In remote working what counts is…working.

One way or another, remote working is here to stay. After the shock of the beginning, companies are trying to adapt to better understand it. But by trying to manage the distance better they are making a huge mistake because the real issue is to manage the work better.

Remote working: heaven for some, hell for others

Needless to say, the transition to remote working has been experienced differently by employees.

There are those who are unconditional teleworking enthusiasts, who already practised it before, who have experienced it well, even if they themselves have sometimes ended up suffering from it. Problems not necessarily linked to remote working but to the context: a full time remote working imposed, in sometimes difficult conditions compared to a “normal” remote working (children etc) and without possibility to take a break after a working day.

There are those who were not ready, no matter if they were in demand or not, for whom learning to swim without a buoy from day one was painful. In addition to their personal unpreparedness, their company was also unprepared.

And finally, there is that very special employee, the manager, who has often had a hard time with the loss of control and the need to reinvent his or her role and posture in an emergency.

If we take into account all these factors related to the individual, his or her job, his or her company, and the personal and professional context in which things took place, the experiences varied from excellent to catastrophic, depending on the individual, even though overall things were quite positive, given the unpreparedness of many.

The difficult return to 100% in the office

The pandemic episode will gradually pass behind us, but something will remain. Even if it wasn’t “real remote working”, the past year will mean the end of something and of a certain vision of work

As much as I hate the phrase, “nothing will ever be the same again”. Employees have learned that they don’t need to be in the office all the time to work, companies will no longer be able to tell them “it doesn’t work, not with us, not in our culture”. And no matter how much experience each person has had, their relationship with the office will be irrevocably affected! Finally, I hope that most companies have understood that remote working is not a gadget to please or reward so-and-so, but a key element of a business continuity plan in times of crisis!

Not everyone will come back to the office 100%, no matter if it comes from a desire or a constraint, from the company or the employee. There will be a middle ground to find, more or less wide and flexible, but we will have to learn to work remotely on a larger scale and more often than before.

Companies try to adapt to the distance

Businesses have understood this and are trying to adapt to the distance, to integrate this factor in their operations, their management, their culture.

A simple but not very effective way to adapt to distance is to limit or even prohibit it.

Not very effective because as soon as one person is at a distance from the others, everyone is at a distance. When in a team of 5 people each is at a distance one day a week, there is not much difference from an operational point of view with the fact that everyone is at a distance all the time. As for totally banning remote working…this is something that is now difficult to envisage.

However, companies are focusing on managing the distance in question. How many days can one be remote in a week? Who has the right to be at a distance? How to control the remote person? And what distances are allowed or not?

Indeed, and this is almost laughable, for some people being remote is not the same depending on where you are remote. Being in an “official” third place provided by the company is fine. At home is fine. In your second home is much less good. Deciding to go to the sun and work from your vacation spot is unacceptable.

This is all the more surprising since in many companies remote work is already the norm. We work with colleagues on other sites, in other cities, in other countries. For some this is a fraction of their time, for others it is most of their time. But the distance doesn’t matter as long as you are under the “visual” supervision of the company. Operationally, this poses the same problems as when employees are at home, but until then, we acted as if everything was fine.

The question of distance is therefore a false pretext used to hide a real fear of losing control.

Remote working does not pose any fundamentally new problems.

To talk about loss of control is to move the problem from the place to the management and the corporate culture.

What went wrong during the last few months of telecommuting (taking into account, again, that it wasn’t real telecommuting and nobody was prepared)?

Managers found it difficult to manage and hold their role. Employees found it difficult to collaborate. Meetings became a living hell. The boundary between private and professional life became blurred. Working hours increased. Employees found themselves lacking a social connection.

Is this really new and is it due to remote working. As I said recently at AppVizer, remote working is not really a new problem.

  • It has been said and known for at least 20 years that the managerial function as inherited from the industrial revolution is outdated and needs to be reinvented. People are very badly managed in the office. At a distance it’s “just” worse.
  • Collaboration has been a major concern for at least as long. For reasons of culture, organization, management. We already collaborate very badly in the office. The proof: some employees have discovered at home how to use tools they should have used in the office before.
  • We don’t know how to organize and manage meetings in the office. Remote meetings are “just” worse because they have become the lifeline of a deficient management and non-existent collaborative practices.
  • The working hours are constantly increasing and the famous right to disconnect is not respected anywhere or almost. But you can’t sleep in the office and at some point you have to go home. When you’re already at home, there’s a barrier down, but the real problem already existed in the office. As for the “flexible work” it often exists only in one direction and never to the advantage of the employee.
  • As for the lack of social links, it would seem that, apart from their colleagues, many employees have no social life. The fact that the culture of many companies is “inclusive” or even invasive to such an extent that employees do not have time to live next to their work and that some companies do everything to make their employees belong to them body and soul is not new. It is even especially marked in some tech companies like Google for example and it is not for nothing that these same companies want their employees to come back to the office as soon as possible. It’s not remote working that has isolated people, it’s just made them realize that working in the office had cut them off from the world.

In short, remote working does not pose any new problems, but simply shows us that work as we conceive it and perform it is at the end of a cycle, that we need to rethink it and that the rubber band that has been tightening in the office for at least 20 years has just broken.

But let’s not blame remote working for the weakness of the rubber band. Or, rather, let’s not mistake the problem: what we saw in remote working was not the problem but the manifestation of a pre-existing problem. And, as everyone knows, you don’t lower the temperature by breaking the thermometer.

We will not do as before but from a distance

There are two notions in remote working. The notion of distance and the notion of work. Since the health crisis reopened the debate on remote working, we see that all companies are focusing on the notion of distance but few are talking about reinventing work.

Teleworking gives them a unique opportunity to move forward on issues that most of them have been working on for a long time, but which have been left fallow due to a lack of urgency to mobilize everyone and to bring about the necessary changes at all levels of the company. The distance has given rise to this urgency, but rather than taking advantage of it to put the real problems back on the table, we prefer to reduce the distance.

Remote working will not be “working as before but from elsewhere” because working as before does not work, either at a distance or together in an office. And just because in the office you can hide and compensate for certain dysfunctions doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But remote working is often the responsibility of HR, the rest being spread in a rather nebulous way between people in charge of collaborative work, IT, operations management, people in charge of a management delivery model or managerial model that only vaguely exists and is applied. We can’t blame HR for doing what they can on their own perimeter, but the lack of leadership on what is usually called the future of work is glaring.

Today, when we talk about remote working, we look at work in a modest way and then quickly turn away from it and focus on “remote” when it should be the opposite.

Indeed, all companies that work well remotely work well in the office. The opposite is not true. Distance is not the issue, it is the way we work, the management and the operational model that is.

Working remotely is first of all working, no matter where, and it must be as efficient regardless of the context.

Image : Remote Working by Jacob Lund 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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