Prior to the pandemic, many European companies had already tried allowing employees to work from home. In most cases, this was only for a small number of workers and highly dependent on the type of job involved. For example, salespeople and other customer-facing employees need to be away from the office as much as possible, so it was natural to provide them with the tools they needed to work remotely.
But for other roles, remote work was usually discouraged. Many companies only accepted the arrangement for people with rare skills, or they allowed people who could work alone to work from home only part of the time – an arrangement which is now called “hybrid”.
The technology to support remote work had already evolved significantly before the pandemic. Almost everybody could get very high bandwidth service at home, video conferencing was well developed, and other collaboration tools were widely available – including instant messaging and document sharing.
Some organisations already had enough experience with work-from-home to develop a strong opinion about its advantages or disadvantages. On the upside, companies that not only allowed remote work, but also provided the tools to support it, could attract a wider range of talent because the candidates didn’t necessarily have to be in the same town, or even country, as the company. Spreading people out also allowed the company to extend their reach into different geographic markets – a practice that is especially beneficial when it brings customer-facing employees closer to customers.
On the downside, remote work resulted in a workforce that felt alienated, or that didn’t work together as well as they did when everybody was sitting in the same office. One of the most newsworthy cases of a company that came out against remote working was Yahoo!.
In February 2013, then CEO Marissa Mayer sent a private memo to all employees ordering everybody who worked from home to show up in the office by June that year. Angry employees released the memo to the press, which released it to a bewildered public: at the time, tech companies were the most likely to champion a work-from-anywhere policy. IBM followed suit four years later, implementing a “move or leave” policy in February 2017.
In contrast to the rigid position these two tech companies seemed to be taking against work-from-home, many organisations around the world maintained a more flexible stance, supporting the practice either in exceptional cases or on an occasional basis.
Meeting the challenges of a pandemic
When Covid hit, the pressure was on for chief information officers (CIOs) to quickly ramp up support for remote work. In many European countries, governments began recommending that companies let employees work from home. The recommendations quickly got stronger, and many companies decided not to wait any longer. “As the pressure began to mount, we sent many of our white-collar workers home,” says Fredrik Nordin, CIO of DB Schenker for Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.
DB Schenker had already deployed a standard digital global workplace well before Covid. This included a personal computer, Office 365 and a VPN for all white-collar employees, which is about half of the 77,000 people in the company globally. “Most of the tools were in place,” says Nordin. “But the sudden change posed great challenges for both leaders and workers. The company had to figure out how to use those tools as part of the daily routine. This included holding daily standup meetings by using video conferencing. After just a few days, daily stand-ups over Microsoft Teams were established practice.”
Meanwhile, in France, Michelin had a similar experience. They, too, had already deployed many of the tools to enable remote work. They had revamped their digital workplace in 2018, upgrading their Microsoft stack to modern cloud services. These tools were used to support work from home, even though that practice was the exception, not the rule. “Fewer than 10% of the workforce worked remotely before Covid – and even then, it was often just one day a week,” says Yves Caseau, chief digital and information officer at Michelin.
While many organisations had some experience with a dispersed workforce, virtually none were ready to have most of their employees at home. IT leaders were forced to engage in trial and error.
“In such a never-before-seen situation we of course made mistakes,” says Nordin. “One of them was assuming we could manage everything remotely as well as we do in the office. That proved to be wrong.”
“We moved too many meetings to Teams because it was convenient,” says Caseau. “It’s now clear that Teams is not a good place for complex topics such as architecture, unless a lot of effort is spent to prepare for the meeting.”
The Covid experience has changed the work-life balance – at least for the time being. DB Schenker now has a policy that allows people to work up to two days a week from home, as long as the nature of the work lends itself to remote work. Furthermore, company policy is that meeting organisers get to decide whether the meeting is onsite, hybrid or online.
Michelin also has a new policy, which treats hybrid as the new normal. Most of the time this means two days a week remote work and three in the office. “There is no one-size-fits-all,” says Caseau. “The pattern is decided locally, but on average, people tend to pick the same three days. Remote work is efficient for part of the workload, and it improves employee satisfaction in general.”
