What is remote work the end of?

For years, remote working has been expected as a deliverance, especially in France where the lag behind other countries was notable. But now that the pandemic has led to its generalization, it is being accused of all the wrongs and some see it as the ultimate evil.

For them, the generalization of telework would be the end of many things that they consider positive for the company and the employee, even indispensable. And so anything that goes against it would be unnatural.

Of course, we are talking about exclusive or high-dose telework, a “limited” telework allowing to limit the negative effects…as well as positive ones.

In this post :

The end of informality

TRUE

In a remote organization, any transmission of knowledge or information that might have happened by chance or opportunistically no longer happens.

We have also seen that companies with little or no formalized processes have had difficulty moving to remote work and, even worse, onboarding employees. Please note: when I talk about formalized processes, I’m not talking about rigid processes, just writing down the way things are done, which doesn’t exclude flexibility.

In the same way, the corporate culture no longer spreads as naturally over time by immersing the employee in the work environment.

The end of the office

FALSE

So of course in companies that have decided to switch to full remote working and no longer have an office (or never had one) the question does not arise.

For the others, the office will remain but its use will change. It will be used for meetings, shared moments, reception of customers and not or little to work in any case not to work alone in one’ corner.

It is the end of the office where people were lined up in open spaces to do, side by side and often without talking, things they can do elsewhere. The end of what I call battery hen farming.

On the other hand, it will become a place of collaboration, life, and socialization.

While we are on the subject, I am not sure that this is the end of office real estate in the centers of large cities. It will certainly require smaller surfaces and it will allow companies that have fled to the suburbs for budgetary reasons to return to the center because it is more convenient for employees, clients, and even more prestigious. Having to accommodate 50 people instead of 500 changes everything.

The end of the presenteeism culture

NOT SURE

There are managers who think that people are not working when they don’t see them, which has a consequence: they stay in the office for a long time to make it look like they are working, and in any case they don’t leave until their manager has left.

One would think that remote working would kill off this old-fashioned practice for good, but nothing is less certain. With the explosion of remote working, we have seen the proliferation of digital surveillance tools.

So it’s a matter of culture and from my perspective the right answer to a wrong question (or the other way around) but you should expect to see very different things happen depending on whether a company trusts its employees or not.

The end of busy-ness

TRUE

Busy-ness is the art of being busy or showing that you are busy and is often contrasted with business, which is really working. It often goes hand in hand with presenteeism.

Remote work shifts employees into a results-oriented culture, which should put a definitive end to it.

That said, with surveillance tools or even an inappropriate way of scoring productivity, one can have doubts but I remain convinced that their adoption will be limited.

But in any case, I am convinced of one thing: employees will be judged more on what they produce than on the fact that they show that they are doing something. In a way, this is also the triumph of the obligation of results over the obligation of means.

The end of managers

IT DEPENDS WHICH ONES.

Just about anything and everything is an excuse to predict the disappearance of managers. But no, generalized remote working will not lead to their disappearance. Well… not all of them.

What we’ve learned during the various more or less forced remote work phases we’ve experienced lately is that :

  • Many leaders or managers realized that they could be more effective by directly driving the operational people by bypassing one or more levels of managers.
  • When some of these people found themselves on partial unemployment, the organization realized that it could function very well without them.

Again, this is not related to telework, but the move to a remote organization just highlights issues that existed before. And this issue is not that we should or can do without managers but, like the “bullshit jobs” of those who have no value other than passing on information, doing control and reporting.

It remains to be seen how widespread this phenomenon will be. What was possible and necessary during an exceptional period may not be sustainable in the long term and I don’t think that a company with leaders systematically in direct contact with the field is sustainable. At some point, they will need a buffer between them and the field in order to regain some height.

But it is certain that the uselessness of certain roles has been proven and that remote work will accelerate their disappearance. (I’m talking about roles, not people).

The end of the personal life

FALSE

What we’ve been hearing a lot lately is that employees can’t tell the difference between their work life and their private life, cut off from work and wonder if they’re “sleeping in the office or working in their living room.”

That’s true, but I don’t agree with the analysis that links remote work with the end of personal life. When I spoke with people concerned by the problem I realized that for many people once their work day is over they have nothing to do. Of course they can watch TV, visit Facebook….but these are not real goals, interests, passions but hobbies.

On the other hand, this did not seem to be a problem for people who had real goals. Enjoy cooking, working out, reading a book on a specific topic, finishing a specific series, writing a blog, painting, taking care of the kids, organizing travel photos….

As far as I’m concerned, I know that I wasn’t concerned by the problem because, at the end of my working day, I said to myself “great, I’ll be able to go on with such and such a subject” which was a strong incentive to cut off and move on to something else. On the other hand, I understand that when you finish a day of telecommuting to find yourself in a kind of vacuum, it is tempting or easier not to disconnect.

