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Remote working put to the test during lockdown: what lessons can we learn for remote working in the future?


“Lockdown has highlighted more clearly than ever the fact that not all employees are in a position to work remotely, accentuating the differences between business sectors and industries”


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France has long had a low rate of official remote working, a model primarily embraced by large companies. With lockdown, an unprecedented situation for the workplace, some employees have not been able to maintain their activity while others, who had only ever worked remotely occasionally if at all, have seen themselves thrown into long-term remote working. This remote working has also been very specific in its duration and the importance of determining factors from the personal sphere in terms of the organisation of space and time, as well as the work activities themselves.
What lessons have been learnt from this long-term remote working, which may influence how many companies prepare to introduce more flexible conditions for accessing remote working, and how they will plan for the growing number of remote workers?

Recent analyses from the French Statistical Office for Labour and Employment (DARES) [1] are a reminder of the low rate of remote working in France. In 2017, only 3% of employees worked remotely at least one day a week, where this is understood as a form of work organisation that: requires the use of digital tools, takes place away from the employer’s premises, on a regular basis, and could have been done at the usual workplace, whether for a portion of or all tasks. However, according to the wider definition (i.e. the new definition in the 2017 French Labour Code which removes the regularity criteria and relaxes the level of formalisation required), regular or occasional remote working involved 1.8 million employees, or 7.2% of the workforce in 2017.

 

Lockdown has highlighted more clearly than ever the fact that not all employees are in a position to work remotely, accentuating the differences between business sectors and industries that must, can or cannot maintain their activity; between companies of all sizes that are prepared or not prepared for remote working; between employees who need to be furloughed (for safeguarding their employment) and those who can work from home; between those who are used to remote working, either occasionally or regularly, and those who are not; between those who can work remotely in good conditions and those who can’t. It has therefore had the effect of uncovering inequalities in the working world.

Remote working and the flexible working hours that go along with it remain the territory of executives, who experienced significant changes in their ways of working with the advent of the digital revolution [2].

 

This article is based on several qualitative studies conducted over the last ten years or more, in the Department of Social Sciences at Orange (SENSE) and within the “Digital Enterprise” field of research, regarding the place occupied by digital technology on the line between our personal and professional lives (including, therefore, its place in remote working) and the managerial support for these changes in space and time. More specifically, this article addresses the inequalities in relation to remote working during lockdown for employees who have had the option to work from home, and the lessons learnt from this extended period of remote working, thereby providing material on which to reflect with regards the improvement of remote working conditions [3].

 

Changing constraints, evolving communication

As we have explained, remote working during lockdown differs from normal remote working in terms of its duration, and therefore the absence of on-site working over a long period of time. It has therefore been characterised by a lack of unmediated, unplanned discussion or, in other words, a lack of intersubjectivity that only face-to-face interaction can fully provide. All exchanges take place via email, instant messaging and telephone. Overall, the volume of emails exchanged seems to have increased, particularly during the first two weeks of lockdown. Email has reinforced its role as the “Swiss army knife” [4] of internal company communication. Depending on the specific nature of the business, the number of emails has increased significantly for some and dramatically reduced for others, reflecting inequalities in the ability to ensure business continuity. The volume of exchanges via instant messaging also seems to have risen. It is no surprise that these messages, broadcast in almost synchronous time (creating the possibility of asynchronicity) and using simplified writing forms (somewhere between written and oral), have substituted and transformed exchanges that would have taken place face-to-face.

Face-to-face meetings have been replaced by group calls, perhaps with screen-sharing or even, in some cases, video calls. These meetings aim to compensate for the absence of face-to-face interaction, but are unable to replace it. The technical capacities of the tools adopted (a network which, depending on how overloaded it is, may lead to fluctuating sound quality) or the multiplication of interactional problems during remote meetings all serve to remind us that these meetings need to be organised in a specific way and that, although they represent a solution for transmitting information and organising business activities, they are no substitute for face-to-face meetings.

Mutual support has been organised on companies’ internal social media networks. These are also used to circulate documents to a large number of employees, informing them of events and seminars held remotely, without overloading inboxes.

Overall, without the intersubjectivity provided by face-to-face interaction, communications have often been negatively affected, becoming potential sources of stress for employees.

We should remember, too, that digital tools are only resources for action. They will form part of the extension of exchanges already in place [5, 6].

In some cases, the impact of this lack of face-to-face interaction seems to be mitigated, particularly for people who are used to working together or talking to each other and who will continue to do so even if remote working continues in the long term. The notion of “transactional distance” [7] explains this feeling of proximity that develops between people (as presence on the cognitive, educational and social planes), despite not having met in person for a long time. The cohesion of mini working groups is therefore important for maintaining remote links.

It is likely that remote working in lockdown has increased the isolation of employees who were already isolated, as well as the volume of employee exchanges that are “knots in the networks”. These theories have yet to be confirmed.

The configuration of remote working situations has also varied. While, for some, remote working could be the opportunity to withdraw from an overly sociable workplace to focus on in-depth tasks, the same remote workers may have found themselves in a very different situation during lockdown, where that sought-for silence has been filled by sociability in the home, with its own specific characteristics, in which family discussions intermingled with parents’ work conversations and children’s demands. The structure of the home therefore has an influence on the fragmentation and distribution of tasks, as well as the risks encountered by individuals (risk of isolation for single people, risk of severe overwhelm for single-parent households, etc.). The option of having a workspace within the home that allows employees to shut themselves off, or even of having co-developed remote working rules allowing each family member to work, influence the conditions for working from home.

