Remote working and flexible working: where do we stand?

Some time ago I contributed to a study on remote working and flexible working by AppVizer with a contribution on lessons learned about remote working during the pandemic. To close the topic I would like to come back to the results of the survey that is the backbone of this case.

To begin with, I note with interest that the companies that responded are spread almost equally between very small, small, medium and large companies, which makes it possible to avoid the biases often observed when large or small companies respond in large majority.

Remote working is here but nobody knows where it’s going

Seing that 88% of companies have implemented remote working is good, but given the context we have experienced, it is surprising that it is not closer to 100%. Maybe it’s companies whose jobs are not “teleworkable” but given the AppVizer audience I find it hard to believe.

Interesting point: apart from confinement, companies do not seem to have any religion as to the “right” duration of remote working. From 1 to 5 days, the numbers are fairly well distributed. From my point of view this means one of two things: either they haven’t had time to develop a religion yet, or they have realized that there is no single framework that is going to apply to everyone all the time. I wish the right answer was the latter, but to this day I still have a strong fear that companies will want to get everyone back in the office a majority of the time.

Remote working has therefore logically taken hold during the crisis without any clear perspective on what will happen in the future. Indeed, when 72% of respondents say that in the future they would like to have flexible teleworking, it simply means that it will no longer be 100% office or 100% remote working. Between 1 and 4 days is not the same thing at all! The proof is that 48% think that in the future their companies will opt for a compromise between the new and the old way of working.

All we can say is that organizations are in a complete state of limbo. A return to normalcy is not an option, but neither is prolonging what was put in place during the crisis or confinement. If we look at the profile of the respondents (57% of employees without managerial responsibilities, 30% of managers and team leaders, 9% of directors and company heads), we can think that the weight of the employee population who logically do not know weighs on the results, but also that those who are supposed to know or think about the future do not know more.

Not everyone sees the same benefits in remote working

Even if all has not been perfect in the sequence we have known, businesses and employees recognize a number of benefits to remote working. And not surprisingly they are not the same.

For almost 50% of businesses, remote work facilitates flexibility, saves time and has an impact on the well-being of employees.

Only 10% of them see it as a way to recruit employees who do not want to leave their country or region, but I have no doubt that over time this possibility will become more and more exciting.

Only 10% of them also see remote working as a way to save money, and that reassures me. Remote working will certainly lead to savings in the end, provided that all the consequences are taken into account and, in my opinion, it should not be made an objective. Savings will be a consequence of a new way of organizing production and work, but if they are the primary objective, the implementation of remote working can really go wrong, as it always does when we do the right things for the wrong reasons.

Employees agree with businesses on most of these points: they see remote work as a way to save time, to better reconcile private and personal life.

And as strange as it may seem, remote working is also blamed for the exact opposite: the impossibility of dissociating personal and professional life, the difficulty of concentrating, the decrease of motivation.

We don’t know what remote work is

I am not surprised to find what some will see as inconsistency. At a time when businesses are trying to work out their policies on the right to telework, it must be admitted that for those who did not do remote work before, they and their employees have not been confronted with a “real remote work” situation.

In normal remote work there is a balance, you can take a break after your day, go out, and while you are working you don’t necessarily have your whole family around you in a place not designed for that. In a way, businesses and their employees have experienced the worst of remote work, a device often set up in a hurry and used in the worst of contexts.

Flexibility: yes but not too much

Flexibility is not only about remote work, it is also about an approach to work spaces and time.

33% of the responding businesses (65% of the large ones) already practice flex office. A figure that I find surprisingly low as we are so used to seeing open spaces. And contrary to many things I’ve read, employees are generally in favor of it.

Let’s not lie to ourselves: if the flex office (which in my opinion is a more elaborate idea than the simple open space, but I’m not sure that the study makes the distinction) is successful with businesses, it’s mainly for the savings it generates. The rest (collaboration, well-being) is just a nice packaging to make it acceptable.

And the study clearly shows that businesses are more open to flexibility when it suits them and when it is not accompanied by what could be experienced as a loss of control.

If half of the businesses have flexible schedules, the study does not tell us if this flexibility is to the advantage of the employee or the business. And if 47% don’t control their working hours, something tells me that this could change if remote work becomes widespread.

Other, more innovative forms of flexibility (leave planning, number of leaves, etc.) are much more marginal.

HR tools are on the rise

It is also interesting to see that remote work has pushed businesses to invest in new tools and, first of all, in HR tools! This is followed by business management tools, organization and planning tools, and only at then end, internal communication and collaborative work tools.

Do you find the ranking surprising? In my opinion it is very logical.

I would have liked to come to the conclusion that businesses have understood the primacy of the HR function in this crisis, but in my opinion this is not the case.

We have seen HR at work and their role during this crisis is not to be proven, but I frankly do not know what will remain of it in the long term. But we must distinguish between the function and the tools. If the investment in HR tools has been so important, it’s not just because businesses have understood the importance of mood and feedback tools. It’s also and above all because the HR function has been the poor relation of the digital transformation of businesses until now, as evidenced by the number of businesses that still use paper for their HR processes, which of course no longer works remotely. What this study shows us is not an evolution but a simple catching up.

Conversely, seeing communication and collaboration tools come in at the bottom of the rankings is neither a surprise nor a disavowal. Many businesses are already equipped or over-equipped with duplicate tools, some of them even existing “under the radar” and the challenge was not to equip themselves but simply to learn to use what they had. It was funny to see many employees suddenly trying to learn how to master tools they had been using for years once they were forced to work at home. It is also the proof that if the businesses are globally well equipped in the matter, the use does not follow at all.

Will the promise of the flexible enterprise survive the COVID?

We are still far from the flexible work that many would like to see and before it becomes widespread I think we should already have a definition of flexible work that businesses and employees agree on. This is far from being achieved.

However, the COVID crisis has shown that things are possible on a scale that was unimaginable before, and something will remain of it. Businesses will no longer be able to cling to their past rules and employees have also realized that it is good to come back to the office sometimes.

But what will remain once the crisis is over? The risk of forgetting everything and returning to the “old model” is unlikely, but it is not certain that all the conclusions of the crisis will be drawn. The enterprise of the future may be much closer to the enterprise of the past than to the dreams of some.

This is evidenced by the irony of the study’s conclusion. When it came out in the spring, it said “the increasing digitalization of businesses and the inspiration provided by the big American tech companies (Facebook and Google in particular), which are moving more and more towards 100% remote work, are likely to accelerate flexibility in the workplace.

Today we know that these same businesses were the first to blow the whistle and ask their employees to return to the office.

There is momentum to make things happen but we will have to be quick to seize it because it will be short, very short.

Image : Remote work 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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