In 2004, Xavier de Mazenod left Paris and moved to rural Normandy. A former journalist who now works in communications, he set up Zevillage. What started out as a minor information blog on remote working gradually became more professional and is now the definitive website on new working methods in France. Mazenod now also runs training sessions on remote management and change management.
Is telecommuting firmly established in French companies? What obstacles still need to be overcome? What best practices should be followed? We found the answers from Xavier de Mazenod.
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IS France LAGGING BEHIND WHERE REMOTE WORKING IS CONCERNED? NOT REALLY
How widespread is remote working in French companies today?
Xavier de Mazenod: The interpretation of statistics on teleworking is the subject of some debate. For a long time, we relied on out-of-date figures that said about 5%-6% of workers worked remotely and that France was behind other countries because of its administrative and hierarchical culture.
Three years ago, we conducted a meta-analysis of the surveys conducted between 2002 and 2012 which revealed that about 17% of employees were mobile workers and around 14.2% worked from home in France. So it’s becoming increasingly widespread in terms of statistics.
“The term ‘telecommuter’ refers specifically to salaried employees. Otherwise we use other terms such as remote worker or mobile worker.”
#tELEWORKING: IN GREAT DEMAND
What are the advantages of teleworking?
The advantages are well-known. For employees, it ensures greater well-being and a better work-life balance, fewer travel expenses, less stress, fewer accidents in the workplace, but also greater productivity because they can work in peace and quiet without constant interruptions. There are also advantages for society and the environment: less commuting means fewer CO2 emissions and there’s less need to buy a second car.
“Teleworking is a way of familiarising employees with digital and collaborative working methods: they have to use them to be able to communicate remotely.”
And what about companies: what do they gain from introducing remote working?
The introduction of the Warsmann law in March 2012 which amended French labour laws and laid down an official definition of teleworking, was a turning point for a lot of organisations, particularly CAC 40 companies, many of which started introducing agreements on remote working at that time. Companies often begin the transition very tentatively: Orange, for example, one of the leading CAC 40 companies where remote working is concerned, began by signing an initial agreement then, a few years later, a much broader one. Orange now has some 6,000 remote workers.
“In organisations, a lot of organisational transformations start with the introduction of teleworking. In this respect, the company culture is very important: if the company’s management philosophy isn’t based on trust, as opposed to target and control-based management, it won’t work.”
Can any type of company introduce teleworking?
“Over 80% of CAC 40 companies have drawn up agreements for remote working.”
It’s easier for a company like Orange to implement remote working than, say, an energy multinational like Areva, because it has a digital culture, tools, technicians, etc. That said, where CAC 40 companies are concerned, the pioneers are in manufacturing: Renault was the first to introduce remote working in 2007, followed by Alcatel in 2008 and Michelin in 2009.
“The number of teleworkers also depends on the company culture: in some groups, managers are more open-minded and enlightened where digital is concerned.”
WILL TELEWORKING MAKE ITS WAY INTO THE PUBLIC SECTOR?
The public sector is also heading in that direction, albeit rather more slowly because in public administrations the management culture is more control-based than trust-based.
We worked on a teleworking experiment for government services in the Massive Central two years ago. Maceo, a regional economic development organisation, set up a study-action project in five regions to test remote working within public administrations – prefectures or environmental departments. Actually, we found that, apart from the employment contracts, it was pretty much the same as in the private sector: you have to communicate and help management evolve for it to be a success.
We’ve also worked with the Direction générale des entreprises (French government department, part of the Ministry of the Economy, in charge of helping companies boost growth and competitiveness, Ed). They wanted to implement teleworking across 27 SMBs in the manufacturing sector in Normandy – an industry where it’s notoriously difficult to work remotely. And yet we found that about 20% of employees were eligible for telecommuting. So it’s really something that applies to all types of companies and professions.
What reservations do people have about remote working?
The main concern, particularly on the unions’ side, is about remote workers becoming isolated. A lot of people are worried that teleworkers will be cut off from their colleagues. But whilst there is a risk of isolation for people working remotely for four or five days a week, this is very rare: most people only work from home one or two days a week.
Companies are also worried of course that employees won’t do any work once they’re away from the office environment: they are under the illusion that whilst staff are in the office, they can control them – which they can’t.
“The office is conducive to non-productivity: staff are constantly disturbed and it’s hard to concentrate on a task, particularly in open-plan offices. Whereas when they’re at home or in a co-working space, where people have a collective mindset and are considerate towards their co-workers, they’re more productive.”
MANAGING CHANGE WITHIN ORGANISATIONS
What advice would you give a company planning on introducing teleworking?
We now know the golden rules of teleworking: you have to communicate a great deal, involve all the stakeholders – i.e. IT, HR, Communications, the unions, etc. – in the project from the outset, run trials, etc.
You also need to provide staff with the right equipment: to take full advantage of remote communication and collaboration tools, typically you need an internet connection of at least 2 MB. If there’s a company server, you should set up a VPN to ensure a secure connection.
What sort of support do you offer?
In the initial phase, we give companies assistance with methodologies: we explain the implications of implementing a remote working policy, we help them with in-house communication, and offer legal assistance for negotiating agreements or drawing up addenda to employment contracts. We look at technical problems and how we might resolve them and set forth the prerequisites for teleworking, so that employees understand how it works.
Only then can we launch the pilot project. Later, once teleworking has been implemented, we can start on the more substantial organisational changes. If a company has lots of people working remotely, that can have an effect on the buildings, the lay-out of the office spaces, but also on management methods and external partnerships, and can even lead to the implementation of open innovation projects.
GREATER FLEXIBILITY, autonomY AND responsIbilitY FOR STAFF
“People want to be able to work whenever they want, wherever they want: that’s a major trend, it’s not just a passing fad.”
You shouldn’t just focus on official teleworking figures: that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of people work on the move these days: on the train, at home in the evenings or even take the odd day at home to draft a report: there’s a lot of informal teleworking.
“Telecommuting is a great way for companies to embark on the digital transition because it involves very down-to-earth matters: managing working hours, deploying collaborative tools, changing management. It’s an integral part of the transformation of organisations!”