How France is Moving to a New Normal

Seeking balance in their return to the workplace

On March 20, France entered into a lockdown state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The planned duration was originally two weeks, but the quarantine ended up lasting until May 11. At the mercy of an unpredictable virus, the government imposed restrictions that completely changed the way of life for the people of France. As everywhere else in the world, anxiety quickly became widespread.

France soon found itself among a list of epidemic epicenters. China and—even more so—Italy provided a crystal-ball prediction of what was to come. This crisis was to last. So, the French adapted.

Under quarantine, a new everyday life emerged for millions of French people. Families started spending more time together. They began choosing, preparing, and sharing meals, while supporting the local economy as much as possible. Streets filled with joggers, as running was still one of the few legal reasons to leave home. Parents put in additional effort to ensure their children received educational support at home. And, extended family and friends began meeting up virtually for remote aperitifs in the evening. It was a whole new world coming to light.

And Then Came a New Way of Working
Since that time, cities have seen a significant proportion of their inhabitants join family homes or friends in the countryside to enjoy a better quality of life compared to their urban homes. In fact, according to France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), Paris saw 20% of its population leave the capital between March and April, giving rise to what we call télétravail, also known as remote working.

Although the concept was well known, remote working was only practiced by 7% of France’s working population in 2019, according to the Ministry of Labor. The strikes of the public transport companies (RATP and SNCF), which regularly affect our country, have allowed many companies to experiment or develop their “homeworking” skills, especially between December 2019 and January 2020. Still, the number remained low.

Enter the COVID-19 lockdown mandate, which increased the rate of people working from home to 25% of the workforce. Despite the exceptional circumstances—and sometimes a lack of training and appropriate equipment—a WorkAnyWhere study shows that 66.5% of employees polled in late April of 2020 were satisfied with their experience. Travel time saved, better concentration, and greater autonomy were some of the most positive points noted by respondents. However, fears remained about the loss of social links, the quality of digital tools, and remote management.

It is interesting to note the survey found that Millennials and tech-based employees are not necessarily the ones who have had the best experiences working from home—their satisfaction being slightly lower than the average of those polled. The strong need for identity and socialization for the former, and the difficulty of managing projects remotely for the latter explain these results. People aged 50 and over are more positive about the experience—the absence of young children in these households certainly offering more conducive conditions for concentration. More generally—and not surprisingly—people who had remote working experience before the lockdown had a better experience during this period.

The situation is more or less the same among HR managers. A separate survey from ANDRH/BCG found that 85% consider it beneficial to develop remote working to some extent within their organization permanently, and two-thirds of this group expect to see better performance from increased remote working. However, 78% of HR managers agree that this will considerably change their companies’ workspaces.

For several years now, we at Haworth have been among those who have anticipated the global evolution of work into more flexible modes. But until now, this trend has been progressing rather slowly in France. COVID-19 has acted as an accelerator in the French business landscape.

… And Now?
Since June 22, and after successive waves of increasingly relaxed restrictions, the reopening of cinemas and the authorization of team sports have confirmed that we are entering the final phase of de-confinement. However, a government survey conducted at the time shows that 23% of employees were still working from home.

On June 24, the French government announced further loosening of barrier measures to foster the return to the office. But contamination risks in public transport, combined with travel time in urban areas, as well as unclear health guidelines in the office created questions and concerns that seemed to dampen the desire to return to the office—for employees and company management alike.

For employers, the queries about returning to the workplace are diverse—ranging from employee health, safety, and well-being to physical distancing, occupancy, and space considerations. Acknowledging the benefits of remote working, companies realize now that they have options as they reopen their doors to the workforce, as well. But just which options should they choose? Employees want to be able to work remotely, but they also need to meet, collaborate, and share with their colleagues in a safe manner.

Since the beginning of May, our customers have been asking us to help them adapt their spaces and technologies (e.g., interactive screens, workplace service apps, no-touch technologies) to this still uncertain "new normal.” On the other side, our online store meets the needs of people working from home, so our customers' remote workers can enjoy the same ergonomic comfort as their peers in the office.

As companies plan for their new normal, the extension of full-time homeworking beyond quarantine might appear as a source of significant cost savings, with fewer square meters owned or rented and lower operating costs. However, they are quickly finding that there are large investments required for implementing long-term remote working programs. What about the internet and electricity charges, or the employer's liability during working hours? These types of issues need to be clarified.

There are also various points of view on the best real estate strategy. Third places and other transitional solutions between home and the office are also possibilities. The importance of space and planning must not be underestimated when it comes to attracting, uniting, and engaging employees.

From a culture point of view, every company is unique—with a specific history and values, sense of community, and workflow. Finding the right balance between working from home (or a third place) and coming in to the corporate workplace should not be a matter of chance. Thoughtful consideration must take place, and employees should be involved. Employee surveys (both quantitative and qualitative) can inform decisions, and experimentation and follow-up needs to take place.

The range of possibilities is broad, and today's decisions will contribute to distinguish companies in the future, enhance their identity, and attract and retain their main asset: people.

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