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Remote working: overcoming preconceptions for the best of both worlds

Suzy Canivenc
Suzy Canivenc
Associate researcher at the "Futurs de l’Industrie et du Travail" chair (FIT²) at Mines Paris
Key takeaways
  • Remote working seems to have taken root: 35% of employees say they would change employer if their boss forced them to return to the office full-time.
  • But this practice, which is becoming more and more common in certain sectors, raises many questions, particularly in terms of productivity, creativity, sociability, and management.
  • The real-life experiences of the last two years disprove some of the preconceptions about both on-site and remote working.
  • New organisational and managerial approaches are needed to reconcile the different working styles and benefit from the advantages of both.

Stunned by the force of the pan­dem­ic and forced to adopt remote work­ing in a hur­ry, com­pa­nies have respond­ed to the most press­ing needs. Remote work­ing was imposed with­out any pri­or nego­ti­a­tion, dis­cus­sion, or eval­u­a­tion of the rules. Two years after the start of the pan­dem­ic, a large pro­por­tion of employ­ees have acquired a taste for remote work­ing, to the point where some have not set foot in their work­place for two years and have no inten­tion of return­ing to 100% onsite work­ing. Faced with short­ages in many sec­tors of activ­i­ty and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a “great res­ig­na­tion”, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of “full remote” work­ing has become one of the most attrac­tive sell­ing points for com­pa­nies and recruiters.

Tomor­row will look very dif­fer­ent from yesterday

A study by Qualtrics indi­cates that 35% of employ­ees would change employ­er if their boss forced them to return to the office full-time. In France, accord­ing to a Hub­Spot study, 14% admit that they would rather go to the den­tist than return to the office five days a week. That said, most employ­ees tend to aspire to a hybrid form of work and believe they are just as suc­cess­ful as if they were in the office full time. They claim to have found a bet­ter bal­ance between work and per­son­al life.

These devel­op­ments pose some real organ­i­sa­tion­al and man­age­ment chal­lenges. How can team spir­it be rekin­dled when team mem­bers have nev­er seen each oth­er “in real life?” Are per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty lev­els the same for remote and face-to-face work? Should the com­pa­ny retain as many offices as before? Above all, what is the role of the man­ag­er and are exist­ing man­agers ready to take on this new role?

Accord­ing to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, near­ly one in two French man­agers (48%) feel that their senior man­age­ment team is out of step with employ­ees’ expec­ta­tions. As for exec­u­tives, 52% fear that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty has been affect­ed by the switch to remote or hybrid work­ing, where­as 81% of their employ­ees con­sid­er them­selves to be just as pro­duc­tive or even more so.

The fact remains that social ties suf­fer from remote work­ing. For half of French man­agers (48%), this is the main chal­lenge they will have to face, whether the work is hybrid or remote. Suzy Canivenc, a doc­tor in infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sci­ences and a researcher at the “Future of Indus­try and Work” (FIT) chair at Mines Paris­Tech, attempts to answer some of these questions.

In your research, you say that phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty does not guar­an­tee social ties and that coop­er­a­tion at a dis­tance is def­i­nite­ly pos­si­ble. So, can we imag­ine per­ma­nent remote working?

Suzy Canivenc. We must dis­tin­guish between phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty and rela­tion­al prox­im­i­ty: it is not because we are phys­i­cal­ly close that we will be emo­tion­al­ly close. A neigh­bour on the next floor or in the office who is con­sid­ered to be a ter­ri­ble per­son is often a good exam­ple of this! The social bond doesn’t just arise from being in the same place; it is pri­mar­i­ly nour­ished by a com­mon iden­ti­ty and shared ref­er­ences at the social and cog­ni­tive lev­el, sim­i­lar work habits, com­mon inter­ests and goals, for example.

How­ev­er, this does not mean that per­ma­nent remote work­ing, also called “full remote”, is nec­es­sar­i­ly the way for­ward. Some com­pa­nies prac­tice it, some­times since they were estab­lished, but most com­pa­nies are mov­ing towards a hybrid model.

Could hybrid work be the solution?

Dur­ing this pan­dem­ic, we were able to exper­i­ment with remote work­ing in an unprece­dent­ed way, even if it was under less-than-ide­al con­di­tions, since it was imposed 100% at home in an anx­i­ety-induc­ing con­text marked by mul­ti­ple restric­tions. In addi­tion to the sav­ings on trans­port time and a bet­ter work-life bal­ance, employ­ees who had long been refused this option par­tic­u­lar­ly appre­ci­at­ed the peace and qui­et they enjoyed when their home and accom­mo­da­tion allowed it. Remote work­ing thus proved con­ducive to indi­vid­ual tasks of deep con­cen­tra­tion. How­ev­er, they also dis­cov­ered its dis­ad­van­tages, notably the work over­load and the poros­i­ty between pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al life.

Remote work­ing is bet­ter suit­ed to man­age­ment based on trust and con­trol of results rather than on mis­trust and micro­man­age­ment of tasks. 