Companies that truly master the remote work arrangement reap additional benefits. In the Nordic countries, for example, a small trend has emerged for companies to attract workers from outside the country, where labour is significantly cheaper. Candidates can be offered a higher salary than they would get where they are, but still be cheaper than candidates in the Nordics.
Remote work also opens possibilities for attracting candidates with rare skills – such as artificial intelligence. In countries where these skills are lacking, companies can attract candidates in other countries without asking people to move away from home. But while some companies use remote work to attract talent, they need to be careful about the work environment they create long-term. They especially need to consider how they review the performance of remote workers.
Working from home doesn’t work for all job functions – and even for a given job function, it rarely works all the time. The same can be said for office work. Sometimes people need to concentrate, and they can do that part of their jobs better at home, where they won’t get interrupted by chattering colleagues.
The big experiment forced on us by the pandemic demonstrated that it’s possible to get things done with a dispersed workforce – but it’s not always the most efficient. IT leaders and business leaders are now trying to find the right balance for their companies. This healthy discussion generally yields a set of best practices that can be shared to allow people to learn from examples.
Michelin found that when a common goal is broken down into a set of distinct tasks to be orchestrated, you can distribute those tasks and have them executed independently. A digital platform helps very much in this case. But the job of constructing a new solution requires more creativity. Non-verbal communication is too important for the creative process and so is casual conversation. This kind of work requires collaboration, and is not well served by digital platforms, which tend to isolate people.
“Work, when mediated by a digital platform, can be both more efficient and less efficient,” says Caseau. “We learned that, in many cases, when using a highly digitised work environment, it doesn’t really matter if you work in the office or at home. But while this environment is good for accomplishing well-defined tasks, it is not so good for thinking ahead and strategising. That kind of work requires brainstorming and close collaboration.”
A higher degree of collaboration occurs when a few people get together and share Post-its and markers in front of a whiteboard than when they use their computer to move around virtual objects. “Another problem with the remote work – or even the digital workplace in the office – is overload,” says Caseau. “This can occur in any environment, but the problem is amplified by the digital workplace. We all know the problem of waning attention during Teams meetings, especially when the cameras are off. The paradox of remote working is that the practice of taking small breaks to minimise overload is even more necessary than in an office environment. People sometimes stay too long at their desks when they work from home. Stepping away from work is essential not only to our health, but also for work efficiency, because it promotes lean thinking.”
The growing trend towards hybrid
It’s hard to judge how long remote work will continue to be tolerated. “Remote working comes with challenges, including team-building, trust building and the emotional toll it takes on isolated employees,” says Phil Jordan, group CIO of Sainsbury’s.
Human resource experts agree. Remote work influences the well-being of employees – and sometimes that’s hard to spot when the person is not in the office. “Remote workers might feel isolated and emotionally distressed,” says Rune K Buseth, partner and executive consultant at Birn+Partnersin Norway. “Many of us have seen a person at work who answers, ‘I’m fine’ when asked, but whose body language clearly states otherwise. We lose much of the non-verbal communication with employees working 100% remotely.”
DB Schenker noticed it could fit more meetings into a single workday, but the lack of casual conversation at the water cooler was taking a toll. “Impromptu discussion is an essential element of collaboration,” says Nordin. “In the absence of spontaneous discussions, we have even more meetings to make up the difference.”
Some companies are back to the view stated in the Yahoo! memo from 2013: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”
But the younger generation may not accept this way of thinking. “For the younger cohort of colleagues coming into the business, flexible work arrangements are table stakes,” says Jordan. “The future is hybrid working. But it needs to be done right.”
Indeed, most companies seem to be settling on a hybrid arrangement, and often that means people can work at home up to two days a week. “What we see most commonly in Norway is that companies are offering increased freedom for individual workers to operate as they see fit,” says Buseth. “You are given freedom, but also the responsibility to act accordingly and deliver as expected. Having said that, many companies do encourage workers to use the office more, and many workers do seem to agree.”