 

Lockdown has revealed inequalities

Lockdown has therefore revealed the inequalities that exist between employees, in terms of determining factors that are unique to them, both in the personal and professional sphere. Specific characteristics of their jobs, seniority and position in the classification of professions and socioprofessional categories all have repercussions for an employee’s level of professional autonomy, i.e. ability to maintain activity as close as possible to that performed on work premises or in a normal remote working situation, and the ability to evaluate, select and reorganise the most useful tasks to be performed during the lockdown period. Ability to perform is also influenced by: family situation (tension, harmonious couple relationship), stage of life, age of children (from young children requiring constant attention to teenagers who can do their home learning independently, picking it up and submitting it online), nearby presence of grandparents (between useful childcare resources and dependent parents), gender and the distribution of household tasks. For example, children have been predominantly taken care of by women: 83% of women living with children have dedicated 4 hours a day to them, compared with 57% of men [8]. Likewise for company size: the smaller the business, the closer the links between the two spheres, making it easier to organise mutual support and solidarity. Equipment such as work smartphones and computers, which influenced how the line between the two spheres was managed due to their ability to disseminate data between office and home, has been put to the test again in terms of how it is shared within the household. Depending on the equipment available in the home (availability of personal computers, tablets or smartphones for children), work computers may become important tools enabling children to pick up and submit homework online, and to research information. The availability of equipment within the household may therefore lead to a prioritisation of tasks to be performed remotely at certain times of the day. It may require working hours to be organised in a different way (needing to find specific time slots), and may even result in the modification of the time markers of the day. The dilution of the latter may be the source of occupational risk: less frequent interruptions and pauses, with an increase in the onset of musculoskeletal problems, for example. There are also inequalities to be found in the distribution of spaces within the home. A quarter of women, for example, work remotely in a dedicated room where they can shut themselves away, compared with 41% of men. As another example, the children of executives (as their children’s academic success is an important social reproduction issue) are more likely to work in a separate room [2].

 

The benefits of remote working have remained largely topical during lockdown: reduced stress due to the removal of time spent travelling and the feeling of being available for one’s family and friends, reduced perception of occupational stress (particularly of role-related overload, for example perception of having tasks to complete and very heavy responsibilities to assume), reduced emotional stress due to work and the time needed to recover after work, increased concentration [9]. These benefits are nevertheless regulated by factors that are unique to each individual, as outlined above.

 

Managers play a crucial role

As with normal remote working, the role of managers is crucial in managing the line between personal and professional life, and in seeking new types of balance between members of their team (or groups they lead), all remotely: maintaining communication and cohesion within the team, organising regular discussion opportunities (regular meetings with all team members, availability slots, etc.), ensuring the fluid circulation of information within the team, listening to their team to identify and manage specific difficulties related to long-term remote working, organising methods for remote checks and assessments, etc. This role is nevertheless diminished with distance.

Likewise, at company level, messages giving advice to employees on correct remote working conditions have multiplied. But the capacity to implement this advice (“separate your personal and professional life”, “keep to set hours”, etc.) varies from one employee to the next. Remote working in lockdown has therefore served as a reminder that we are not all equal in our ability to regulate our work-life balance.

 

Conclusion

Lockdown has severely tested the line between our personal and professional lives, despite its management having already been the subject of intensive social work. The sudden absence of the face-to-face aspect in professional connections has had an impact on the completion of tasks, depending on the individual determining factors related to both spheres. In other words, very varied work and family contexts have resulted in inequalities in the ability of individuals to organise their remote working and to disconnect, to reorganise their activity and to ensure its continuity. In addition, face-to-face interaction has been transferred from the professional sphere to the private sphere, changing the weight of family demands that would arise during normal working hours.

Lockdown has therefore altered the balance between presence and distance, between remote working and on-site work, that employees and managers were familiar with before the crisis. With the absence of face-to-face interaction, communications suffer and coordination weakens, whether managerial coordination or permanent adjustments between colleagues and peers. This weakening can be partly avoided through strong connections between colleagues who regularly work and communicate with each other as part of their job, or even strong links established between employees on the margins of the professional sphere.

Lockdown may mark a turning point in the development of remote working (a theory yet to be confirmed) but it is important to note that, in most cases, remote connections are built on and are an extension of those that exist in person. Good in-person relationships create the conditions necessary for quality remote working.

Managerial coordination is just as important remotely as in person. It risks being weakened when remote working is continued for too long. It is therefore important to keep a balance between presence and distance, to maintain good-quality links between employees but also between managers and the teams they lead (whether hierarchical, operational or other more cross-departmental work links).

The extension of remote working therefore assumes not only the correct equipment, consideration when it comes to the organisation of activities (which can be performed remotely and which need to be carried out in person), and even their reconfiguration (for employees who have not been very involved in remote working until now), but also quality face-to-face social connections.

This lockdown period is opening up new perspectives, raising questions and calling for studies on the conditions for a potential wider development of remote working, alongside the organisation and reorganisation of activities to make remote working possible for as many employees as possible, as well as in connection with changes made to managerial support, to maintain effective remote coordination.


“Lockdown has highlighted more clearly than ever the fact that not all employees are in a position to work remotely, accentuating the differences between business sectors and industries”


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