12-Oct-2017

In a previous article, we found the best way to successfully switch to remote working heaven, but we need to remain vigilant as there are some potential traps.

How to ruin remote working and end up in hell

In a previous article, we found the best way to successfully switch to remote working heaven, but we need to remain vigilant as there are some potential traps. If we are not careful (or just plain negligent), we risk getting caught and falling into a spiral of remote working hell.

"Hell exists! I’ve been there!" It’s not something you often hear about remote working. Indeed, it’s hard to find negative voices among either managers or employees when it comes to their remote working experience.

For employees, the satisfaction rate for remote working is over 95%. According to a survey by AfterCollege, 68 percent of millennial job seekers consider that working remotely greatly increases their interest in specific employers. As far as managers go, this organizational method is greeted a little more coolly. But, even so, human nature is often “the slowest thing to change”, according to innovation authority Scott Berkun. Company managers will often admit that remote working is effective once they have actually tried it, and according to Berkun, it often happens in smaller organizations.

When remote working becomes hell

Despite its widespread popularity, there are of course employees who do not want to work remotely and there are managers who are convinced that it is the worst evil that could happen to their company.

It’s certainly reasonable to not want your employees to work remotely. Indeed, that is what the majority of employers think... Well, the majority of employers who have not tried it!

As things stand, things vary greatly from one country to another. Despite the lack of a consistent international definition of “remote working” by the ILO, some numbers are available. In France, 20% of the working population works remotely for example (White Paper survey of Remote Working, 2013), remote workers are supposed to be far more numerous in the Netherlands and the UK. According to the Dutch bureau of labor CBS, for instance, in the Business Services sector only, around 35% of local workers are working from home at least once a week. In the United Kingdom, the Government stated in a 2014 study that up to 69% of employees working in companies with 500 employees or more have the option of home-based working available to them.

On the employee side, there is also some resistance to remote working. In France, the law says that remote working can only be instituted with the employee’s agreement (however, things are set to change with the advent of the new labor law which should be voted by parliament in 2017. With it, remote working will become a right for employees, and businesses not wanting it will have to prove that it is not applicable to their staff). Some enjoy the daily meetings and catch ups with their colleagues and the atmosphere in the office, after all, it can be lonely to sit at home in front of your computer. It’s a valid concern.

But this lack of acceptance can also become a hellish fear, particularly with employees who refuse to let their work set foot into the sacred environment of their home.

However, if an employee chooses remote working, they can still be consumed by worries. The typical day of a remote worker who has switched to this new hell is made up of procrastination, missing the human contact of their colleagues or manager and suffering from the humiliation of unreturned calls and unanswered emails.

For the manager, remote working can turn into one of their worst nightmares. The manager of a remote worker spends every moment imagining his employee sitting in front of the TV, taking a 2-hour nap, regularly disappearing to go to the dentist, to the cinema or to get the kids from school. Productivity collapses and team spirit is lost.

In reality, as we saw previously, the productivity of remote workers increases precisely because they are away from the office and the usual, continual interruptions that go with it. This does not mean that there are no risks. For example, they can work for longer than the time that they would otherwise use for commuting. And there is another hellish risk - burn-out. Especially when the pioneering remote working employee feels the pressure to be exemplary to show their manager that working remotely is a success.

A good manager avoids these issues. They will trust their employee because they trust them to work remotely but that does not mean that management will just abandon them in their home. They will have taken the time to set goals and clear targets and assure their employee that they will be available to help by phone, email or web conferencing. A good manager will also regularly ensure that their teams are working well together, whether they are working in the office or remotely.

Autonomy, trust and remote working does not have to mean being abandoned!

Hell is never certain

The risks mentioned above are fairly standard and well documented, with the solutions to avoid problems being easy to implement. Before implementing remote working, all employees must be made aware of the issues that this way of working poses for the business and, where necessary, given appropriate training.

It should be explained to management that remote working is not a threat to them but, rather, it makes their work even more vital. The role of managers is all the more important as teams can possibly become more disjointed and remote workers are subjected to the temptations described above.

The risks are further diminished when managers reserve remote working for the most motivated employees and make the effort to create close links with them.

In reality, failures in remote working do not appear suddenly. They are predictable and can be anticipated. When deliverables do not appear on time, targets are not met and teams start to fall apart, it can be seen very quickly by an attentive manager and they can take corrective measures including, potentially, the temporary or permanent removal of remote working.

What happened at Yahoo! in the United States is the perfect example of this type of management failure. When Marissa Mayer took over as CEO in 2012, she discovered a surreal situation: Remote working was in place but a large number of remote workers had simply disappeared. They had literally no contact with their managers.

The new CEO decided that the only solution was to remove remote working and bring everyone back inside the company's offices. She made that decision in 2013 and was still defending her decision 2 years later.

This hell was the direct result of a lack of management. The backlash was excessive but the situation was exceptional. In the short term, the solution worked but it did not cure the root causes of the company's difficulties. Yahoo’s results did not improve and Marissa Mayer will most probably be thanked eventually.

IBM also stopped remote working in America. The reason put forward was that, like Yahoo, IBM believed that remote working was harming innovation. To them, innovation was the only way out of the red after five years of financial losses.

We are not judging or commenting on the strategic choices made by IBM who, after all, was a pioneer of remote working. In France, in the 1990s, the multinational had developed a network of local offices around Paris to reduce the travel time of its employees. An innovation that has recently been referred to as "corporate co-working."

Will IBM replace one hell (financial hardship) with another hell (the end of remote working)? In effect, using remote working as a scapegoat?

Remote working does not affect productivity, as we have seen. Nor does it harm innovation as long as employees are not permanently out of the office. On the contrary, it is a tool which improves the quality of life of employees and, in turn, this increases their openness and availability.

IBM has chosen to align themselves with GAFA (Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon), where the trend is to spend as much time together as possible with employees in luxurious offices that relieve them of stewardship. But we must not forget that the origin of the word bureaucracy is the French word “bureau”, or office.

Work on my terms?

With a bit of experience, it is entirely possible to turn remote working into hell. The key is a lack of management and preparation.

But the ultimate secret to getting away from hell is having a strategic vision of remote working. This is not just an HR gimmick, it must be part of a philosophy of the company and its work and, furthermore, it has to infuse the business via the management.

Work today can be where you want, as you want and when you want, within the limits of the law obviously. The office is the central place of work but it is not the central place exclusively nor permanently. Sometimes we are mobile, sometimes in teams, sometimes at home, in a satellite office or in a co-working space, depending on our needs and the needs of the business.

Flexible, active management using clear targets and goals is the best way to ensure that the remote working experience does not turn into hell.

About the author
Blog author xavier de mazenod 80x80

Xavier de Mazenod

Founder of Adverbe and Publisher of Zevillage.net

Xavier de Mazenod, founder of the company Adverbe, publisher of Zevillage.net, a reference site on new forms and new workspaces Former journalist, Xavier de Mazenod is co-author of the book Les blogs, new media for all (M2 Editions) and ebook Influence and reputation on the Internet.

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