It has been about two years since we entered the pandemic with wave after wave of hope that this time will be the last, the last efforts and restrictions before a return to normalcy.
There is no doubt that one of the big stars of this period has been remote working, which has brought about a notable break in working patterns.
Remote working, the pandemic’s super star
Before the pandemic, it was requested and desired by many, in vain, and remained reserved for a lucky few whose businesses were ahead of the curve in terms of culture and vision for the future of work.
During the pandemic, it was at times imposed on everyone, totally or partially, voluntarily or under duress. Some loved it, some hated it and most had enough distance to measure the benefits and the less pleasant aspects to find the right balance in their personal case.
For two years it seemed that remote working would be inevitable in the ” world after “. Except that, as expected, the world after does not exist and after the shock and amazement of the first days, many businesses are forgetting their good intentions and returning to a vision of work that is as close as possible to the one before.
Remote working for the return to normal? “We’ll see, we’re not sure, but there are limits, so it’s urgent not to change anything and to take the time to think”.
Working Remotely three days a week to fight the spread of the virus this winter? That’s too much, it creates operational problems and most employees don’t want to hear about remote working anymore, says the MEDEF (French employer’s union). I fell off my chair when I heard this. If it is a way to self-convince themselves method, it is highly inappropriate in view of the health issues, if it is a conviction, it is criminal, if it is a vision of the future of work, it is totally backward.
A year ago I found the lukewarmness of the governmental decisions shameful, this year I find that the representatives of the employers are no better.
A stronger immune response against the change than against the virus
I did not expect miracles in this matter. As explained above, I knew that, as usual, all the good intentions and promises made under the shock of the beginning of a crisis rarely survive the effect of time and that the world after would look very much like the one before. But I still had good hopes for remote working.
We all know that businesses have a very strong immune response to change. Stronger, in fact, than against viruses, as the last 24 months have taught us.
One could say that the vision of work in France is irreformable, or that management takes great pleasure in being against what the field demands and that, conversely, the field is by definition pro what is against and against what is pro, but that would be too simple and even simplistic.
One gets the impression that everyone has a good reason to end remote working, that all of a sudden all of its benefits have been forgotten, and that as far as the main stakeholders, the employees, are concerned, it is easy to speak on their behalf without asking their opinion.
Why is there such a block against remote working?
Remote working is a change, and like any change, it leads to a fairly logical defensive reflex. But once the reflex has passed, we can look at the deeper causes.
Unions don’t like remote working? This is nothing new and I remember that an HR manager made this comment to me in the middle of the 2000s, when he was just dreaming that one day it would be a more generalized practice. When you have practices based on individual contact, informal exchanges in the corner of a corridor, and the distribution of flyers at the exit of the premises, it’s true that the transition to distance forces you to reinvent yourself. Reinvent your practices and even reinvent your value proposition. Unthinkable for some. And let’s not forget that fighting against change, no matter which one, on principle, is a way to exist.
Do leader not like remote working? This is obviously a function of the size of the business, with the larger ones being much less resistant to it than the smaller ones. This distinction alone tells us something: it is more a cultural problem than a matter of remote working itself. It is easier to accept distance in a business whose size means that you can’t see everyone anyway. On the other hand, when people are used to living together, when a paternalistic dimension still exists and when the head of the company or even the managers still think that it is THEIR employees (with a strong possessive dimension), it is more complicated. Let’s add that the smaller the business, the easier it is to “command and control” and the questioning of this point seems less vital than in larger businesses.
HR doesn’t like remote working? I’m not surprised, as this is often the most conservative function in the business, along with finance. And since in France nothing is simple when it comes to work, I can imagine that it is a complicating factor that they are happy to do without, even if they are not fundamentally against it. It’s not so much remote working that bothers them as all that is involved in setting it up. And let’s remember that HR took the confinement and imposed remote working of 2020 in its stride and that it left its mark (even if it was not necessarily for good reasons).
Managers don’t like remote working? Again, a problem of culture and managerial posture. But are they managers? Very often the most brilliant person on the field is given the place…which does not bode well for managerial skills. Moreover, if the post COVID manager is worn out and sometimes no longer wants this role, it is often because he or she has realized that he or she was not made for it.
