July 14, 2016
In France, we might have been the first to behead a King and hold a revolution, or to stand on barricades and die for ideals of justice and equality, but when it comes to change – especially in large organisations– we always seem to lag behind. You could blame it on a number of factors: a cultural bias towards tradition, the legacy of an interventionist and ever-present state, spawning bureaucratic models of large state-owned corporations, the everlasting grasp of the elites stifling innovation and the ability to “think outside the box”… Whatever this may be, the debate around remote working – a type of work organisation which allows employees to work regularly away from the office – in France has always been articulated around the preconception that France was behind. And that while its Anglo-Saxon or Nordic European neighbours displayed a boastful 30 percent of the working population as remote workers, France struggled to reach a meagre 9 to 10 percent in 2010.
In contrast, French Government studies showed that by 2015 50% of the working population would be eligible to remote work. And with the huge advantages that this type of work organisation provides, our backwardness seemed like just another archaic trait holding us back. Which confirmed another stereotypical vision that French have of themselves: as a somewhat intellectually-enlightened but economically struggling-to-stay-ahead nation, nostalgic of the days when we could call ourselves a “great nation”.
At LBMG, we started looking closely at the subject in 2010. As young entrepreneurs who had been jumping through the hoops of large organisational transformation projects (either as consultants or as project managers in large companies), we couldn’t quite understand the world we were living in. For example in Paris, people still commuted over two hours every day, in what can only be described as quite adverse conditions (try the RER A line going into the main office hub of La Defense around 8:30) only to open their laptops and work online, on tasks that could be carried out – at least part of the time – remotely. It seemed to us that a lot of time and effort could have been saved by working in this way – but very few companies actually did; or didn’t seem to.
When trying to measure the percentage of the active population working remotely in France at the time, we realised:
- That the definition of remote work or remote work itself is quite a complicated task (is working from a hotel lobby or from your car considered remote work? Should freelancers be included in the analysis? Should we take into account occasional work from home, even if it’s a few days per year for exceptional reasons?)
- That the comparison between different European countries was made harder for the lack of serious studies on the subject, and the various ways of measuring the phenomenon.
- That even if remote work is defined in French labour law since 2012 (“loi WARSMANN”) most of the remote work today is done outside of a signed contractual relationship between employee and employer. The great majority of this type of organisation of work is therefore done “illegally” or what we call in a “grey area”.
This is a specific characteristic of France which needs to be understood so see how the phenomenon is evolving today and impacting the work environment at large. As labour law is very restrictive , remote work is supposed to be strictly defined in the work contracts of employees wishing to benefit from this new way of working. The day can be set, or flexible. Most of the time a maximum number of days is set as well as hours where employees are supposed to be reachable. It requires the manager’s approval (not always easy), and a reversibility clause is included in the agreement. This means that today 60% of remote working is done informally on a “one to one agreement basis .”
To measure this phenomenon, we decided to align the definition of remote work to those of other European countries as work conducted away from the office more than two days per month. With this rule of thumb, France was hovering around 17% in 2010, more than 20% in 2015. Other interesting fact, in 2010, 45% of CAC 40 companies (top 40 companies in France) has signed a remote work agreement. In 2015, this number has raised to close to 90%. French companies want to put this in place by defining a general framework within their companies. However, putting a framework in place does not mean that a large percentage of the employee base actually embraces remote working. This can remain a marginal phenomenon, in companies that have not first revolutionised the work and management cultures, away from some of the typical traits that hinder our revolutionary instincts.
These traits need to be taken into account to understand the situation in France. Here are a few easy ones:
- In France staying late is a sign of performance: this might be a shock to some readers, but whereas in anglo-saxon working cultures staying late is a sign of bad personal organisation, in France it is seen as a way to prove yourself and show your dedication . No one really looks at the time you arrive in the office, but they do look at the time you go. Which makes no sense, we agree here. The famous joke is that when working a high powered job and leaving around 6 pm, you will have invariable heard at some point a colleague with a quirky smile “ah, so you’re taking the afternoon off?”
- “I see you, therefore you work”. This translates in the fact that a lot of the management work today in France is not done on an objective basis, but on a presence basis: “if I see you on the open space I know that you are working” (even if you are spending most of the day on Facebook). More than that, it is the role and identity of managers and especially middle managers which are threatened by remote work, and this explains – partly – why remote work in France means complicated situations, and why it develops in an informal and unchecked “grey” way.
