Interview: how our habit of working from home helped us manage lockdown
Could the imposed working from home that has prevailed in recent months lead to an organisational transformation of companies?
This is almost obvious, but it will also depend on the response given by each organisation.
Inovae has been practising free management of work and home office since its creation, 11 years ago. This allowed the agency not to be impacted at an organisational level by the long weeks of lockdown and to be able to maintain the same quality/responsiveness service to its clients.
In the middle of lockdown, we conducted a global survey of our 30 employees (located in Switzerland and Europe) on the values and DNA of the agency.
80% of them cited flexible working hours and working from home as an important advantage.
We would like to share our experience and discuss the implementation of this practice, the advantages/disadvantages and share our advice through an interview with our director Kian Rieben
When and how was working from home implemented within Inovae?
Kian Rieben : Working from home was essential from the first day at Inovae. Without being millennial (the founders are a little older ...), our digital culture was already forged and although working from home was not yet common practice at the time, it is a concept that we had already integrated well. Other factors also pushed us towards the development of working from home such as international collaborations on open source projects with oobligatory contacts abroad or the fact that at the creation of Inovae, my partner and I were in two different cities and did not have offices yet.
What are the main benefits of working from home on quality of life?
K.B : Based on the feedback from my employees, I would say that the biggest benefits for them are independence and flexibility, a sense of trust and, last but not least, the saving of time and money from not having to travel. Some live far from the agency and they can easily save 2 hours in their day by eliminating trips, thus improving their quality of life. This is a point that seems important to me and which will inevitably affect their well-being and their motivation at work.
Another positive point when working from home is the reduction of interruptions, implying an increase in productivity. When you have to concentrate on a project, it's nice to be able to do it in a calm environment. It is also one of the challenges of working from home for each employee, that of having a quiet place to work.
What are the advantages for the agency?
K.B : As a digital agency, working from home is, in my opinion, essential because it makes it possible to develop an even greater digital culture through the more intensive use of collaborative online tools. For example, we use Confluence and Notion as collaborative spaces for knowledge management, Jira to plan our projects, Slack to communicate and Klaxoon to facilitate our exchanges ... All this also implies a better level of written documentation of projects and processes. As everything happens online, information must be systematically and immediately indexed, digitised and shared. There are still challenges, but less than when the reference is on paper or in personal files and there is only a desire to digitise in order to archive, for example. Meeting notes are taken directly on the computer or with a transcript in the following hours.
In terms of logistics for the employer, working from home implies a policy of providing mobile equipment. Indeed, it is not possible to move your fixed computer between office and home. We opted for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), for reasons other than working from home.
… And what are the risks?
K.B : For the employee, the risk of isolation in particular. That's why we try to coordinate to come to the office on the same days and spend time together. It is essential to maintain team cohesion.
Another danger is endless work. This is very dependent on the personality of each and it is important that management AND the employee are aware that neither working from home nor flexibility implies being available all the time or interminable days! You have to know how to stop work and come back to it only when it's planned. Everyone should be able to implement a working method that they feel is viable in the long term.
For the employer, the risks may be workforce supervision, which is bound to be a bit more complex, and for some companies, information security, although today there are many relatively easy to deploy technical solutions.
How to find the right balance?
K.B : Management has a very important role to play! It needs to get the message across, especially by setting an example, that if flexibility must go both ways, it must also be reasonably limited in both ways. An employee who has benefited from this flexibility to play sports during the week and during the day, will be able to provide the company with the benefit of completing a project on a weekday evening or on a Saturday. Conversely, each employee must also set their own limits and both management and colleagues must respect them so that work does not spill over into private life.
It is also necessary to set aside time to meet and socialise face to face. It is absolutely essential. At Inovae, we all meet regularly to share several days of work and extra-professional activities. There is always a perceptible qualitative leap in the exchanges between employees from different offices.
Thanks to these habits, we were able to leave great freedom to each employee to assess the situation during deconfinement and to adapt their practices according to their specific constraints. Employees at risk or in close contact with people at risk were able to extend a strict work from home policy while others were able to return to the offices more quickly.
What is the future of working from home?
K.B : It is almost impossible to argue: it will develop. But it can never be applied everywhere and all the time. Beyond the objective constraints depending on the nature of the activity - a physical service activity with opening hours cannot entertain the possibilities of working from home and flexible working hours - I think that the main obstacle lies in the necessary change in paradigm on the part of management. It involves adapting the underlying operating methods to management and moving from a culture of control to a culture of trust.
Here again, the nature of the activity and the socio-cultural history of the field of activity may or may not facilitate this change. An activity in which a very tense balance of power has been established between management and employees for decades, via the unions in particular, will probably have a lot of trouble establishing the trust regimen sufficient to be able to generalise working from home.
An activity requiring a low-income workforce will also encounter difficulties in implementing these practices. This could be done, but will probably be detrimental to working conditions and the well-being of employees. Working from home has a cost, one may wonder how a satisfactory working environment outside the office will be financed.
In the case of Inovae, we meet many conditions that allow this model to flourish and be of added value for employees. It is first and foremost in the knowledge workers that the development of these practices is most natural.
It is very likely that several organisations will have to evolve and be strongly impacted by working from home according to virtuous or perverse secondary mechanisms. The generalisation of working from home within a hierarchy can exacerbate or highlight unnecessary or inefficient hierarchical levels and reinforce informal organisational practices. In this context, power relations can be renegotiated, for example when they are based on charismatic personalities in a meeting, but very uncomfortable with the digital world. We could then imagine that more introverted personalities in meetings could take up more space and, thus, gain influence.