Remote work is not an employee right

In many companies there are still questions about whether or not employees should be allowed to work remotely and under what conditions. This is an old-fashioned approach which shows a total lack of understanding of what remote work is for a business: there is a mistake about who is the beneficiary and the order of the questions to be asked. If we take the questions related to remote work in the right order, the question of whether employees are allowed to work remotely, and if so which ones, is the last one to be asked, and by the time we get there it has been rendered useless by the rest of the process. Remote work should not be seen as an individual right but as a collective obligation.

The crisis had at least one benefit: it pushed companies to take the subject of remote work a little more seriously than before. From the moment it had worked, more or less well, for several months, it was no longer possible to say “it is not possible” or “it does not work” and on the other hand, the feedback from the experience obliges them to create the conditions for a remote work acceptable by all.

At the beginning I thought that this sequence would be salutary and would lead us to finally ask the right questions since we had a real feedback. The experience was distorted by the fact that it was not a real remote work because it was imposed in a context where the employees were locked up at home, but it was a large-scale experience which nevertheless brought many lessons.

But the old demons quickly returned and from press articles to TV reports, one word came back systematically: “right”. Will employees have the right to work remotely? Will they be given the right?

Talking about an employee’s right distorts the reasoning on remote work

I will not go back to the fact that seeing remote work as a right leads to a monumental error: that of seeing it as a gift to an employee whilst there are questions to be asked about the organisation of production.

But as soon as we talk about rights, we get into a model of reasoning that involves a logical sequence of questions and arbitrations.

  • Does this right exist in the company?
  • Who will be given this right?
  • How will this right be exercised?
  • How can the company be protected against a possible abuse of the right by the employee?

With this funnel logic, we are talking about a general subject, which is the fact that employees can work remotely, to arrive at a strictly supervised privilege reserved for some. It’s an almost mechanical logic.

The only point where I see some progress is that the “some” is tending to broaden from being limited to certain executive populations. But that it is laborious.

Have we learned nothing in one year?

When one person is remote, everyone is remote

To speak of a right to telework is to have a very individual approach: we are interested in the person who works remotely and not in the group that experiences the effects of remote work.

To talk about a right to telework is to focus on the fact that a person will not be present in the sacred office. It is, above all, neglecting the heart of the matter, which is the implementation of certain collaboration, work and management practices by all.

Because when we have an individual approach to remote work, we make sure that the person working remotely is able to work remotely. This includes material aspects (computer, access to the information system) but also questions of good work practices. But this is only for that person!

In a team of 10 people, it is enough that only one is remote for everyone to be remote. The 9 who are in the office will also have to adapt their work practices, collaboration, management, to the one who is not in the office.

When we give some people the right to telework, we only look at them and we forget that all those who do not have this right will live a remote work experience even if they are in the office, just because one of them is not there. The one who is in the office is working remotely compared to the one who is not!

We don’t always choose to work remotely

What we’ve learned from this past year is that we don’t always have the luxury of choosing whether or not to work remotely. The pandemic was an extreme case, but sometimes working remotely is the only way to keep the business going and the company is glad to have that option.

Before the health crisis, I was always surprised to see that, in case of a massive transport strike in Paris, employees who could technically work remotely were not allowed to do so and had to either manage to come to the office anyway or to take days off. I hope that in the future, in such circumstances, companies will finally understand that it is in their interest to let their employees work from home.

Two years ago, the office building where a friend of mine worked had a fire. It took 15 days and 1 month to temporarily relocate everyone in other departments, subsidiaries, or even coworking spaces rented in a hurry while a more permanent solution was found. Remote working? Technically possible from day one, but never envisaged or implemented: technical unemployment for everyone.

We must be aware of one thing: in such circumstances, presence in the office has been preferred to continuity of operations until now. It was better to have an employee who arrived late, tired, or had to get up at dawn or walk miles to get there and back, or even an employee who took a day off than one who normally worked outside the office!

But the facts are there: pandemic, strike, exceptional events…sometimes remote working for all is the only way to continue operating normally and the company does not decide on these circumstances.

Remote work is a collective obligation

When we take the two previous observations jointly, we come to one conclusion: remote work is not an individual right but a collective obligation.

  • Collective: because when one person is at a distance everyone is there
  • Obligation: because the company cannot control the external factors, remote working can be imposed by the context or by common sense.

As we saw during the pandemic, companies where there was a collective experience of remote working for all fared better than those where remote working was a reality but only in small proportions and for some people.

Regardless of employer brand, well-being at work, employee expectations, or the impact of teleworking on the attractiveness of a company, the ability to implement remote working across the board for all ” remotely workable ” jobs is an insurance policy, the assurance of being able to continue to operate almost normally in case of a force majeure event

There is no ability to work remotely without the practice of remote working

If after that you have understood that when it comes to remote working the question is not to ask who will have the right but how you can collectively meet this obligation, you will have already made a big step forward.

But I could be told that I am talking about the ability to work remotely, and that just because everyone is able to do so, it doesn’t mean that the question of under what conditions everyone will be allowed to do so will not arise. And that’s an excellent point.

From my point of view, remote working is a bit like fire drills in offices. We do them regularly, but I doubt that the day a real fire happens we will be able to do things efficiently. The reason? The lack of individual and collective practice. Individual because there are rules for everyone to follow, collective because if everyone doesn’t follow them and doesn’t join in an orderly collective action, it could end in total confusion.

There is no effective remote working without a shared collective practice of remote working. Everyone needs to be working remotely regularly enough to make it a collective practice. I would even go so far as to say that someone who refuses to work remotely on principle may become partly a liability to the group when circumstances force them to do so.

So yes, the question of the right to telework arises, but it is the last question to be asked, not the first. There are in order:

  • The ability to work remotely. This is the basis, a condition of survival. It implies understanding the specific issues of remote working, equipment, acquisition of certain competences and soft skills, and their regular practice.
  • Willingness to work remotely (but sometimes you don’t have a choice)
  • The implementation of remote work (which I prefer to the idea of “right to”) for those who want it, once we are sure that everyone has a minimal mastery of it, in other words how to organize remote work on a larger scale than the bare necessities that everyone has to master and maintain regularly.

In short, once everyone knows how to work remotely, the question of who has the right to do so in a broader and more intensive way will arise. But since this assumes that everyone knows how to do it at least, this makes the question of the right to work remotely obsolete by definition. But to get to that point, you have to ask the right questions in the right order.

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
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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