In my opinion, high-intensity remote working is not the end of the personal life, but an incentive to have one.Before, you could be satisfied with just leaving the office and going home to do nothing, now you will stay home or go out to do something. Because telework will not always rhyme with curfew and confinement, and we saw it clearly at the end of the curfew: people who used to be content to go straight home after their day’s work got into the habit of going out for a walk, a drink with friends, etc. after a day’s work at home.

Remote working is not the cause of the absence of an active and intense personal life, but it does make life more difficult for those who do not have one. So it’s not remote working that is to blame, but the employee who must learn to cultivate his or her personal space.

The end of the sense of belonging to the company

FALSE

The employee has different levels of grip to cling to his company, to develop his engagement…or his disengagement.

These are the company, the team in which one works, one’s manager, the projects on which one works. At a distance, it is obvious that the link with the company will be weakened and that the other factors will become increasingly important.

I am quite convinced that in intensive remote working, the importance of being part of a given company will still count in relation to the benefits, to its social and salary policy, to the careers it offers. But this is about rationality and objectivity, not affect and subjectivity.

I am quite convinced that in intensive remote working, the importance of being part of a given company will still count in relation to the benefits, to its social and salary policy, to the careers it offers. But this is about rationality and objectivity, not affectivity and subjectivity.

Emotion and subjectivity will be at the level of the team, the manager and the project, the task. The role of the manager in building engagement will therefore become essential.

The employee’s engagement will not necessarily decrease, it can even increase depending on the interest of what he does, of his manager and of his relations with his direct colleagues. On the other hand, everything will be called into question if the manager changes, if the employee is assigned to another project…

Engagement will not be less strong but more temporary, questioned more regularly, to be rebuilt more frequently.

The mission and the context in which it takes place will be more important than the company for which one does it. People will come to accomplish something interesting with people they want to do it with, they will leave when it is done or when the people are less motivating, inspiring, nice.

In this context, I agree with those who say that employees will increasingly behave like freelancers: working on an ad hoc basis, by project, and wanting to move on as soon as their work context and immediate work environment no longer suits them.

The end of salaried employment

FALSE

I just talked about freelancing and that ties in with something else I’ve heard a lot: remote working is the end of the salaried workforce and companies will only hire freelancers.

Let’s put things in context: for many people freelancing is a choice they made long before the pandemic. For them, freelancing is a choice and not an obligation.

Secondly, freelancing does not mean degrading work, poorly considered and poorly paid. On the contrary, it concerns more and more highly specialized expertise on critical missions.

Finally, companies did not wait for the pandemic and remote working to “variabilize” the non-essential and non-critical part of their workforce if it was part of their strategy. And conversely, they want to “secure” their most critical talents and retain them.

But I would like to draw your attention to the opposite phenomenon. There were employees, and often among the most expert, who could not stand the subway-work-sleep routine anymore, who wanted to change their life environment and were considering quitting to build a freelance future… that remote working encouraged them to stay employed by allowing them to keep a job they love and would have given up reluctantly, while doing it in an environment they love.

Telework is not the end of the employee, far from it. It should not be confused with policies that have existed for a very long time and will continue to exist until we see their possible limits.

Freelancing will continue to grow and remote working has nothing to do with it.

The end of employment in France

FALSE

Another common misconception I hear is that remote working will allow cheaper employees to be recruited from abroad.

Let’s be honest: I’m sure some people are thinking about it. But I can also tell you that some companies that have tried it have ended up going backwards because it’s not as easy as it looks and they often lost so much in terms of quality of execution that even the savings weren’t enough to justify the move.

But what I have also seen is that the possibility of freeing oneself from borders has made it possible to recruit rare skills. Here we are in a logic of skills, not money savings.

But it also interests French employees who have a “desire to go elsewhere” and who can thus live their expatriation project without leaving their job. A win-win situation. But this will only concern a minority.

The end of creativity

TRUE IN THE MEDIUM TERM

If we disregard the personal context (housing, children at home…) working from home alone, on individual tasks is quite easy. Collaborating is more difficult, coordinating with others even more so, and at the other end of the spectrum of collaborative remote work is creativity.

Being creative with others, even in the office, has never been spontaneous and requires a certain context and the implementation of certain management and facilitation techniques and tools.

It’s even more complicated at a distance. In too many companies people try to do online what they did in the office, in the same way, and it doesn’t work.

The good news is that many tools are available today to facilitate online creativity meetings. But they are not yet widespread enough and sometimes require a change of approach and mindset that has not yet been achieved.

It is possible to be creative with several people at a distance, but this requires a change in practices that will take some time.

The end of the introverts

FALSE

According to some, remote work and meetings stifle certain types of personalities that can no longer exist, weigh in, or make themselves heard.

I think it’s quite the opposite.

Remote work leads to a multiplication of formal and informal, synchronous and asynchronous, oral and written discussion channels.

What I see is that people who previously couldn’t speak up in meetings now exist more in chat rooms and “written” channels that allow them to better weigh their words and take their time before expressing themselves.