Employees don’t like remote working? It reminds me of the speeches about the young generations: others talk about them in their place, hoping to convince them that they are as we would like them to be. Or like, during election time, a candidate says “the French want….”. Employees are not a uniform entity, and even less so after the pandemic, and their reality is much more diverse and nuanced than what others put in their mouths. They are certainly the most lucid on the subject, but I don’t think we listen to them that much. The employee must be at the center of the reflection on remote working, in fact he is a peripheral element.
Remote working is not the problem
In fact, if we look beyond the speeches and appearances, remote working is not a problem in itself. The real problems are best hidden so as not to have to face them, deal with them or explain why they have not been dealt with.
I said as much last year: remote working does not create any new problems, but it does put the spotlight on old problems that we have refused to see. I just regret that nothing has changed since then. For example, I find it very difficult to hear a representative of the MEDEF say that remote working poses major operational problems: have we learned nothing from the last two years? Have no areas for improvement been identified?
Opposition to remote working sends different implicit messages that would benefit from being made explicit for the greatest number to understand.
It means :
- Remote working has been seen as an HR benefit, not a way to organize work.
- We are still in the stone age of collaborative practices.
- We refuse to take into account the diversity of employees’ individual situations
- We have a problem of culture in general and managerial culture in particular.
- Most of middle managers are not managers and we had to do the work for them when the boat was rocking.
- Our operating methods, processes, tools… are not totally adapted.
- Bringing people back to the office will slow down the wave of resignations because they will find a connection, and we will avoid looking at the real causes of departures (culture, salaries…)
I don’t see anything here that is related to remote working, which is only the indicator of the disease, not the disease itself. Because even in the office, all of these issues are factors in lost performance, poor employee experience and disengagement. Distance only makes it worse, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the disease exists anyway.
I can only think of a lot of bad reasons to deny employees the flexibility they want, on the pretext that the business has done nothing for years to evolve. Making some people pay for the wait-and-see attitude and inaction of others.
What do employees really want?
We need to get away from the extreme cases and the clichés. Yes, some people have hated remote working and others have fallen in love with it. Between these extremes there is a grey area that is never talked about and yet concerns most employees
First of all, they know that what they experienced during the pandemic is not real remote working. First, because their business was not prepared and neither were they. Secondly, because they were confined to their homes and did not have the opportunity to take a break after a day of work at home. And finally, because they had no choice, even though the need for remote working varies for a given person depending on a large number of factors.
The demand for remote working and flexible working is real, but two elements have to be taken into account. Firstly, employees and businesses do not want remote working or face-to-face working for the same reasons, and when a generic term is used to pursue different and sometimes contradictory objectives, we end up with a compromise that is based on unspoken ideas and does not work. Secondly, because businesses want to impose a generic framework on everyone in terms of percentage of time teleworked, whereas the employee thinks in terms of personal work situations and needs.
Today I do not conduct a recruitment interview without the candidate asking me about the reality of our remote working policy (we even offer complete remote working for employees living in cities where we do not have an office, my team, which was initially very Parisian, has thus been extended to include people from Bordeaux, Toulouse and the Landes region….). My deep conviction is that in this period of “Great Resignation” employees will vote with their work/life balance, they don’t want a promise of remote working or a model that doesn’t fit their expectations and life rhythms, they don’t want to be 100% in the office or 100% remote but to put the cursor where they want according to the context of the moment.
I have seen people, in Paris, refuse a job less than 40 minutes from home because the remote working policy did not suit them.
I’m starting to see businesses struggling to find service providers because they have taken a step towards more remote working and their employees are no longer willing to travel 1 hour by RER every morning and evening to go to a client for an assignment they can do from home.
The real question is not teleworking or not teleworking, but to create the conditions that make it efficient and pleasant for everyone and at everyone’s pace.
It is also to know if businesses will switch of their own accord and anticipate all this or will do it too late because their employees will say goodbye and candidates will refuse to join them. In which case they will only get what they deserve.
Conclusion: who will get the other one?
The battle against remote working for the wrong reasons is lost, but the battle for intelligent and well thought-out remote working can still be won.
In the meantime, we must not fight the wrong battle: by blindly trying to kill remote working, businesses are forgetting that it is the one that can kill them.
In the great debates on remote working, the employee, who should be at the center of the discussions, is in fact hostage to rearguard battles that do not concern him.