The tele-society cannot be a role model

_ Marion Marshal, director, Center for Analysis and Prospective (CAP), Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences. 23 March 2021, Lyon.*

We are experiencing an accelerated, if not forced, change in social organization. Under the pretext of the Corona health crisis, and more broadly in the context of the fight against global warming, the public authorities strongly encourage, even force, the generalization of teleworking and tele-teaching. We are promised a bright future: this digitization of social and professional relationships would reduce the carbon impact, make the employee more autonomous, save money, reduce inequalities, revitalize “peripheral France”. The enthusiasm seems unanimous.

The employees themselves seem to support this organization: 73 percent of those who practice telework want to continue. [1] However, these figures need to be qualified. On the one hand, because the generalization of telework is a recent experience for many employees who have not yet measured its long-term effects and, on the other hand, because only 32 percent want to telework work on a regular basis versus 41 percent on an ad hoc basis.

Another survey confirms this information: 63 percent of French employees want to “work most of their time in the office”, while 8 percent dream of “working exclusively remotely”.[2] In other words, a majority of employees want teleworking to remain the exception and not the rule. Yet this is not the direction that seems to be taken in view of the multiple interventions of politicians and bosses of large companies.

“Teleworking remains the rule”, recalled the government at the beginning of February 2021, while Suez announced in November 2020 the signing of an agreement generalizing and perpetuating remote working beyond the Covid-19 crisis, “in order to strengthen the quality of professional life and promote flexibility”. As further proof, during the confinement last May 2020, Xavier Chéreau, director of human relations at PSA, announced on the social network LinkedIn: “We are ready to make telework the benchmark for activities that are not directly linked to production”.

We are therefore gradually moving towards a model where teleworking will become the norm in the long term when it is now practiced in a complementary or even marginal way in certain sectors.

The undermining of the intermediary body that is the company

Spontaneously, it is difficult to consider the life of the worker jumping from his bed to his sofa ordering Uber Eats at lunchtime while flirting on Tinder  as real progress. Who says telework also says tele-seduction! Let’s not forget that 14 percent of couples are formed in the office. In second position of the classification of meetings, we find the place of study with a rate of 11 percent, which is not insignificant in view of the virtual disappearance of face-to-face courses in higher education.

But beyond this individual choice of life, the problem is more global. We risk witnessing the weakening of the company as an intermediary body essential to the proper functioning of society and the socialization of people.

As Philippe Schleiter, management consultant, explains in his book: “Thus, with the disappearance of military service, the weakening of the family and the rise of the child king, the company has become an essential place of socialization. It is through contact with their colleagues that many young professionals understand that they are not the centre of attention, that they realize the importance of mutual obligations, and learn the basic rules of etiquette. Antidote against contemporary narcissism and egocentrism, the company is also an instance of transmission of knowledge and skills, including informal ones. By allowing a direct link between the different generations of employees, it is a bridge that unfolds over the abyss of the present. Within it, individuals are part of a shared memory and common projects. In this way, they rise above themselves”.[3]

Negative impact on community and business performance

It is agreed to think that telework would be a source of economic productivity for the company. Numerous studies seem to attest that teleworkers are more efficient than their colleagues present in the office. However, these studies suffer from a serious methodological bias that calls into question their relevance: they are generally based on surveys of small numbers of voluntary teleworkers practicing telework for a very limited number of days.

Conversely, a recent study by the OECD indicates that productivity gains from telework follow a bell-shaped curve in companies: from a certain telework threshold (concerning both the proportion of staff teleworking than the number of days allocated to telework) they tend to decline, or even reverse.

Nothing surprising, since teleworking established as a permanent rule contributes to destroying the common universe which bases the culture of the company. It obliterates the transmission of informal know-how and company values; it prevents the formation of collective memories and the spontaneous sharing of knowledge; all these interactions that help build a community and draw motivation to get involved in a common project that is beyond us. To agree on this, you still have to agree not to systematically see the company as a place of exploitation but to apprehend it as a possible place of fulfilment and meaning.

