State of the art of remote work in France before thinking about what’ next

Remote work is one of the major issues of 2020, at least in countries like France where the lag on the subject compared to other countries is abysmal, which leaves the door open to many questions and a turf war between the pros and cons. But where are we really at?

No, companies have not adopted remote work as a result of lockdown.

During and after the lockdown I read everywhere that remote work had finally won the game and that there would be no turning back, which I had only moderate faith in. And, although the landscape is still quite blurry, the facts unfortunately proved me partly right.

One can make the numbers say what one wants and always find a poll or survey that will disprove another. However, there are phenomena that are quite clear.

  • Companies have not adopted remote work, they have been forced to do so. They had to make do with it. The proof, who authorized a massive remote work during the transport strikes we experienced just before the epidemic? Nobody or almost nobody. CQFD.
  • The practice of remote work in a period of confinement, forced, unprepared, with no previous practice has nothing to do with an organized practice. It may have been very hard for those who were not used to it, who were not in the right conditions to telework, who had to face a radically new remote work situation, whose company was not ready and organized for remote work. One cannot compare a remote work chosen in “normal” times and a remote work “undergone” a fortiori when one is forbidden to go out of one’s home.

At the end it is not possible to have a definite opinion. However, it seems that the employees liked it, that the managers saw their mistrust melt away and that everyone is aware that there are still points of vigilance to be had.

So why is it still a topic? It’s between one and the other that it gets stuck.

At the level of middle managers who are unable to adapt their practices and are in a hurry to rediscover a culture of visual control and presenteeism that reassures them.

At the level of trade unions who are overwhelmed by the stakes and who see in the subject both a risk of losing physical contact with employees (no more leaflets on the parking lot…) and an opportunity to exist again thanks to the emergence of a new way of organizing work (because remote work is not an HR benefit but a way of organizing production) provided that they fight it rather than support it.

At the level of some old school HR Directors but not as many as one would like to make believe.

Let’s remember that at the end of the confinement, we heard the official voice of some companies advocating the maintenance of remote work at everyone’s convenience while some managers and/or HR said “those who do not come back will be the first ones fired if necessary“. If companies are today the first COVID clusters, ask yourself whose fault it is….(but that’s another debate).

To make a subtle distinction: people are generally in favor of remote work, provided that certain conditions are specified, but it is the organizations that are blocking it. By organization I mean the culture, the intermediary cogs, the force of habit, unsuitable operating methods, and even people who are in absolute favor but officially against it because they are not at ease in managing organizations from a distance.

For example, I’ve already heard a number of managers say, “as far as I’m concerned, I like to work remotely, but I can’t manage to manage a team remotely”.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to remote work.

Before going any further, let’s be clear: there is no one approach to remote work that works in every company or for everyone in the same company.

There are companies whose culture and organization make it difficult today. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go further, but it will take time. For example, a manager spoke to me about the lack of formalism in the organization and processes of his company ( Be careful, formalism does not mean heaviness and complication, just formalizing the way things are done): when we are at a distance, the transmission of information, practices and knowledge that is not organized no longer happens by chance in an informal way like when we are at the office. They have started to work, but they are aware that it will take months to reach the level of formalism, documentation and sharing necessary to work remotely at scale. But in the meantime they have understood what is indispensable either to face a new crisis or even to become more attractive to some candidates.

There are employees for whom this is more difficult than for others. A question of personality, autonomy, unfavorable context at home… For some it is out of the question in any context, for others it’s a small dose, for others a high dose or even never coming back to the office. Some did not like the remote work imposed without being able to leave home but appreciate it in a more normalized context, others did not like it before and have learned to like it despite the context.

Finally, it’s obvious but it must also be said that some jobs cannot be done remotely. Maintenance staff, reception staff, but also obviously all jobs that can only be done on site. As we wrote in “the confinement explained to my boss”, for construction workers, the concrete mixer in the middle of the living room does not work.

Remote work: an à la carte menu

In short, it is useless to make remote work fit into rigid rules because what works in one company will not work in another and in the same company two people doing the same job will not have the same appetite for remote work.

However, certain principles can be identified:

Any employee whose work can theoretically be done remotely must be able to do so in practice. By obligation (confinement), by organizational necessity (distant and frequent business trips), by personal convenience or company policy.

Nothing should be imposed. Except in the case of confinement imposed by the public authorities or health precautions in the context we know, each employee must have the choice to work from the place of his choice or at the office.

Remote work must be supervised intelligently. Not, contrary to what I can read here and there, to protect the employee from the company, but more often than not to protect him from himself (the desire to overdo it) or from a manager who doesn’t care about company policy.

Hybrid work is here

Remote work for everyone all the time is far from becoming a reality or even an acceptable future. And I don’t think it would be a good thing.

  • It was understood that 100% on-site presence was a constraint from which companies had to free themselves.
  • We understood that we could never again say “it won’t work”.
  • We are in a grey area that needs to be clarified, where everyone needs to be reassured but that we must not over-regulate.

This grey zone must remain a little grey to allow everyone to find their comfort zone outside of a “world before” that many no longer want and an overly extreme “after world” that not everyone wants.

Rather than philosophizing about this before that no longer exists and this after that does not exist, let us build on the present and this grey zone that exists and is there to last.

As I was saying to my friends at Talkspirit it a little while ago, hybrid work is a reality and that’s the only certainty we have. And I don’t think we need to have more of it. Today’s world of work doesn’t bear fundamentalism but promotes resilience and pragmatism, let’s remember that.

Photo : Threatened jobs de Sergey Nivens 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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