As the Covid-19 unfolded, companies and their employees had to adapt quickly, with no time for a trial, facing a range of difficulties in order to set up remote working for the majority. This crisis has suddenly, and without warning, accelerated the development of remote working. This "constrained" experience across a huge subsection of the population will at least have made it possible to test the resilience of servers and networks, but also the managerial organisation of any company.
According to a recent study conducted by IFOP for BNP Paribas Real Estate, 41% of French people believe that this period of confinement has had a positive impact on their perception of remote working. Can conclusions be drawn from this study, or should we wait until a return to "normal" to know if this sentiment is one that lasts?
If going back to the office will be gradual and limited, social distancing risks impacting our behaviour towards others and our social reflexes. The way that an office building functions, which is still necessary and popular, will have to evolve. The integration of remote working in a broader sense will offer a legitimate response to such concerns.
A response to more demanding health standards
In a logical and predictable way, the health crisis will leave its mark and change our perceptions of public places such as train or underground stations, but also open plan offices, the reception area and company restaurants. Initially, the easing of lockdown will be gradual and some people will have understandable worries about returning to the office. Working from home will become the most logical alternative and will become a sustainable option, all the more so if similar crises occur in the future, or if social or climate related events disrupt the use of transport. What we can now observe is that companies are technically ready and will be able to offer their employees ever more efficient tools in order to pre-empt such situations.
A source of well-being and productivity
Long before the crisis, many people were already promoting the virtues of remote working, while others questioned its effectiveness. If self-employed workers were amongst the first ambassadors of remote work, the ease allowed by communication tools has convinced many others of its advantages, even those less comfortable with digital tools. According to the Actineo observatory, in its 2019 barometer, more than half of French people (53%) worked occasionally or regularly outside their company premises last year. Reducing travel times, optimising meetings, encouraging flexible working hours and allowing someone to stay focused on a task for longer without interruption, are proving to be valuable arguments for those who are working from home.
The comfort of a dedicated workspace at home and a few extra hours of sleep have a strong influence on mood and cognitive abilities. The figures confirm this, with 36% of respondents citing the lack of travel time as the most valuable aspect of remote work, with 18% referencing flexible working hours and 17% enjoying the quietness of the home office (Source: IFOP survey, April 2020 for BNP Paribas Real Estate).
However, it is worth recalling that the exceptional precedent for remote working simply cannot replicate the usual working conditions. Permanent and daily remote work is unlikely to be the desired choice of the majority. Indeed, according to the same study, the distinct separation between professional and personal life offered by the office is one of the most missed elements of the professional environment (29%). The negative effects of remote working are felt all the more as the number of days working from home increases, explains a study by the Telework Observatory published in May 2018. "The increase in workload is felt by 25% of employees who work from home more than two days a week, and 13% for employees remote working one or two days".
The environment also benefits
Decreasing the use of personal transportation means has a significant and positive impact on the environment. According to the Consumer Electronic Association (CEA), which brings together the major American electronics companies, remote working could save 3.2 billion litres of petrol and 9-14 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year. It would also reduce the release of 14 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Remote working is as such encouraged by the Energy Transition Act. Indeed, the Paris Agreements adopted in 2015 have highlighted different types of action in order to achieve the objectives set by governments and companies. Remote work is one of them and the study by the firm B&L évolution, a specialist in CSR and biodiversity issues, recommends "remote working at a rate of two days per week for all those who use their vehicles to get to their workplace and live more than 10kms away" (source: loptimiste.pro).
However, the same company explains in an article published on its website during the lockdown period, that daily remote working requires reproducing the CSR practices in place in companies, in order to limit our impact on the environment. Not being wholly reliant of digital tools is key. The environmental impact of digital technology represents 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 and is set to double by 2025 (according to a study by Lean ICT for Digital Sobriety, report by the think tank The Shift Project, October 2018).
Not everyone has the capacity to have a dedicated area in their home to work. New types of third party work locations will soon emerge to meet this need,
The office building is the foundation of our professional lives
Remote working is certainly desirable and encouraged, provided that it is supervised, rolled out in a moderate way and based on trust with employees. The company building will however always remain a place to socialise and offers technological equipment that the home office cannot provide. Furthermore, while remote working is appreciated, "not everyone has the capacity to have a dedicated area in their home to work. New types of third party work locations will soon emerge to meet this need," says Sylvain Hasse, Head of Corporate Services at BNP Paribas Real Estate.
As science fiction writer Alain Damasio summed up for Libération, "Studies have shown that in a face-to-face exchange, 70% of what passes from one person to the other is non-verbal. This means that an exchange by text message, group chat or e-mail barely transmits a third of what an in-person dialogue can convey. It lacks smiles, facial expressions, voice inflections and social cues. It can be argued that video apps make up for some of this, but video also has a disruptive element; flattening faces, altering voices and removing the warmth of human contact. We must remember that technology is only a simulation and cannot make up for the need for human contact and the enjoyment of physical connection.”
Human contact therefore remains the cornerstone of collaboration and confirms the major role that the office building will still have to play in the future. Yes, it will be a hybrid of physical and remote presence and encourage the development of third party spaces, but the future of work will still be human.