After a while, they also missed see­ing their col­leagues and chat­ting with them at the cof­fee machine, a rit­u­al that breaks up the monot­o­ny of work, strength­ens social ties, but also nur­tures a sense of serendip­i­ty through spon­ta­neous exchanges of infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge, so nec­es­sary for the smooth run­ning of companies.

Hybrid work there­fore aims to rec­on­cile these two aspects. The mod­el is not new when one thinks of all those who were already work­ing at clients’ premis­es, on the road or tak­ing work home before the health cri­sis. How­ev­er, when deployed on a large scale, it brings with it new organ­i­sa­tion­al and man­age­r­i­al challenges.

What changes does this total or hybrid remote work­ing entail in terms of work organ­i­sa­tion and management?

Remote work­ing is bet­ter suit­ed to man­age­ment based on trust and con­trol of results rather than on mis­trust and micro­man­age­ment of tasks. As far as the social con­nec­tion is con­cerned, it is nec­es­sary to invent new rit­u­als which allow emo­tion­al close­ness to be nur­tured through reg­u­lar con­tact, whether this be phys­i­cal or vir­tu­al. It is impor­tant that these exchanges do not focus sole­ly on pro­fes­sion­al activ­i­ties and short-term objec­tives in order to fos­ter the sense of shared iden­ti­ty and ref­er­ences I men­tioned earlier.

How­ev­er, it must be stressed that remote work­ing in itself does not nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to these changes. It is per­fect­ly pos­si­ble to “micro-man­age” from a dis­tance, espe­cial­ly as dig­i­tal tools can be used to mon­i­tor employ­ees remote­ly, check con­nec­tion times or mouse move­ments, and force them into a form of dig­i­tal pre­sen­teeism (inces­sant mes­sages, video tun­nels, etc.). Dur­ing the cri­sis, some even went so far as to mon­i­tor their employ­ees via webcam.

You talk about “remote dig­i­tal socia­bil­i­ty”. What does this mean?

It is pre­cise­ly the abil­i­ty to nur­ture social con­nec­tions through dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools, as the younger gen­er­a­tions, born with these tools in their hands, do. In my opin­ion, com­pa­nies have not yet ful­ly grasped this poten­tial. Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, they often sim­ply trans­ferred on-site work­ing prac­tices to the vir­tu­al world, replac­ing phys­i­cal meet­ings with video con­fer­enc­ing. How­ev­er, this tech­ni­cal sys­tem has the dis­ad­van­tage of caus­ing a high lev­el of fatigue, which we are only begin­ning to under­stand. It also has the effect of hyper-for­mal­is­ing exchanges. Video, which is the tool that has devel­oped the most dur­ing the cri­sis, is there­fore not the most suit­able for nur­tur­ing social links. Oth­er devices, such as cor­po­rate social net­works, instant mes­sag­ing, or VoIP – which are very much used by young peo­ple – could be more effective.

You sug­gest “mov­ing from a syn­chro­nous oral cul­ture to an asyn­chro­nous writ­ten cul­ture”, what do you mean by this?

Like hybrid work­ing, the asyn­chro­nous writ­ing mod­el is far from new; in fact, it has been pro­gres­sive­ly rein­forced with the devel­op­ment of dig­i­tal tools such as doc­u­ment stor­age spaces, cor­po­rate social net­works, inte­grat­ed dig­i­tal plat­forms, etc. At the moment, how­ev­er, we tend to over­val­ue the role of syn­chro­nous oral com­mu­ni­ca­tion and there­fore pre­sen­teeism – which is still preva­lent in France – and this is an obsta­cle to the devel­op­ment of remote and hybrid working.

The aim is to take advan­tage of the ben­e­fits of both forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at work. Asyn­chro­nous writ­ing is par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­ed to deep con­cen­tra­tion and per­son­al reflec­tion and is there­fore ide­al for the “diver­gence” phas­es where each per­son can express his or her opin­ion, free from group pres­sure and shy­ness. On the oth­er hand, syn­chro­nous speak­ing could be more suit­able for phas­es of con­ver­gence where it is no longer a ques­tion of jux­ta­pos­ing ideas but of “work­ing together”.

Thus, hybrid work is not lim­it­ed to a jux­ta­po­si­tion of the meth­ods used to car­ry it out – on site or remote – it is a ques­tion of invent­ing a third way of work­ing by play­ing on the com­ple­men­tar­i­ty between syn­chro­nous (oral) and asyn­chro­nous (writ­ten) work.

Interview by Sophy Caulier


Suzy Canivenc

Suzy Canivenc

Associate researcher at the "Futurs de l’Industrie et du Travail" chair (FIT²) at Mines Paris

Suzy Canivenc has a PhD in information and communication sciences and teaches management and communication at the Université Catholique de l'Ouest. Her speciality is the study of organisational and managerial innovations in relation to new technologies. She is the co-author, with Marie-Laure Cahier, of the book "Le travail à distance dessine-t-il le futur du travail" (Presses des Mines, Collection Les Notes de La Fabrique), which was recently awarded the Syntec Conseil prize for the best book in management.

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