to avoid exposing their employees to a risk that could have been avoided.

The worst thing is that they have not even been sacrificed in the name of economy, but simply in the name of an obsolete conception of business, work and managerial relationships. There is nothing systemic in this, just the result of individual decisions or non-decisions on the part of people who had the power to take their employees in one direction or another.

So I don’t know about you, but it really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. So let’s force ourselves to look on the bright side: some of them have earned their title of “company carer” in a deserved way. As for the others….

Photo : Lies by Anton Watman via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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