Is remote working a slacker’s paradise?

As we slowly move towards a semblance of a return to normalcy, the question of remote working will be raised with renewed vigour, starting with its relevance.

Indeed, it has been two years since businesses have accepted remote working willy-nilly. Firstly because it has been in many cases the only way for them not to have to shut down, and secondly because at times they had no choice, even if in France the government has often shown a guilty wait-and-see attitude in this matter.

Now the question of whether or not to maintain remote working during “normal” times is becoming more and more frequent. And as expected, once the shock and amazement of the beginning of the pandemic has passed, old habits return and we are rushing to find ways to massively bring employees back to the office.

One of the most common arguments is that teleworking employees take advantage of it to work less, or not at all, to hide. In short, remote working would be a paradise for slackers.

Remote working allows an adaptation of life moments

There is no need to lie or beat around the bush: remote working allows to organize the mix between work and personal life differently than if employees were in the office.

It is all the more surprising that some people pretend to discover it today when it is a benefit historically put forward by HR and managers who are in favor of it and certainly one whose positive side is recognized by everyone.

Remote working makes it easier for parents to adapt to the pace of their children, whether they are at home or need to be picked up from school or day care at the end of the day. It allows sports enthusiasts to go to the local gym during their break, something they can’t do at the office. It allows those who need to take a step back to think about a problem to move to another room and get away from their computer, to get some peace and quiet, to change context, or even to go for a walk outside for a few minutes to change their mind. It allows to make other forms of break than the traditional coffee break which is all the more popular when the business has nothing else to offer.

Should we blame the employees for this?

This would be all the more unwelcome as businesses themselves recognize the benefits of this flexibility and are starting to transform offices accordingly. Sports rooms, rest areas worthy of the name other than a coffee machine in the corner of the corridor, thinking spaces, table soccer corner (clichés are hard to resist…), childcare areas to bring the children… It takes a certain amount of bad faith to reproach employees for doing at home what we would like to give them the possibility to do in the office. Unless it is the proof that the real subject is not what employees do and how they organize their breathing moments during their working day but where they do it?

Flexible work and autonomy

If there is a criterion to decide whether a given employee is eligible for remote working except in exceptional situations (as long as his job is “teleworkable”) it is not his seniority, his job or his hierarchical position but his autonomy.

This autonomy is assessed on several levels that each company will weigh as it sees fit: mastery of tools and work methods, ability to organize oneself up to a certain point, assimilation of the corporate culture and the employee’s contractual situation.

This leads us to think once again about the definition of a “slacker”. Is it a person who avoids work or is it a person who arranges their work time, breathing time and personal time in whatever way they find most effective as long as the work gets done and it doesn’t interfere with the overall organization of the business?

Let me give you the beginning of an answer: for the detractors of remote working, “slackers” are people who don’t work all the time. But we know that we don’t work all the time during the day: we take breaks because we need them, and sometimes we just need to think (sometimes for a long time) before producing, which is not well tolerated by some managers for whom we don’t work when we don’t produce.

But still, these times of breathing or reflection existed in the office (within the limits of the activities that the equipment of the workplace allows…)? Yes, but in the office the employee is under the manager’s eye even during his break. When the break is no longer supervised, some people tend to want to eliminate it. And I think that we are much closer to the real problem.

Remote working and result-oriented culture

I reminded my audience at the beginning of the containment that remote working imposed on us a culture of results. Not that employees were not previously asked to achieve objectives, but that from now on the manager could not monitor the way things are done and would have to limit his control to the fact that they are done or not.

A subject that has been central to the management of knowledge workers since the dawn of time, but which is only reinforced here. When the work is immaterial, often “adhoc”, and a fortiori when it is remote, for lack of being able to monitor the work, one must be content with monitoring the result. But lacking the necessary hindsight and the ability to let go, some have adopted the principle that if you cannot monitor the work, you must monitor the worker.

Hence the recent appetite for generalized digital surveillance and the subsequent assumption that “everyone is a slacker” until proven otherwise. Which justifies everything.

There has always been abuse

We should not be too optimistic either. There are and always will be abuses in remote working. But is this something new? And didn’t this happen even in the office?

The older among us remember that until 2015 Windows came with two games (Solitaire and Minesweeper) that were among the favorite pastimes of employees. The really old ones also remember that when there was not much to do on the net or even when all employees did not have access to the internet (yes, it existed and it lasted longer than you think) these two programs were the first to be launched when arriving at the office.

