Remote working: overcoming preconceptions for the best of both worlds
- 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.