Moreover, the simple fact of exchanging through a screen with colleagues does not ensure the quality of these exchanges and makes it difficult to build deep relationships and trust. 41 percent of telework employees said they had experienced a deterioration in their social ties, a breakdown in their relationship with their colleague and a real lack.[4]

Not to mention that it is above all informal communication in business that is a source of creativity. Steve Jobs himself, the founder of Apple, warned against the illusion that creativity could arise from digital exchanges.[5]

“Well mastered, telework reinforces the flexibility and agility of the company. Badly dosed, it causes its atomization, even its liquefaction”, summarizes Charles-Henri Besseyre des Horts. [6]

In recent years, we have seen the development of horizontal management models, instead of the traditional French vertical model, embodied by the convivial spirit of start-ups, the appearance of “open space”, work in “project mode”. The generalization of telework signals the return of a more rigid hierarchy. Videoconferencing does not facilitate participation and speaking out outside the hierarchical framework; initiatives are often facilitated by the atmosphere of the group and the non-verbal communication of colleagues.

A partly illusory gain in autonomy

On the employee side, we boast of a significant gain in autonomy allowing them to organize themselves more easily, to save time by avoiding journeys and thus to reconcile personal and professional life more easily, all of this in the service of greater productivity. and business efficiency.

Surveys on this subject, however, encourage doubts: many studies indeed tend to show that teleworkers tend to over-invest in their work, devoting themselves to it up to 2.5 hours more per week, to prove – and prove to themselves – that they’re still in the game. [7]

But that’s not all. According to a study by the Ministry of Labour, teleworkers are twice as likely to adopt atypical working hours, evenings, nights, and weekends. [8] So much so that these “intensive teleworking executives do not seem to benefit from a better balance between professional life and private life than the others: […]  their relatives complain as much about their lack of availability. Teleworking can indeed generate work-family conflicts because family members can make requests for availability that they would not express if the person did not work at home”. [9]

The downsides don’t end there. Telecommuting is most often accompanied by an increase in employee control: 45 percent of French employees surveyed say they work in a company that uses monitoring tools to track connection time, browser history, mouse. [10]

Among these remotely monitored employees, only 35 percent say they feel “free to organize themselves as they see fit” and 18 percent consider themselves “micro-managed down to the smallest detail”.

The distance can induce perverse effects and push the manager to multiply the standards (processes, procedures, reports, videoconference meetings, etc.), which are particularly time-consuming and psychologically exhausting for the employee.

A new lever of unfair competition

Many socially advantaged urban executives have been able to enjoy teleworking. By living in spacious apartments or having been able to take refuge in secondary or family residences in the provinces, they have been able to benefit from an adequate and pleasant environment in which to work.

However, these profiles are likely to quickly become disillusioned because the generalization of telework will promote a new form of unfair competition. Indeed, the territorial barrier being lifted, what will hold back a company tomorrow from hiring a French-speaking or English-speaking manager at the other end of the world to carry out the same work twice as cheaply? After the farmers and workers who have seen their activities and their jobs relocated, many executives risk discovering at their expense the harsh law of “competitiveness”.

The generalization of telework also aggravates the social inequalities partially erased by access to the common office. Indeed, the home does not always allow a suitable and calm workspace, some have young children present, not all have suitable digital tools or a high-performance internet connection.

For all these reasons, we better understand the cry from the heart of Marrisa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo: “We need to be a Yahoo!, and that starts with being physically together!”, to explain her decision to end widespread practice of telework in February 2013.

It is the same for Oracle or IBM who have put an end to their attempts to generalize teleworking after several years of experience. These precedents should at the very least invite caution.

The justification for the imposition of teleworking by companies is above all economic.

The reality behind this phenomenon is probably less glorious than the virtuous objectives most often displayed of a health, social or ecological nature.

This remote model is a source of significant savings for the company. It reduces costs related to premises and related charges as well as staff travel. This economic motivation is not only found in the business world but also in education.

Distance learning: a resounding failure

Higher education has seen the proliferation of “distance learning” courses and training for many years. This model is economically very interesting for this sector since it drastically reduces the costs of schools while significantly increasing its potential student clientele. Surprisingly, this digitization is, in the general spirit, synonymous with modernity and excellence. Schools often make it a first-rate marketing argument.

This trend towards the digitization of education has been amplified by the epidemic. For many months, the Government has imposed distance courses for universities and private higher schools with a few exceptions (1st year TD,  BTS, Prépa, technical lessons that cannot be given at a distance, etc.)

