En pleine pandémie de COVID-19, les entreprises n'ont pas d'autre choix que de s’adapter, repoussant ainsi les limites de la flexibilité du travail. Seuls 3,6% des salariés travaillent à domicile à mi-temps ou plus, tandis que 62% disent que leur travail pourrait être effectué à distance. De plus, 80% des salariés souhaiteraient télétravailler au moins en partie. Le coronavirus pourrait-il être le catalyseur incitant les entreprises à adopter, de manière pérenne, des politiques de travail à distance ?

- article en anglais - 

Will the corona virus permanently change the way we work?

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have no choice but to push the limits of flexible work arrangements. While the stock market is plunging, companies offering solutions for remote work are experiencing an unseen growth: Zoom’s stock price is up more than 100% over the last three months [1], and Microsoft Teams has seen a 500% increase in usage in that same period of time [2].

But remote working is not a new concept. It first became popular during the oil crisis of the 1970s when the US realized that if more people would work from home, there would no longer be a need to import oil. Since then, the number of “teleworkers” has steadily increased. But flexible work arrangements are still not as common as one might think. Only 3.6% of employees work from home half-time or more – While 62% say their work could be done remotely, and 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time [3]. It seems that firms have been hesitant to adopt remote work policies, carefully weighing the pros and cons. Could the coronavirus be the catalyst that gets firms to embrace flexible work policies? 


The benefits of homeworking

Literature on the subject of remote work seems to suggest that it’s a win-win situation, in which both employer, employee and society gain.

  • Work-life balance – The first benefit of telecommuting is probably the most important one. Telecommuting saves the average employee a significant amount of time. Besides the obvious reduction of time spent in traffic, employees will also no longer have a reason to stay at work beyond the time needed for effective performance on the job (a phenomenon often dubbed "Presenteeism" [4]). Employees will thus have more time to spend on family, hobbies or personal projects.  A greater work-life balance leads to a higher job satisfaction, and thus promotes a greater organizational commitment [5].
  • Cost Saving – Telecommuting can also be beneficial from the employer’s perspective. It reduces costs connected with real estate expenses (office space, heating, …) and can help reduce employee turnover. “Work-from-home” (WFH) programs are also said to have a positive effect on employee performance. According to some studies, these cost-reductions could account for up to €11 000 saved annually per half-time telecommuter [6].
  • Environment – Less people commuting means lower levels of pollution. Even a part-time telework policy would help fight climate change.


The downsides

Reading all these possible upsides to flexible work arrangements, we can’t help but wonder why so many organizations have been reluctant to offer more progressive HR policies. Especially considering that the technical infrastructure to make it possible has existed for several years.  While literature on the subject is numerous and often conflicting, the following downsides are often cited:

  • Social isolation – Nowadays, the physical workplace has an important role in our social lives. While the need for social interaction is a highly personal trait and differs from person to person, it is often cited as one of the main reasons to come into the office. A recent BearingPoint survey has shown that for 80% of employees, it’s their favorite place to work. It seems that the daily interaction with colleagues, whether it’s a coffee break or a face-to-face meeting, keeps us from feeling socially and professionally isolated.
  • Technological infrastructure – While the technology making a home office possible has existed for years, many companies aren’t ready for its wide-spread adoption. Teleworking requires some initial start-up costs. Not only can the equipment for remote access be quite expensive (laptops, cell phones, …), but applications like Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Slack also demand an investment. And even after the investments have been made, employees are slow to fully take advantage of these new tools. This lack of comfort with ‘new ways of working’ is a barrier that can’t be neglected. 
  • Productivity – Many employers are hesitant to approve employees’ requests to work from home because they fear that employee productivity would suffer. Bluntly put, without direct supervision – how can we trust our employees not to “slack off”?  Not all managers are willing to adopt a more remote type of supervision, which is based on trust and requires a result-driven approach.

A second reason why performance might be impacted is simply because not all distractions can be avoided while working from home. Even the most trustworthy and motivated employees might find it challenging to be fully concentrated on the task at hand when there are kids running around. And last but not least, remote work offers fewer opportunities to interact and gather information. It could thus have a negative effect on knowledge transfer and career development.


The corona virus as catalyst

So, it seems that we do have some solid reasons to be cautious when it comes to flexible work arrangements. But now, we are suddenly launched into the biggest home-working experiment the world has ever seen. Organizations and workers have no other choice but to quickly adapt to remote working. That is why it doesn’t seem too farfetched to believe that the corona virus pandemic, much like the oil crisis in the 1970s, will cause a shift in how work is conducted and the way we think about it.

The pandemic has accelerated the development and wide-spread adoption of technological infrastructure that supports new ways of working. Even the most skeptical employers are making long-term investments to launch and/or formalize flexible work initiatives, simply because they have no other choice. Even when business goes back to usual, they will no longer be able to tell their employees that their job cannot be done remotely. And those struggling to adopt the new technologies, will have had time to figure things out (Let’s face it - how many of us have explained how Skype works to their parents in the last few weeks?).

Organizations might also discover that employee performance and productivity doesn’t necessarily have to suffer. Managers seeing that they can still count on their team even without any physical contact in months, has the potential to reduce their fears more than any data ever will.

Those reasons lead us to believe that the current disruption in our way of working could have long lasting effects – even after the pandemic ends.


Finding the balance

To summarize, we strongly believe that the world will learn some lessons from this global lockdown:

  1. Yes, the job can be done remotely.
  2. We can allow flexibility at work without hurting business.

But it would be unwise to turn a blind eye to the severe impact quarantine has had on the mental wellbeing of employees. It seems that no amount of digital coffee breaks can fulfill our most basic human need for social interaction. And even with the best intentions, productivity has taken a hit in the current circumstances. That is also what organizations who took flexible work arrangements to the extreme have learned in the past. IBM for example, reduced their work from home policy in 2017 when they discovered that for work that requires a high level of collaboration, you need to bring people together. That’s why the third lesson we can learn from this international “work from home experiment”, is maybe the most important one:

  1. Going fully remote is in most cases not a viable option.

Balance is key. In the debate around telecommuting, there is no “right or wrong”. Even IBM has been careful not to eliminate all flexible work arrangements after their somewhat ‘failed’ experiment. Some sources suggest that two to three days of home office is ‘the sweet spot' [7], but the reality is much more nuanced than that: every organization, and every worker, must find what works for them.

But nevertheless, it is certain that HR leaders will use this experience to build a business case for more progressive work policies. The current disruption in our habits and procedures has enabled us to fully exploit and discover the possibilities technology has to offer and has pushed us to overcome our resistance to change. From this day forth, organizations and employees can make a truly informed decision on whether and which flexible work arrangements work them.  

Auteure : Lien De Bock 

Sources :

[1] https://www.marketwatch.com/investing/stock/zm

[2] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/blog/2020/03/05/our-commitment-to-customers-during-covid-19/

[3] https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics

[4] Simpson, R. (1998). Presenteeism, power and organizational change: Long hours as a career barrier and the impact on the working lives of women managers. British Journal of Management, 9, S37–S50.

[5] See literature reviews included in: Felstead, A. and Henseke, G. (2017), Assessing the growth of remote working and its consequences for effort, well-being and work-life balance. New Technology, Work and Employment

[6] https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics

[7] https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics



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