Covid-19 and its associated lockdown periods forced governments and businesses to adopt and impose a work-from-home policy on their staff. This work-from-home policy helped many companies and even nations to maintain some economic activity during these lockdown periods. But after this two year pandemic crisis, many business owners are now calling for an end to working from home. So where do things now stand in France and the rest of the world, and to what extent does working from home remain desirable? Let’s take a closer look.
The major American businesses want to see the end of working-from-home
The news came as an electric shock to many employees when a number of major American businesses decided to put an end to ‘work-from-home’. Hundreds of employees have been invited to return to the office... or resign their posts. But why? Is work-from-home really having a detrimental effect on corporate culture?
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, couldn’t have been any clearer: staff need to come into the office and work their 40 hours a week or leave the company. According to him, work-from-home is detrimental to business performance; the high standards to which Tesla is committed have been seriously damaged by these long months spent out of office because of the public health crisis. And work-from-home requests will now be assessed individually and only granted to the most outstanding employees.
Other CEOs have also openly declared their hostility to work-from-home. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan bank, has been highly critical of what he considers to be a major threat to corporate culture and spontaneous idea generation. According to Jamie Dimon, working face to face is essential for staff performance. Traders and financial officers have been ordered to leave their homes and come back to the office so that they can be better stimulated by the presence of their colleagues.
Other major international American businesses have had to reconsider their return to office policies. Confronted by a high level of resistance from staff, far from overjoyed at the prospect of being obliged to return to the office every day of the week, Apple and Google have opted for a more hybrid approach. Both work-from-home and face-to-face will be allowed, with a certain amount of flexibility.
As we can see, work-from-home is widely appreciated by employees whereas employers don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm. This has led to a variety of HR approaches amongst these companies. But the differences between the approaches of American businesses can be largely explained by the highly flexible nature of American the labour laws. The situation is very different in France, where the Employment Law (Code du Travail) provides a far stricter framework for relations between employers and employees.
Work-from-home in France: does this mean that the ‘Code de Travail’ will have to be changed?
At the peak of the pandemic, the French government imposed a work-from-home policy on all of the business sectors where this was considered possible. The ‘Inspection du Travail’ (Labour Inspectorate) has not hesitated to apply heavy financial sanctions on any business that did not comply, considering such behaviour as a public health risk. But, after two years of forced submission to the whims of Covid-19, what is going to happen now regarding work-from-home in France?
In the absence of any practicable agreement or charter, work-from-home is not obligatory for French businesses. And this is why a return to face-to-face working has accelerated here in the same way as it has on the other side of the Atlantic. However, an increasing number of businesses have opted to sign company agreements permitting work-from-home. Many French workers have in fact developed a taste for the high degree of flexibility that they have enjoyed over the last two years. But this is not the case for management, less than half of whom appear to like the idea.
And since work-from-home does not suit the majority of managers, finding that it makes staff management more difficult, another solution is gaining popularity in France: the hybrid workplace model. As with Google and Apple, this combination of work-from-home and face-to-face is seen as a more balanced solution, better adapted for the majority of businesses and sectors.
According to the ‘baromètre du Télétravail et Organisations hybrides 2022’ (Work-from-home and hybrid organisations survey), 82% of eligible staff would like to benefit from the hybrid workplace model. And here, staff expectations seem to get closer to those of their employers since 84% of French company directors also express a preference for this workplace model. Hybrid working would therefore provide a response to a social need whilst also boosting productivity and reducing employee absenteeism rates.
This desire for increased working condition flexibility has its origins in a situation of profound social change that currently appears to be almost unstoppable. As far as France is concerned, such major transformations will come to pass via the common law. So, one of the major legacies of the Covid-19 crisis might well turn out to be major changes to French labour laws, completely revising how the workplace is defined. But beyond employee preferences, does work-from-home actually make sense for business?
To what extent is work-from-home actually a desirable thing?
According to the CEOs of a number of major American banks and businesses, work-from-home is detrimental to staff performance and a major threat to both individual and collective success. In reality, depending on the type of business in question, these fears are not always justified.
Businesses that are deeply involved in innovation can legitimately claim that work-from-home represents a clear danger to their success. Innovation does indeed appear to be difficult to achieve if staff do not have contact with each other or work in the same location. In this case, a minimal hybrid workplace model would seem essential for staff performance.
However, businesses in the more traditional sectors, whose growth is not related directly to the need for constant innovation, have less reason to be wary of work-from-home. There is no proof that productivity is maximised if staff work from the office. Conversely, many employees have stated that they feel better working from home and that as a result they are both more productive and more effective. In any case, depending on the business sector, it is relatively easy to verify employee productivity. For example, a broker who trades for hundreds of millions of euros per day will not necessarily use the fact that they are working from home to be less committed to their job.
This large-scale desire for more flexibility in the workplace, including more work-from-home, should not be seen simply as a whim, with employees simply wanting to skive off work for a bit.
But to the contrary, these employees are expressing their need for a higher degree of trust and recognition in their relations with their employer. Within Western businesses, the desire for greater autonomy has never been so strong.
If businesses resist work-from-home on mere principle they will be going against current workplace model trends. Treating employees like children will be far more dangerous than allowing them to work from home.