“Usually when you want to change things, the way people work, for instance, you don’t change because you want to. You change because you don’t have the choice! And here, we had no other choices than to work, meet and teach online…”
Associate professor of human resource management at ESCP Business School and scientific director of the Reinventing Work Chair, Emmanuelle Léon discusses the pandemic’s impact on the way we work. Where are businesses today and what challenges are to come? Stick with us to find out.
How has the way we work been reinvented by the global pandemic?
I’m not sure it’s been reinvented, but I think the pandemic has accelerated some of the trends we’ve seen before. In terms of flexibility, for instance, where we work, when we work, on what we work, has definitely been shaken by the pandemic. Remote working used to be only for certain types of people, certain levels of hierarchy, certain tasks, etc, and, in most countries, it had to be on a voluntary basis. What we’ve been experiencing this past year is that nearly everyone has been working remotely, no matter the level of hierarchy you have or which task you have to do. So I’m thinking it’s more an acceleration of work flexibility, which was there before but became, for quite a few, the new way of working. How we are using this flexibility is yet another story…
Do you think remote working will stick around as we return to some form of “normal”?
It’s going to depend on a couple of factors. We will have companies that really want their employees to come back to the office and others that will be like: “Okay, we’ve tried remote, everybody’s happy with that, let’s keep on going.” These are two positive aspects if everyone agrees. Where it’s going to be an issue is when, for instance, top management has decided that people should work remotely, which enables the reduction of real estate costs, and people still want to come in. Or the other way around, the company wants everyone to come back and people don’t feel they should. They’ve sensed some kind of freedom and autonomy through remote working, and they don’t see why they should take risks or two hours to commute to the office. These combinations depend on the economic situation of the company and the company culture.
I’m amongst the optimists who hope that there will be good trade-offs between companies, employees and managers. There must still be a mutual gain understood by both parties.
That said, remote working can’t only be seen as a perk. Remote work is associated with an advantage, but it should just be a new form of work organisation. It’s not a plus; it’s just different.
What will the long-term impact be on the way we work?
I think this pandemic may lead us to rethink what we do in the office and what we do remotely. At the moment, it’s not the case, because it’s still an emergency. We haven’t had time to think about that. We had to pursue the activity, and I think most people did the best they could. If we are to keep going, there’s a point where asking someone to come to the office to answer their emails and do video conferences is going to be absurd. There is an opportunity here to rethink what you do with the office, with less individual workspaces, probably more collective workspaces, more innovation rooms, more places where you actually have what you don’t have remotely, which is your team and cohesion. However, hybrid work will come in different shapes and forms.
There are two basic needs when you work: you need to be able to concentrate and you need to be able to interact. Face-to-face interaction is still much better than what we can do remotely. That said, we also need to be able to concentrate, and obviously, the more you open up offices, the harder it is. This means that working from home is seen as where I keep my work that requires concentration, but it necessitates that I have a home in which I can concentrate. The need for concentration outside the office and home is opening the door to other types of environments, like coworking spaces.
What are some of the challenges that managers face with these “new ways of working?”
Once again, some of the challenges were there before, but they’ve become much more acute. I would say there are three key issues:
1) How do I do hybrid management?
Whether everybody is remote or everybody is on site, everyone’s on the same page. But when you have part of your team working remotely and part of your team with you, then you may be facing difficult management situations. People on site will feel more pressure because the manager is nearby. Teleworkers will feel they are out of the loop. New skills need to be deployed to avoid the pitfalls of this type of context. It also raises questions such as team cohesion, integration of newcomers, performance evaluation, and so on and so forth, cohesion in a context where the team will not be together?
2) How do I define what I do when I’m remote and when I’m in the office?
At the moment, I would say we’ve taken the worst of both, which means that we are piling meetings one after the other and are constantly disturbed by chats and emails. It’s like we’ve taken all the hassles from the office and brought it home without having time to concentrate, which should be the objective of working at home, most of the time. Let’s hope that the recent results in terms of stress, work exhaustion, will lead us to look at things a bit differently. What you read on the topic, and it is true, is that interactions should occur in the office, as much as possible. But is it enough? In my perspective, I think there are four key dimensions to explore: can the task be done by only one individual, or do we need teamwork? Can it be done asynchronously, or does it need to be done at the same time? Are we dealing with business as usual, or innovation? How sensitive is the topic at hand? It seems to me that a combination of these four dimensions makes more sense than just saying: “concentrate at home, interact in the office.”
3) What about those who cannot work remotely?
The third issue is about equity in the workplace. Some workers cannot work from home because of their jobs, such as people in factories or people whose level of security necessitates they work in the office. And this could actually segment the population. We’re going to have a lot more employees working remotely, and it’s going to be much more painful for those who are not allowed to do so. Now a lot of companies are asking: how do I maintain some type of equity? How do I make sure people don’t feel disengaged? I think that’s going to be a key issue in the coming months.
What would your advice be for managers to successfully lead their teams within this hybrid way of working?
In addition to the challenges mentioned above, time is also extremely important. For some jobs, starting and ending the day at fixed times will always be essential, for quality or safety purposes, for example. However, knowledge-based jobs, which are more often open to remote working than others, are also open to greater flexibility. In this context, managers need to adapt to management by objectives. In other words, as a manager, I should be able to accept the fact that I can’t reach you from four to six because I know you’re spending time with your kids, but you’ll be back to work from eight to ten. And that’s up to you as long as you reach the objectives. For the moment, I don’t see this as much in companies.
Flexibility should be viewed in three ways. We’re considering flexibility from the aspect of space because it’s more visible, but time and activity should also be looked at.
That said, to manage by objectives, you need to make sure people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. At the moment, society really needs a vision and mission. It’s easy to tell which companies make their employees dream and the ones which don’t. When Elon Musk says that he is going to colonise Mars, it’s definitely a kind of challenge that people like.
Because I’m not going to the office, I don’t “see” the company any longer. As a result, remote work tends to weaken the links between the person and the company as a whole, but not the relationship to one’s manager and colleagues. In this hybrid environment, a company’s purpose needs to be looked at more seriously, and managers seen as bearers of this purpose.