Remote working: from culture to practical implementation.
Guest post by Leo Benkel, CEO and Founder of PURE LAMBDA
COVID-19 has been a pivotal event in the remote working culture, accelerating how people and most companies behave. But remote working is not new. In this article, we will explore how successful remote working works, what needs to be put in place and what the future of work will look like.
Remote working: from the exception to the new norm.
Remote working is not new. The COVID-19 crisis has just accelerated its adoption. In the US, working habits have changed already a long way, especially in the context of the "Gig Economy" (note: A gig economy is a labour market that relies heavily on temporary and part-time positions filled by independent contractors and freelancers rather than full-time permanent employees.) which became massive with companies like Uber, or TaskRabbit. The COVID-19 crisis pushed the more prominent corporations to move towards this system and trajectory. And, it has highlighted how companies handle remote working based on their internal culture and management style.
On the extreme side, you have the CEO of Shopify, who announced the company would be “digital-by-design”, allowing employees to work from anywhere. Indeed, even if Shopify continues to open new offices for “highly intentional, in-person gatherings”, Tobi Lutke announced that most of the Shopify workforce would work remotely "permanently", meaning that it is the preferred option and that working in an office is no longer the norm but the exception.
Pinterest went as well for a radical solution as they dissolved their lease contract, agreeing to pay 90 million dollars to dismiss it. This means that, as a company, Pinterest preferred to pay 90 million than pay rent. Nevertheless, after COVID-19, some companies choose to re-embrace the "working office" like Tesla. In an email sent to the company's executive staff with the subject line "Remote work is no longer acceptable", Elon Musk said that employees must spend a minimum of 40 hours per week in the office or else "depart Tesla." Only a few months later, we can tell that this move was pretty bad because many people left Tesla. As he enforces a similar policy at the recently-acquired Twitter, reactions to his management style are most critical, including resignations from top-level executives.
COVID-19 changed people's habits and working culture profoundly. From a management perspective, relying on old habits and culture while working at the offices is a mistake. This is particularly strong in Europe because companies traditionally have a lot of management layers that proved during the COVID-19 crisis to be less critical than thought.
Remote working: the US versus Europe?
The cultural difference in working habits is significant between the US and Europe, especially in the management style. Looking at Google, for instance, who have thousands of employees, but only three layers of management, making work much more agile. The critical difference between the US and Europe comes from the freedom of hiring and firing, which can mean less protection for the employee but also means much more agility and risk tolerance both for the employer and the employee. In the US, if a person doesn't fit in, they can break their working contract very easily, contrary to Europe. This goes hand in hand with management processes and micromanagement. When you start controlling employees, they behave like kids because you treat them like kids. That is why the company needs more tools and more "layers" to manage the employees that might not event want be there in the first place, creating those loops of "forced labour".
With this type of structure, remote working is not very efficient, which is probably why many European companies are now forcing people to come back to the office. Otherwise, as a company, it means rethinking your entire management structure, reviewing how to treat and evaluate your employees (results vs hours spent in the office) and adapting your recruiting strategies. This is a massive shift that the pandemic has highlighted.
The question remains though: which companies are willing to take this leap of faith and which companies are not, considering that a lot of this "new way of working" is based on trust. This shift is not only for tech companies or startups; it is a question of management. Siemens, a multinational conglomerate corporation and the most significant industrial manufacturing company in Europe, already issued back in 2020 a fantastic remote work report stating that if you can't trust your employees, you, as a company, have a hiring problem. Siemens board approved in 2020 a new working model which allows employees to work from where they are most productive, including at home or from a co-working space for two or three days a week.
Remote working: more than an infrastructure set-up, a company culture
This evolution towards remote and hybrid work makes the Fiveoffices model more and more relevant. By offering a solution that provides affordable and flexible office rentals, Fiveoffices allows companies to adapt more easily to these new working patterns. It’s also the perfect way to sublet an office that is under-utilised because of remote and hybrid working schedules.
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However, it’s essential you find a way to treat all employees equally when you decide to enter the hybrid world. It's just normal human behaviour and usual cognitive biases to promote the employee you see every day, even if they are not the most productive team member, because you get used to seeing them. When it comes to promotion, they will be the first person coming to your mind. So to counter those biases, you need to consider everybody as if they were remote with automated systems that can objectively measure performances. In addition, you need to help your people have the right environment to work remotely with a suitable desk, the right chair… The company's model will require investments, so the employee has the right tools to work.
Remote working: the future of work?
While this model is much further away from what we experience today, I invite you to imagine a future where everybody is a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) employee, meaning that:
- you don't even have a full-time job anymore,
- you work for several different companies in parallel,
- and you discover that one of the people in your co-working space is also working for this company.
- so, you decide to share and exchange tasks.
What would it mean in terms of management? It would mean that we are moving towards the flat organization and self-organized structures where the work is organized by tasks and not by hierarchy. If the rewards are high enough, someone will do the task. Perhaps in this model, we would have automated algorithms to optimize the split of tasks using AI. This model is, of course, not made for all industries. In Horeca and the Health system, we would still need, for the moment, physical (and even highly specialized) employees. But who knows what the future holds? Tesla just released the first demo of their like-humanoid robots. It doesn't feel very stable yet, but Tesla is using the same technology as self-driving cars and the same technology as open AI. Perhaps in ten years, a surgeon will use a computer to perform surgery through a robot directly at your home. Even today, many doctor consultations are done via video conference. In addition, remote work is also a more ecologically responsible way of working and living because of less commuting time, resulting in less use of cars, and a great deal more housing if we need fewer office spaces as a result of more people working from home.
If COVID-19 has accelerated the process, remote working is definitely on its way to becoming the norm, even if we still face some resistance from traditional companies today. This resistance is pretty understandable because remote working is entirely challenging our organization model as a society: it impacts how we are structured as a society and how we function as individuals. The road is still long but inevitable…and that is excellent news.