Telework! Telework! Telework! The entire world seems to come together to take up this post-Covid rhetoric of well-being.
The phenomenon of telework goes beyond the economic sphere and has transformed into a societal issue. With its methods and results varying from country to country, from population to population and from company to company, the concept of telework is difficult to define. However, one clear trend seems to emerge: telework is creating a two-tier society, separating large companies from SMEs on the one hand, and a Western business elite from several countries not ready to adopt telework for cultural reasons on the other hand. Telework has created a two-speed world.
The recent Viavoice barometer shows that on average 71% of managers in France do not wish to maintain telework. For SMEs with less than 100 employees, this percentage amounts to 77%, against 20% for large companies with more than 1000 employees. Overall, 78% of managers are anticipating a negative impact of telework on productivity, with 22% anticipating a strong negative impact and only 15% considering that there will be no impact on productivity at all. But the companies whose productivity would benefit the least from telework are those with less than 50 employees. As a consequence of telework, these companies are likely to experience lower wages, more paternalism and less R&D in digitalisation (Monteiro et al, 2019). In some SMEs, one can also name the lengthening of decision-making cycles. In fact, the real-life proximity, fluidity of exchanges and responsiveness are what constitute the strength of SMEs. While removing a space in an open space in a large company might be reasonable, closing an office in a SME is less so. Others observe payment difficulties in SMEs that can clearly be linked to telework, or simply a deterioration of the quality of work. Some employees in SMEs that have to look after small children face additional stress, such as by working unpaid hours (the numerous interruptions related to childcare increases the actual number of hours worked). And SMEs generally have fewer childcare facilities than large companies. Finally, many SMEs do not yet have telework-adapted communication and collaboration processes and methods, thus further reducing productivity. In contrast, in large companies, many employees are already used to working remotely. The scepticism about telework therefore concerns several factors and is spread mainly across SMEs.
And yet, Covid has accelerated the development of telework in the world… But in addition to those between different company sizes, important disparities exist between different cultures. The pandemic has revealed a number of things: statistics indicate that on average, 44% of employees on the planet would be able to work remotely, while 24% cannot do so with their respective jobs. Unsurprisingly, with 38%, the richest countries have the highest share of employees able to work remotely, compared to 25% for upper middle income countries, 17% for lower middle income countries and 13% for very low income countries. It follows that amongst those able to work remotely (mostly present in rich countries), few are in the low income category. According to the same survey, while access to telework has doubled since 2011, 54% of employees now mention that they have the opportunity to telework. The companies with the most telework opportunities are in the insurance or IT sectors, where 74% of employees declare to have worked remotely. Here, important cultural differences need to be considered. While only 60% of employees in high income countries like the USA or Switzerland are unable to work remotely, in Egypt or Bangladesh this percentage rises up to 80-90%. The survey’s results also need to be broken down by industry. While finance, insurance and information services are at the high end, personal services, the food industry, agriculture, retail, construction and transportation offer few teleworking opportunities.
In the end, more than having a mere negative impact on productivity, telework appears to be a societal issue. It is already shaping the job market of tomorrow, and more precisely in the Western world of big companies. In fact, most studies are limited to Western countries and to the activities of employees who are actually able to work remotely and who hold executive positions in the service industry, giving the wrong impression that the impact of telework is mostly positive. But the improvement of productivity due to telework is constrained to certain parts of the population, to certain evaluation methods, to certain tasks, to certain countries, to certain cultures. Telework is more of a societal project than a productivity-enhancing one. Some, under certain conditions, might want to adhere to it. But it is certainly not a matter of turnover. Remaining a practice of the Western business elite, telework is not something one would want to generalise to all working cultures.
Pascal de Lima (PhD economics - Sciences Po) is currently Chief Economist at Harwell Management and Teacher at Aivancity. He is a French economist and knowledge manager (KM). He applies his knowledge of economics to the field of KM to solve management consulting challenges. He lectured economics at Sciences Po in Paris and has also taught economics in several of France's top universities (HEC, ESSEC, Sup de Co, Engineering Schools and PREPA...) for a total of 18 years. As an essayist, he wrote more than 200 Op-Eds for major media outlets in France, 10 books and 5 referenced academic articles. He regularly gives lectures at international economics conferences. He specializes in economic foresight. His work is centered around monitoring and prospective thinking with primary focus on the assessment of the economic, social and environmental impact of innovations. After 14 years in the field of management consulting for the financial and banking sector (Ernst & Young, Cap Gemini, Chief Economist & KM at Arthur D.Little and Altran), he founded Economic Cell in 2013, an idea laboratory and consultancy whose purpose is to study market evolutions in light of economic transformations brought about by innovation. In 2017, he joined Harwell Management as Chief Economist, and in 2020, has become a teacher at Aivancity. He holds a PhD degree in Economics from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), a Masters in Industrial Economics from Panthéon-Sorbonne Paris 1 and a Masters in Financial engineering from a top French business school.