What I see is that in remote meetings we are more careful about the distribution of speaking time than in the office, we interrupt less if at all those who speak.

The remote meeting also stops giving an advantage to those who traditionally impose themselves by their physical appearance or their glibness. As a friend of mine recently said, “from a distance, I am allowed to speak and no one sees that I am barely 5’5″ next to my neighbor who is 6’1”.

So rather than the end of the introverts, I’ll call it the end of the loudmouths. As the study mentioned in this article shows, from a distance you exist by your ability to get things done, not by your ability to occupy space.

The end of a certain type of employee

MAYBE

Today, there is an image of the ideal employee. He is devoted to the company, likes to be with his colleagues, he is a “team player” rather than a “solo player”, we like him a little sensitive but not too much (which proves that he is “human”).

This type of profile has no problem to work remotely but not 100% and not for too long. Then he feels bad, suffers, wants to come back to the office, wants to see his colleagues other than on a screen.

Some of them are now experiencing real distress, suffering, in front of which their employers cannot remain inactive. But this also impacts their work if they are not at the point where the work stoppage was necessary.

At this stage, companies cannot avoid thinking about the qualities that make an employee effective in remote work in the long term. Employees who are “all-in”, who function less or not at all on the basis of affection, do their job efficiently with a “professional” level of interaction with their colleagues but do not need a social life at work.

In the last few days, I have heard two managers in different companies tell me more or less the same thing: “given the current context of uncertainty, I am going to need people who are capable of going through the turbulence and storms without being affected, a little different from those I have been recruiting until now. A little less “alive” in the collective but solid in the distance”.

Of course we are talking about a given context. But with hindsight it is obvious that :

  • companies will try to identify the criteria that make a person capable of working remotely at a more or less high intensity.
  • if these profiles do not necessarily fit the image of the ideal employee, the question will arise as to whether a certain proportion (and which proportion) is not needed to build a backbone that will enable them to weather new storms in the future.
  • The most extreme or those who have decided that the future is permanent remote working will only favour these profiles to avoid having to manage distressing situations at a distance in the future.

The end of the company as a place for socialization

TRUE and FALSE

Logically, if no one comes back to the office or only those who want to, it will be difficult for the company to remain the place of socialization that it has always been.

This does not mean that it will no longer be the case, but it will have to learn to be different, to bring its employees together not to work but to get to know each other and experience things together, to create virtual meeting moments (even if the right scale to do so is that of the manager). It will eventually take on a role but nothing will ever be the same again.

And to give you the bottom line, I think it’s great news. I have always been worried about people who only had their company in their life. Outside of the company and their colleagues, they have no social life, which is why they feel really bad when they work from home, are really traumatized when they lose their job and tend to refuse to leave their company for the wrong reasons.

If remote working results in a reduction of the place of colleagues in the social life of the employee and that it encourages them to have a life “of their own”, “by themselves” next to their work, I think that will be an excellent thing for them. When your professional life is in turmoil, what makes you resilient is what you have next to your work.

The truth: few people know what remote work is

With almost a year’s hindsight it is easy to say that remote working, while it has worked well, has not been the dream it was intended to be. But one should be careful not to draw too hasty conclusions: almost nobody (at least in France) knows what telework is.

The only people who really know this are those who were working from home before the pandemic.

For the others, they simply experienced a relocation of their work from the office to their home without organization or preparation, under health constraints, and with, most often, the prohibition to have a life outside their home when they were not working.

Telework is not a simple HR benefit, a gift to deserving employees or according to their status in the company, but a production mode.

A mode of production is planned, tested, requires practice and even individual and collective training. None of this has taken place. Everything was done in the greatest improvisation.

So before we can project the effects of telework in the long term, we need to know what we are talking about and have experienced it in an organized and normal context. In France this is not the case for almost anyone.

The truth (2): the end of a paradigm

I don’t think that, if we assume that remote work will become, if not the norm, then at least a widely available possibility for everyone, we can judge the effects or at least say whether they are positive or negative in the light of what a company and company life have been like so far.

The “family” side of the business is no longer what it used to be and at least not what people are looking for. They know that they will no longer have a career in one company.

Do you have to be in the workplace to work? No for a large number of professions. This may seem obvious, anecdotal, but it determines a whole conception of management, of the role of the company, and even of the offices.

Companies no longer have to provide a place of work. A person can work without being seen. The office no longer has the purpose of housing (cramming?) employees so that they work under the supervision of managers.

There is a lot of talk about a sense of belonging and I think it is interesting to reflect on the meaning of the words. While this suggests an employee’s desire to belong to something, to a collective, it often hides the company’s desire to own its employee, his time, his life, his attention, exclusively. This concept is outdated at a time when the demand for a balance between personal and professional life is increasingly strong and when the company is increasingly asked to stay in its place and allow personal life to take its place.

The idea we have of what is good or bad for the company or the employee is the result of a construction that is almost a century old and is no longer relevant to say what is good or bad today.

Image : sad employee from Meteoritka via shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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