- Top management remains old school – what we have also witnessed first-hand is that in many companies top executives still have very strong negative and unfounded views regarding remote work. For them, it’s a way to take an early weekend, to pick-up your kids on Wednesday afternoons, to watch TV all day while working (or not). “Teleworking? Isn’t that working in front of the tele?” (True quote during an EXCOM meeting on the subject some years back). So whereas employees in France are globally quite fond of the idea (around 70% would like to work remotely part of the week; managers and top managers are very suspicious of this trend, and if they don’t usually openly declare themselves hostile, in more private or “off” contexts you understand that sometimes whole departments involving thousands of people are not allowed to work remotely because at the top level people are just convinced that this is a very bad idea.
The consequences for people and organisations are huge: decreased happiness at work and engagement, increased turnover and absenteeism, decreased productivity and efficiency… All the benefits of remote working are denied to millions of French workers every day, just because their bosses think that work is in the office and nowhere else. Taken as a whole, this means that the challenge facing some large companies in France is equally huge (we say “some” here because there are also signs everywhere that the more broad revolution of work organisation is happening in many areas and change is happening as we speak. These changes require rethinking work organisations, team by team on the key structural elements:
- Organisation: how are teams organised on a daily basis? How does remote working alter team organisation? How to balance flexibility and the need to interact, to meet?
- Management: how are people managed? What specific management structure, processes and cultures are in place to achieve collective and individual objectives?
- Performance: how is performance measured in my field / activity? What indicators can be used to measure the efficiency of my team?
- Workspace: which type(s) of workspace(s) is(are) needed? For what activities? Changing workspace from a space-base approach to a usage-base approach, and seeing workspace as not only workspace within the office, but anywhere (see next section on coworking)
The whole remote working debate in France is a great revelatory of a very specific work and organisational culture, where management (top and middle) especially come out as lacking the basic skills and vision to switch to a flexible, agile, objective-base style management where work relationships are built on trust and not on control.
But what is happening outside the traditional company structure? How does the freelance movement and the workspaces they have created for themselves – coworking spaces – shed a different light on the phenomenon? And how are companies in France able to find inspiration in these communities to solve the problem of control and trust, and bring about a more flexible and innovative way of working?
The rise of coworking – an escape from the corporate model or a way to rethink it?
The multiplication of coworking spaces around the world is staggering. More than 7000 spaces have popped-up on every continent in less than 5 years . This global movement is a response largely to the development of the freelance, start-up and agile companies looking for flexible and collaborative office spaces where interaction and community is the prime asset. With the valuation of WeWork at 9-digit figures in the past year the trend has shown it is now entering a new phase of maturity and will compose the landscape of office space and work environment in the future.
France (for once?) is not lagging behind. We have seen a very dynamic and diverse offering of coworking spaces in France, with small independent spaces sprouting in every area (urban or rural), some developing franchises, and with the introduction of large industrial players (Bouygues, Nexity, Accor Hotels) on the segment of nomadic workspaces, we can safely bet that this trend is here to stay. On our website , we have accounted for more than 540 coworking space nationwide.
This means that a whole section of the French economy is starting to work differently. More flexibly, more collaboratively, coworking spaces also pave the way to new sub-cultures of collaborative economies, “maker” cultures (with fablabs, foodlabs often embedded) and alternative ways of living.
Keeping the focus on corporations, it’s easy to see how corporations might be inspired by this new trend. We’ve been studying this subject thoroughly at LBMG in the past years, because we believed that the core issues relating to remote work were somehow connected to the new arising trend of coworking. And the field to explore is huge, since only 6% of coworking users come from large corporations . Here are the leads that we have been (co)working on:
- Coworking spaces as way to resolve the remote work issue (for managers). Coworking spaces can resolve some of the problems caused by remote work, especially homeworking, by providing professional environments separate from home, which reduces the suspicions of managers regarding homeworking. Partly because of the cultural specifics of French working culture, this means that coworking might be a very adequate solution to the remote work problem in France. We are seeing an increasing number of companies now offering their employees a choice between home and a network of coworking spaces.
- Coworking spaces as way to resolve the remote work issue (for employees). For employees, coworking spaces provide a stable, efficient and collaborative work environment, allowing an improved work-life balance and a way to separate professional and personal life. This is especially true at a time where work is increasingly invading personal space, increasing risks of burnout and “infobesity” – one of the next big challenges of our information-saturated society. The next labour legislation put forward by Holland’s government includes a “right to disconnect ” which companies will have a hard time putting in place in the future (applicability has not been the primary concern of labour law in the past decades). Moreover, these spaces provide efficient working environments for the ever increasing number of work nomads around the world. Instead of working from noisy cafés or hotel lounges, the connected modern day worker should be able to work anywhere, with flexible workspaces at the touch of his smartphone.