But the model of generalized distance education also seems to show its limits: we are witnessing a record dropout rate among students. It’s no surprise that students struggle to stay focused for several hours a day in front of a screen. From a distance, the teacher is unable to adapt the pace and content of his lesson to a more passive audience than usual. The exercise is necessarily less interactive and immediate access to the internet encourages distraction.

The spring 2020 confinement also proved the limits of distance education from primary to secondary, so much so that the Minister of Education decided to leave the schools open since September following the significant difficulties encountered by the pupils. before summer.

However, for many years, education ministers have been touting the digitization of the school system as a means of reducing social inequalities and adapting education to the specificities of each student. Many investments and projects have gone in this direction. This political utopia has been violently swept away by reality.

As Michel Desmurget, doctor in neurosciences, reminds us in a recent article: “(…) the conclusions of dozens of large-scale academic and institutional studies, conducted for twenty years in the four corners of the world (concluded): the more digitization effort increases, the more the quality of education declines, the more the results of the pupils decrease and the more the weight of social inequalities increases”; a conclusion that seems to be confirmed by the recent national experience of containment.[11]

The model of the generalized tele-society will undeniably contribute to accelerating the hyper-individualism and the atomization of society from which our era is already suffering. It disintegrates communities that give meaning to life, such as business or school, without guaranteeing a real gain in productivity.

Teleworking is essential under the guise of ecological arguments which are partly fallacious because digital obviously does not have a neutral carbon impact, far from it. According to ADEME, the IT sector (use and production of equipment) is currently responsible for 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the sharp increase in uses suggests a doubling of this carbon footprint by 2025. 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is 1.5 times greater than air transport. If accompanied by a 1 MB attachment, an email emits 19 g of CO2 knowing that 34 million emails are sent every hour. Sending 20 emails a day pollutes as much as driving 100 kilometres by car in France.[12]

These few data should encourage us to take a step back from the slogans used in the public debate concerning the supposed benefits of distancing professional and social relations. This political fashion encourages behaviour whose social balance between advantages and disadvantages is not necessarily positive.

Definitely not, the tele-society cannot and must not be an absolute model.

Notes

[1] Caillaud C. (2020). 73 percent des salariés veulent poursuivre le télétravail. Le Figaro. URL: https://www.lefigaro.fr/decideurs/vie-bureau/73-des-salaries-veulent-poursuivre-le-teletravail-20200506

[2] IFOP (2020). Paris Workplace 2020 Barometer. URL: https://www.ifop.com/publication/barometre-paris-workplace-2020-sfl-ifop/

[3] Schleiter P. (2017). Management: le grand retour du réel: 15 cartouches pour ne pas être démuni. Big Book.

[4] Le Comptoir (2021). Le média de la performance sociale des entreprises. URL: www.lecomptoirdelanouvelleentreprise.com

[5] Harvard Business Review (2012). The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs.

[6] Besseyre des Horts C.H. (2020). Entretien. Discern & Decide. URL: http://delta-lead.com/pdf/Discerner&Decider_n_12_Hiver_2020.pdf

[7] Rupietta K., Beckmann M. (2018). Working from Home. What is the Effect on Employees’ Effort? Schmalenbach Journal of Business Research. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321694287_Working_from_Home_What_is_the_Effect_on_Employees’_Effort  

[8] Hallépée S., Mauroux A. (2019). Le télétravail permet-il d’améliorer les conditions de travail des cadres ? INSEE. URL: https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/4126590?sommaire=4238635  

[9] Hallépée S., Mauroux A. (2019).

[10] Plateforme d’étude des logiciels GetApp.  (2021). URL: https://www.getapp.fr/directory/889/market-research/deployment-options/windows/software

[11] Desmurget M. (2021). Le confinement a fait voler en éclats l’utopie du télé-enseignement. Le Figaro. URL: https://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/societe/michel-desmurget-le-confinement-a-fait-voler-en-eclats-l-utopia-du-tele-enseignement-20210208

[12] Grizzlead (2021). L’incroyable impact de la pollution numérique et les bonnes pratiques à adopter très vite. URL: https://www.grizzlead.com/lincroyable-impact-de-la-pollution-numerique-et-les-bonnes-pratiques-a-adopter-tres-vite/

*Translated from the original on CAP ISSEP.

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