Teleworking during the coronavirus epidemic: a context without precedent. What advice for managers and employees?

Photo Aurélie Leclercq (002)

Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte

An article by Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte CNRS, IÉSEG School of Management, LEM UMR CNRS 9221

For several years, the context has been conducive to the development of teleworking. All of the conditions seem to be in place to accelerate the practice of teleworking in companies…Thus, in a normal context, provided it is well thought out and well supported, teleworking can be a “win-win-win” situation: for the employee, the company, and for society in general. The coronavirus epidemic has accelerated the implementation of teleworking, with new challenges and issues.

The current context is indeed unprecedented. Major differences exist with normal teleworking situations and need to be highlighted to understand the specificity of this mode of organization in the current crisis.

– In normal times, teleworking is a way of organizing work that gives employees more freedom, autonomy, and flexibility. This is usually at the employee’s initiative (in agreement with their company and hierarchy), which responds to well-defined objectives and aspirations. In the present case, teleworking is not really a choice (even if it is an invaluable way to protect oneself); we are forced to do so, constrained by the situation, for a long and still uncertain amount of time. This organization, to which we are currently subjected, can be very difficult and problematic for workers.

– Some may feel that teleworking, paradoxically, is a loss of freedom (related to general confinement, seen as a “long isolation”). All the more so when we consider that teleworking, during normal times, takes place only occasionally, thus fully playing its emancipating and liberating role, allowing employees a better work-life balance and alleviating their constraints (e.g. travel to and from work). Here, as this is not the case, teleworking isolates (this is also one of its primary vocations in the current context).

– The current situation highlights the lack of preparation that went into the implementation of teleworking: when possible, teleworking should be prepared, thought out, learned, and organized (for both the manager and the person being managed). In the current situation, we did not have the time. The current crisis calls for extremely rapid adaptation. Normally, the company tries to set clear eligibility criteria; it seeks to find a good balance between the number of days spent at the company and those spent teleworking (generally alternating the two). The company also gives itself time to rethink modes of management. In the current context, teleworking was adopted at the drop of a hat, without any initial preparation on a large scale, for employees who were not necessarily prepared, in companies that had not necessarily tried it before.

– Childcare is not normally part of teleworking – usually, teleworking is not compatible with childcare. These two activities are completely different, which should not usually be combined or mixed. In the current situation, we do not have another choice than to organize things in this way, which can be extremely complicated (especially with very young children). The perceived disadvantages and risks of teleworking generally experienced stem from the mix of their personal and professional lives. This interweaving of personal and professional time, which is naturally very complex in normal situations, is particularly acute in today’s context, where teleworking is much less organized, and where there is no fallback situation for childcare.

– Nor should we forget the psychological impact of this crisis without precedent – many employees have difficulty concentrating and being productive in this context that is very anxiety-provoking. It is a source of worry and anxiety for ourselves and our loved ones, when we know that an invisible enemy exists, that we may even carry it inside of us, and that it can be triggered at any time, and which we can pass it on without even knowing. This is far from insignificant in terms of employees’ well-being, motivation, desire and commitment.

Here is some advice that may prove helpful:

– For the employee:

o In any teleworking context, it is paramount to maintain a separation, even if it is just symbolic, between work and your personal/family life (in terms of time slots and workspaces). This requires a clear framework and self-discipline: arranging your workspace correctly, respecting the same work hours and rhythm that you normally have in the company, and making your entourage understand (especially children, if they are old enough to understand) that, even if you are at home, you are still working.

o It is also important to stay in contact with your team and colleagues (via modern communication tools, to be adapted depending on the type of request or the urgency of the situation/request). For example, it may be pertinent to decide, within a company, to connect at the same time every morning, even if this is just to greet each other, to check in, and to set some individual and collective goals. It is imperative that the ways of reaching each other be clearly identified – the regular use of collaborative tools like a shared calendar or instant messenger may reinforce social ties, the feeling of belonging to a team and an organization. Maintaining this link with colleagues, even virtually, is essential.

o With children (especially younger ones), it is necessary (but far from easy) to organize the daytime by separating activities clearly: professional and familial. Out of necessity, certain moments must be dedicated to the family, if only to distract children, who have clearly perceived the abnormality of this context and feel our concern, but also to ensure the continuity of their learning. Other moments should be reserved exclusively for work during specific times and in a clearly defined space. It is far from being easy, and requires adaptation, listening, communication and transparency. Many of us were not necessarily prepared.

– For the manager:

o The real challenge of teleworking is managing not only the physical distance, but also the psychosociological distance created by teleworking. For the manager, it is of utmost importance to be aware of employees’ feelings of isolation and to make sure that they feel comfortable, especially in the current context. During the strikes in in France in December, testimonials showed feelings of fatigue, a decrease in energy, a loss of engagement, a lack of human contact and of the company’s conviviality. Managing this distance is thus crucial.

o Even if this may seem secondary in the current, grave context, classic management styles are also set to evolve – in particular, it is recommended that the manager take an interest in the progress of each individual, without micro managing. Teleworking requires a “new philosophy”, which should lead the organization to rethink the way it works. Teleworking is a move towards employee autonomy, and the manager is often worried about losing control. The manager must learn to let go. It is essential to establish a relationship of trust with the teleworker. Despite the difficulty, it is necessary to overcome organizational rigidities, which are often specific to French culture, in order to develop goal-based management, which aims at evaluating whether or not objectives have been reached (on the basis of clear and measureable objectives, which depend on the context, the company, the type of career, but which should allow the teleworker to understand on which basis they are being evaluated). It is important to set clear objectives with teleworkers, to identify tasks, evaluate their completion time, define quality criteria and to create reporting indicators and tools. This requires a necessary “re-regulation of work”, based on the development of finer performance criteria, coupled with the development of employee autonomy.

The coming days, and the way in which telework will be conducted, seem more crucial than ever for the future and the sustainability (or otherwise) of this way of organizing work.