- Coworking spaces as an inspiration of the “ideal” workspace. One thing that coworking spaces tell us is that people choose to work there, instead of working from home or from regular business centres or office spaces. Sometimes paying substantial amounts for a monthly rent (around 300 Euros/month in Paris). So they must be getting some things right. Corporations have already started trying to copy this model – not only of workspace environment, but also of community management and collaboration, fostering practices that coworking has created… Out of thin air, a bit of furniture and quite large amounts of free coffee. We showcased the first study of what we call “corpoworking” last year: a trend for corporations trying to create their own internal coworking spaces, with some interesting insights
- Coworking spaces as sources of innovation. Well, the title says it all, but we believe that coworking spaces – and the community they harbour, can be great sources of innovation for larger corporations. A way not only to meet and interact with innovative communities of start-ups, makers, designers, but also just a way to “work outside the box” on a regular basis, and interact with an environment different from their own. As companies need to be more and more agile and open to their ever-changing environment, coworking spaces provide this area of interaction, via the basic functions of the workspace. Moreover, and interestingly, we have seen the ability for companies to employ directly evolving – and without complex purchasing processes – competencies and expertise.
More generally, what we are seeing today is the very early beginnings of a growing awareness that that the subjects of remote working, work culture, management, coworking spaces, shared office space, have to be weighed and thrown in into the mix to provide the modern and connected worker with the ideal and flexible work environment.
Flexwork: coworking, remote work, shared office space: the global winning equation
To tie this all up, what we try to instil within large organisations today is a global transverse vision of what work will be tomorrow in terms of workspaces – plural. In our view, it will be a mix – different for each company and for each person – of three categories of workspaces:
- Home – homeworking will remain strong and a choice which has to be left to the employee. If it’s convenient, if he/she can trust himself to work from home, if they have the adequate space and environment (think about a nice big house in the suburbs, but with two toddler twins running around the place) then they should be able to do it. How many times per week? Under which sets of rules and guidelines? This is totally up to the company / team to decide – and within the constraints of the French legislation. But it’s here to stay.
- Coworking spaces – effectively, are the missing link between home and the office. They are the “third place to work” allowing people to meet and connect to various communities, while remaining efficient nomadic workers. Coworking spaces, given the adequate network linking and seamless access, will become an outsourced and “on demand” office space usage on which companies will rely. Not only to cater for employee needs, but also to stomach occupation peaks, growth, local presence… And foster innovation. Coworking spaces are the key to the future of work.
- The office: a collaborative hub. If work is increasingly made remotely, the main office space has to change. Not only does it need to be more flexible, and maybe some savings can be made by putting in place shared office space. But this should never be the main objective. It also needs to be a place where people choose and want to come to work, collaborate, and interact. It’s not a place where managers look over employee shoulders to make sure the work is done. It will be a place where employees come to collaborate and infuse company values.
This is why the equation is win-win only if these three work environments are combined effectively. For workspace usage to decrease at the central office, remote work can be promoted within defined boundaries. But some of the space / cost savings which will be derived will have to be reinvested into: more collaborative spaces at the main office, and allowing employees to work from coworking spaces.
Moreover, the benefits from this new way of working should be measured not only in financial savings, but in time saving, motivation and engagement, decrease in turnover and absenteeism, health and burnout… And today it is still hard to convince companies and decision-makers to factor-in these elements. Perhaps top managers and executives need to start working from coworking spaces more often. In France especially, they might learn a thing or two of how fast change is happening, and how obsolete they are quickly becoming.
This feature first appeared in the most recent issue of Work&Place
Baptiste Broughton is co-founder of www.neo-nomade.com: connecting people with alternative workspaces. He is partner of LBMG Worklabs, consulting and web services, inventing new ways of working. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Warsmann Law (March 2012) made changes to French labour législation, including an official définition of teleworking: www.hoganlovells.com/files/Publication/352eee52-c08d-4368-a579-01564f2281bd/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/b72662f1-82b0-4ac1-b9f2-14392c78938f/French%20Legal%20and%20Regulatory%20Update%20-%20March%202012.pdf