Remote work: a mirror of the organizations’ weaknesses.

I was interviewed by Appvizer as part of a report on remote work and flexibility. Here is my contribution, originally published at AppVizer: Remote work: revealing the problems of your organization.

It has been a year since many companies and employees have, for some, discovered remote working and, for others, drastically increased the intensity of a practice they thought was familiar.

One year is enough time to have a feedback, especially since the question arises of determining a more perennial and adapted framework for this practice.

But in order to provide the right answers, it is necessary to ask the right questions, and to dispel any doubts about a subject that is still hot and with which it is not yet possible to have a “peaceful” relationship. And for that we need to take remote working for what it is, far from the idealized or catastrophic image that many have of it.

Remote working is a way of organizing production, not a benefit

Before the crisis, a number of companies were promoting their telework arrangements in their Employee Value Proposition and even more will do so tomorrow. This is both a good thing, because it shows that the subject exists, and a bad thing, because it reflects a major misjudgment of the subject.

The possibility of working remotely is thus relegated to the rank of a simple benefit, like a state-of-the-art smartphone or a company car. It can be a subject of negotiation in hiring, as well as a benefit that the company grants to the employee.

In the same way, when a company sets up a remote work scheme, one of the first questions that arises is “who will be eligible”. Unsurprisingly, the same people are always involved: autonomous and experienced managers and head office staff.

When talking about remote working, businesses focused on the “remote” while what was important was “work”. And, for those professions for which it is possible of course, work is no longer a question of place (or even time), but of organization and mindset.

When everyone had to switch to remote work, we realized that the question of location suddenly ceased to be an issue and was replaced by “real” issues:

  • how to work,
  • how to work together,
  • how to manage, etc.

The focus was no longer on where the employees were, but on how, in this context, the company would continue to produce, to “deliver”, to serve its customers. This should have been its one and only concern from the beginning.

With COVID, remote working has gone from being a conceded benefit to a key component of a Business Continuity Plan.

Remote work is a way of organizing “production”. A somewhat barbaric term borrowed from the industrial sector, but which reminds us that whatever its activity, a company “produces” something through its employees.

To continue the metaphor, there was a time when the industry underwent a transformation. Instead of designing and manufacturing everything in the same place, production centers were created around the world, as well as design offices according to the location of expertise, and it was necessary to reinvent itself in this context.

New organization, new logistics flows, new skills for engineers who have to collaborate not in an office, but across the world, new tools to make it all possible. To seize new opportunities, an entire production model has been reinvented.

It is with a similar view that we must look at remote working. It opens up new opportunities, provided that we review the way in which all the players are organized and equipped to produce together, but now at a distance.

To organize the activity, the production, requires to take into account three factors:

  • first, the organization of work: schedules, tools, collaboration and communication practices, processes, decision-making and reporting methods, etc. ;
  • then a culture in the broadest sense: which managerial model, how is leadership exercised in a distributed organization, do we trust individuals, etc. ;
  • then the tools: do they enable all the tasks concerned to be carried out as easily and smoothly as if everyone were on the same site?

Let’s not forget the “people” in the broadest sense: what “hard” and “soft” skills are needed to function in this context?

And finally, what has been too often forgotten: practice and training. Organization, skills and tools are no substitute for shared practice. You can’t change your organization overnight. I will draw a parallel here with fire drills.

Businesses do one per year, which in no way means that the mechanism is sufficiently well oiled, that everyone knows how to behave and fulfill their role, especially in real conditions.

This is what happened in many companies: many people knew in theory what remote working was, but had not acquired certain reflexes or developed a shared practice of remote working within a team. In general, remote working covers a multitude of collective and individual uses: each one must be the subject of a shared practice, of a tooling and the employees must be used to it.

Telework has therefore always been seen from a purely HR perspective, whereas it can concern :

  • the operations department,
  • the “process and methods” department
  • and was designed to concern “selected people” whereas, as we have seen, it should be applicable to everyone.

This is one of the reasons why remote working has not always been successful in the past. Indeed, when one person is remote, everyone is remote. It doesn’t matter if the manager is working from home and the team is in the office, or vice versa, unless there is a management problem, which we will discuss later.

On a personal note, when my company implemented remote working several years ago, we did so for operational reasons. When you’re collaborating across 20+ countries, you’re necessarily remote. From that point on, we had to be efficient, no matter where. And when the “where” is not in the same place, it didn’t matter if it was in an office or at home.

To implement it, we first evaluated and adapted our organization and our tools so that the presence in the office was never the result of an operational constraint. The objective was to be able to operate without anyone in the office, while telling ourselves that this would never happen… but who can do more can do less.

