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[Future of Work] How to make Remote Work actually work?

Foresight Researcher Sylvia Gallusser at Silicon Humanism (California) and Futures Studies Professor David Kalisz at Paris School of Business (France) have recently published a white paper on remote work in Harvard Business Review France’s Expert Column.

We conducted an analysis on key success factors of working-from-home as a dominant culture — why is it inscribed in California workers’ culture and why are European countries such as France still reluctant to implement it at a larger scale?

From an historical perspective, office life is the exception, not remote work!

First of all, we investigated remote work under an historic angle and replaced office life in perspective. The workplace and the 9–5 work schedule is actually a rather recent invention. We can date it from the beginning of the 20th century with the creation of the first big corporations, whereas in the 19th century, people were either working locally in a mine, farm or in small workshops, or working from home as independent professionals, lawyers, doctors, scholars. After the celebration of corporate paternalism, office life, and the workplace as a strong component of social life, the return to working from home has been made possible thanks to technology advancement, such as the personal computer (1975), internet and electronic mailboxes (1990), Skype (2003), and Slack (2009). The first companies to offer remote work were American Express, IBM and AT&T in the 1990s. The size of the American territory, the working conditions (a couple of weeks vacation per year) and the transactional way of conducting business in the U.S. (versus a more relational model in Latin countries) turned distance working into a habit.

Remote work is a social fact, according to Durkheim’s definition

Secondly we looked at statistics and analyzed remote work under the angle of a social fact, following Durkheim’s method to study social facts. Remote work is significant enough in California, it is inscribed in the culture and applies a constraint onto the individual. It includes regularly working from home, letting your team know about your location, remaining available, checking in, and reciprocally accepting your colleagues’ own remote work behaviors. Already before the pandemic in 2019, the part of Californins who worked from home full-time was 5.8% (Source: CNBC). A large number of companies offer it tacitly when hiring. Between 2012 and 2017, telecommuters increased from 39% to 43% in California (Source: CNBC). Remote workers are accountable for their behaviors regarding coming to the office versus working from home: They are aware of the mandatory aspect of an important in-person meeting. It would even looked inadequate for a person employed in a California tech company to never proceed to remote work. When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer tried to ban working-from-home, she received bad publicity from the employees in the tech industry as well as from the media. In California tech companies, remote work has become an integrated norm.

The false assumption that remote work decreases productivity

Thirdly, we took a look at the economic impact. We investigated common arguments made about remote work being counterproductive and demystified this urban legend. The numbers actually show that remote work increases productivity! A recent study by Mercer proved that 94% of employees from 800 companies reported an equal or superior productivity compared to pre-pandemic. The link had first been proven in 2013 in a study conducted by Nicholas Bloom: Whereas a Chinese company called Ctrip wanted to compare administrative gains made by remote work versus costs generated by productivity loss, the study revealed that not only did the company gained in operational savings (no desk, less commute…) but it also gained in productivity by 13%! So why are some countries still reluctant to implement it or even advocate for it?

Trust is the key!

We broke down the problem to the one core success factor: Trust. You need trust between employer and employee to have remote work. As soon as there is mistrust, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy: because you don’t trust employees to be fully dedicated to their work at home and because you over control or micromanage them, you end up with frustrated employees who will explore the slightest window of opportunity to enjoy some freedom. So instead of entering a vicious cycle of mistrust-control-mistrust, we expect modern companies to provide their employees with the tools, environment, and mental support to enable genuine remote work. Training on online productivity applications, onboarding on distant work processes, and attention to employee’s mental health are becoming key for employers to reverse the vicious cycle of mistrust into a social contract based on trust between employer and employee.

A new form of paternalism to avoid burnout

As we move to remote work, we should not underestimate social isolation or risk of burnout, which remain as acute as at the office if not even more. And the paternalism of offering a workplace with free food, events, and other perks, should be transferred to another form of paternalism: offering the worker a mobile workstation, contributing to developing a worknet (instead of a workplace), training and onboarding on distant technologies, and providing mental health support.




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Sylvia Gallusser

Sylvia Gallusser

Global Futurist - Strategic Foresight, Futures Thinking, Future Fiction, Sensemaking. Founder @Silicon Humanism. Board Member @Grey Swan Guild.

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