There are and will always be people who abuse coffee breaks, people who doze off in front of an Excel sheet while giving the impression that they are thinking, people who walk in the corridors with a file under their arm to make it look like they are busy, people who isolate themselves to phone an imaginary interlocutor, people who organize meetings with friends to take an extended break…. It’s not just the stuff of the bottom rung of the ladder, and it’s not going to go away any time soon.

But these practices have an advantage: they create an illusion, even and especially in front of managers who are often complicit. From a distance, smoke screens cannot be created, so suspicion becomes the norm.

I will add once again that these practices are known to all and are practiced in full view of all, which gives some the illusion of control or allows them to say to their own managers “you see, they are busy”.

At a distance, of course, this illusion disappears with the consequences we know, but this also brings us another element of answer. Some people don’t watch their team to watch them but to show those who watch them that they are watching theirs.

Is the work done?

I come back to what should be the only question to be asked rather than starting from a generalized presumption of guilt of the remote working employee: are they doing their job or not?

I come back to a recent article in Les Echos that started out as an indictment but turned out to be much more balanced in the end.

It cited a number of examples such as the intern who “played” with the presence indicator of his email and, in the summer, “pushed the limits a little far: lunches of more than two hours, swimming pool afternoons with the computer open on the side always connected, without too much guilt.

Or another “employee of a large French business, who played tennis a couple of hours on some days, sometimes on tennis courts located several dozen kilometers from his place of residence, without it arousing suspicion.”

Or another employee who decided to “go hiking for half a day during her remote working week, between Christmas and New Year’s Day“.

Although I am a strong advocate of remote working and flexible working, I initially found that here the limits were exceeded.

But looking at it more closely I have (somewhat) reversed my judgment.

Speaking about the first employee it is added that “It was especially the case in the summer, he confides, when the activity slows down“, and that “[His] tutor did more or less the same, he had small children and the schools were closed“. 

Regarding the second, “[He] puts forward the fact that he didn’t have enough work.”

Concerning the third: “it is the lack of motivation that pushed her to commit the unthinkable”.

What to think about it?

In remote working, the employee takes ownership of his time rather than wasting it

That the examples are judiciously chosen to highlight the drawbacks of remote working but also to state what is really matters.

For one, it was a low activity period and his manager did the same. I remember in my professional youth spending a month of August in the office in scorching heat while my manager was working on cases by her pool in her vacation home and I was not too shocked. The work was done and my days were fairly calm but I didn’t have vacation days to take..

The second one clearly says that he didn’t have enough work.

The third invokes a lack of motivation, the causes of which should be understood, but which can be as much the responsibility of the manager and the business as of the employee.

But let’s ask ourselves one question: in these three cases, if the manager had been asked if the work entrusted to their subordinate was done, what would he have answered? Certainly “yes” and that “everything is fine”.

So what’s the problem?

That in times of low activity it is understandable that people yawn at the office but not that they organize their time more intelligently at home and that a demotivated employee is not a problem at the office but becomes one at home.

It seems that in remote working, the employee reclaims the time he saves and the time that his business does not manage to occupy, rather than wasting it by “pretending” when in the office.

As to why an employee is not busy, that is a business or management issue, not an employee or remote working issue.

Productive slackers?

I like lazy people. A slightly provocative word to say that I appreciate efficient people who know how to organize themselves to obtain the expected result with a minimum of effort. For me this is a sign of intelligence and performance. When I give the same job to two people and one finishes it in the middle of the afternoon and the other the next morning, I prefer to see the first one leave an hour earlier to go to the gym than the second one make everyone late.

My point is that taking time off work these days is more evidence of good organization and quality of work than of laziness, and that many of our “slackers” are surely more organized and successful people than the average. All successful professionals who have a full life have one thing in common: they buy time for themselves by being efficient in what they do.

Again to quote Les Echos: “The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that remote working in the post-pandemic economy in 2021 will boost productivity by 4.6 percent compared to the pre-pandemic period”. This includes the efficient, the normal, and the slackers.”

Didn’t Carlos Tavares, the CEO of Stellantis, say: “I find that remote working is much more efficient than face-to-face working.”

And finally, since there will always be abuses at the edge: should 100% of individuals be sanctioned for the 1% who do not play the game? It’s up to you to choose the message you send to your teams in these times when we talk a lot about trust.

Image : Slacker at work by Dragon Images 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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