Finally, eligibility concerned all employees whose job allowed it (difficult for reception or maintenance staff), but absolutely all other jobs were concerned. Even IT, thanks to a 100% cloud-based choice, no longer needs to be on site. Only two conditions had to be met:

  • to have assimilated the corporate culture
  • and the key processes of its business.

No question of profession or status. The whole thing was completed by training on softskills.

As for training and shared practices, they were acquired over time with 3 days of remote working for all and a systematic switch to “full remote working” mode for those who wished it, as soon as a strike affected public transport.

What we should learn from the crisis is that :

Remote working does not create any (new) problem

As businesses have experimented with full and forced remote working, they have discovered the dark side of a promise that some saw only as a liberation. But before we talk about what went wrong and draw the consequences, we need to put things into context.

First of all, and especially during the first containment, French employees were confronted with the unpreparedness of their company: not only in terms of organization and tools, but especially in terms of practice. Even when everything was in place, the system was not fully appropriated on a large scale and the beginnings necessarily showed some ” jams “.

Secondly, what French employees experienced was not remote working, but a house arrest under health constraints. In the office or at a distance, work requires moments of breathing, and the individual needs social interactions.

This is not real remote work and the evaluation made of it is biased:

  • when you no longer see your colleagues,
  • when you can’t get some fresh air after a day’s work,
  • when the gym is closed,
  • when you only see your colleagues and no longer your friends,
  • when you no longer know if you are sleeping in the office or working in your room,

Having said that, let’s face it: not everything has been perfect and even “outside COVID”, companies that practiced remote work have noticed some “friction”.

This may come as a surprise, because at the other end of the spectrum, there are companies where widespread remote working has always worked. For most of them, like Automattic, the company behind WordPress, they are “young” technology companies, which is a factor to consider. But above all, they have never known the office. Some will say that they have developed “good practices” since the beginning, but I would rather say that they have never gotten used to bad practices!

If we consider remote working as a way of organizing production, one thing is clear: when we transpose the way the office works to a remote location, all its dysfunctions are amplified and put in the spotlight. When only some people are working remotely, they can be blamed when things go wrong. When everyone is there, we realize that the problem is not individual, but systemic.

Remote working does not create new problems in itself, but it does highlight all the dysfunctions of the office. Distance reveals the weaknesses of an organization. The proof is that all companies that work well remotely work well in the office, but an organization that works well in the office (or thinks it does) works poorly remotely.

Let’s take a few random examples.

Many managers were confused by the move to remote working and didn’t know how to do their job or embody their role. Why was this? Remote working imposes a results-oriented culture: we are no longer considered by our presence at work, but by the quality of the work done and the results obtained. This imposes :

  • a stronger sense of responsibility on the part of the employee,
  • but also a new posture for the manager who, as he cannot control permanently, must adopt a “helper” posture in a “servant leadership” approach and learn to trust.

It is therefore not surprising that we saw managers in pain: information did not necessarily circulate through them anymore, since physical contact had disappeared in the office, they were more and more bypassed (even by their own hierarchy) and did not see what their staff was doing anymore. They had the choice between :

  • a letting go that they were not used to,
  • or an “over-control” that devoured their energy and exhausted them as much as their staff.

But isn’t this change in the manager’s posture a subject that has been talked about for 10 or 20 years, but which has rarely become a reality for lack of a compelling need?

Remote collaboration has also shown its limits. But do we communicate and collaborate well in the office? Definitely not! But in the office, there is still the “off”: we can make an aside in the open space, take advantage of a meeting at the coffee machine to pass on a message or ask for clarification. The office allows contacts that help compensate for imperfect practices.

From a distance, you only see the imperfections. And when you see that once they are remote, many employees have discovered certain tools on their workstation and have had to have certain vital functions explained to them, you understand the difference between using and mastering a tool! Do we know how to use the right tools for the right purpose? Do we abuse email for the wrong reasons? Do we use collaborative editing of documents instead of sending them to each other by email?

Another point: the video meetings that became incessant, exhausting. Once again: do we know how to organize and conduct effective meetings in the office? No. Everyone complains about it, but deals with it. At a distance, this is obvious and amplified.

Many business processes have also been hiccuped. One of the main reasons was the lack of dematerialization of some of them, especially at the HR level.

To have processes that rely for all or part on paper, not to have generalized the electronic signature of documents is an incongruity in 2021.

But, again, as long as there is physical contact, it works even in an imperfect way. At a distance everything stops. Simply not being able to get an employment contract signed electronically, or worse, a contract with a client, has paralyzed businesses for weeks. Let’s not talk about video job interviews, or evaluation forms that only existed on paper. Delays in dematerialization have caused friction, dysfunction and stress, but can we blame remote working for work that hasn’t been done?

And finally, another subject that cannot be ignored: the malaise of employees and the beginning of their disengagement.

A topic due to the special circumstances mentioned above, but one that is too critical to dismiss out of hand. HR departments can be praised for putting out the fires, but once again, we have to wonder what the managers were doing.

In the office, the individual can take refuge in the collective. At a distance, exchanges become more operational, “efficient”, and one can only notice the void left by the manager. It is abnormal that they had to be reminded, even taught, to embody this dimension of their role. In the same way, the over-solicitation that many people have rightly complained about is only the proof that many “disconnection charters” are forgotten as soon as they are signed and that those who should be embodying them in the first place are the ones who most blithely disregard them.

Is remote work the problem or the indicator of the problem?

Let’s face it: our organizations are largely dysfunctional, but unlike a factory, when it’s in an open space and involves “knowledge workers”, it’s not something you can see just by walking around the office. There is no stockpile of product in front of a machine that says there is a problem somewhere, or a pile of scrap that says we are making non-quality, or that a process is inadequate.

In the office, employees spend an incredible amount of time informally “compensating” for organizational dysfunctions, which is more or less like hiding the dust under the carpet. From a distance, the dust remains and the carpet has been pulled out.

Should we blame remote work for removing the carpet, or the organization for making dust?

For 10 years we have been talking about the “future of work“, for 20 or 30 years companies have been stumbling over the deployment of collaborative tools, for 40 years they have been trying to better manage “knowledge workers”. What we have just experienced does not show us that remote working does not work, but that, due to a lack of imperative, they have failed to transform themselves on these dimensions.

The past year brings us to a choice between :

  • to decide that remote working poses many problems and decide to restrict it as much as possible;
  • to say that we were lucky enough to see all the weaknesses of the organization, of IT, of management, finally identified and exposed and decide to remedy them.

Once again, a company that works perfectly remotely will have no problem being in the office. The reverse is not true and 2020 has taught us that remote working is not always a matter of choice, but can become an obligation.

Remote working is not a one-size-fits-all T-shirt

After a year of more or less successful experiences, most businesses want to review the framework they give to remote work. For whom, how many days a week?

Recently, I was reading about a company that was going to ” authorize its employees to work remotely 2 days a week “. When we see the stakes of remote work in relation to the continuity of the activity, we can say that the “productive” stake has been forgotten, not to mention the stakes of attractiveness, because it really corresponds to the aspiration of some people.

It is understandable that remote work is not suitable for some people, and it should not be imposed on them (fortunately, no one is considering this). But for others, because of their way of working, their own qualities, their job, what they have to do at a given time, it will not be enough.

But it is about the discomfort that some people experience when working from home or their need to meet with colleagues. But, let’s remember, from the moment a person is at a distance, everyone should know how to work at a distance, unless you exclude that person.

At two days of remote work per week, two people may only see each other 20% of the time. At three days, they may never see each other. This means that no matter what anyone’s aspirations are, everyone must achieve the same level of mastery, and the “remote work optimized” organization must be imposed on everyone.

But let’s go further. A person’s appetite for remote work is partly due to things that are specific to him or her and that, by definition, must be respected. Depending on their mission, their current project, a person may need to work remotely:

  • 5 days a week for a while,
  • then will need and want to come back to the office 5 days a week for a period of time because she will need to run more creative meetings or integrate into a new team.

An employee who is comfortable in a team that has a certain collective experience may consider spending more time in remote work than if he or she joins a new team.

All this to say that for the same job, there will be as many desires for remote work as there will be individuals. For the same individual, depending on where he or she is in his or her professional maturity, in his or her career path in the company, in a given project, this desire or need may vary from one thing to another over time.

An overly rigid framework that fits individuals into boxes would not benefit anyone.

For the company, remote work is a way of organizing its production and activities. For the employee, it is also a way of life. The two are constantly evolving and what is important is to be able to align them permanently so that everyone can benefit.

At Spotify, a company whose organizational style inspires companies around the world, the remote work “charter” states:

“The exact mix of home and office work mode is a decision each employee and their manager make together.”

This is certainly the most pragmatic way to proceed. To do otherwise is to admit that you have a trust problem, a skills problem, or something else, and would only blame remote work for problems that are not its fault. To avoid fixing them?

There is no magic formula when it comes to setting rules and limits to remote work. It is up to each individual to invent the life that goes with it, or the work that goes with his or her life. As long as the work is done, and done well.

Image : Deforming mirror by Alexander Sviridov 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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