Is “the new normal” actually normal? In the first of a series of discussions with high-level HR professionals, we look at issues surrounding employee engagement, teleworking and learning and development in the new remote environment. Philippe Gaud, affiliate professor at the HEC business school in Paris, argues that we are well on the way to adopting remote.
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What are the obstacles to teleworking really about?
If I look at why companies have been resistant to people working from home it is usually that they thought it's not very effective, as we like to be face-to-face. Some managers and some H.R. believe that if you are at a distance you would be distracted, and therefore you would not work as hard and maybe as well as if you were on site. The other aspect is probably more understandable, which is the cultural or community aspect. Some companies are concerned about the dispersion of energy and the fact that you are exploding the community. We've been talking about this remote thing for 25 years. But 25 years ago, the technology made it very difficult to actually work remotely, apart from exchanging e-mails. Companies being concerned that people would not play the game is fundamentally a question of trust. And I think it is really important that a company trust their people.
The beauty of the crisis, if I may say, is that some people discovered that when they have to do it, they can have conversations and share things. The quality of the interactions is not exactly the same as if you were at the coffee machine, but to be honest, it's not so very far from it.
How will companies find and hire new employees in times of social distancing?
Basically, there is a lot of recruitment still taking place. To be honest, I think there is no difference. There's a huge realization that online contacts can be as rich as the face-to-face. With my partner, we created a platform to teach and develop people's leadership skills. Our work was based on introspection and conversations between people, work groups and co-development. I was a bit skeptical about whether it was going to work online. Actually, it works superbly well. And that's going to be a discovery for organizations. In terms of performance, all the doubts you have will probably not be so difficult to address. So I'm very optimistic about that.
In the case of prolonged lockdown that some people are foreseeing what else should companies be looking at?
Some companies have been doing things on an exceptional basis, thinking, "Well, when we get back to normal, then…". Now, after eight or nine weeks of lockdown, they are starting to realize that this is becoming an ongoing thing. I think they would have to re-question events, gatherings, celebrations, the festive kind of things. But for the rest, they need to revisit their legal framework, the protocols and procedures and the processes, of course. But I don't see that as a major challenge.
If you take service companies, consulting firms and things like this, it's a dead easy ride because teleworking is not an issue. The fact that meetings go remote doesn't make any difference. They don't have the obligation to be on-site. If you need people on-site in production, logistics, etc, then that would be a two-speed kind of population. Some would have the legitimacy to stay home and the others would not, which could be difficult. This element of culture would have to be worked on by H.R.
What about the social side of an office? How do we recreate that?
Like when you chat between meetings? You have to recreate these gaps that are not necessarily effective or productive but are actually pretty important in the sense of creating the glue [of a company]. They're part of the informal life of people, which is probably as important as the efficient interactions we have.
I was working with students from the Ecole 42. At one point we said we need to work together. So what we did a couple of times was just log in, be there and work each on our side. We were sitting at our desks, not talking to each other. We just needed a bit of company You can mitigate this risk of isolation. Future technology will allow this far more than today.
Remote working is now more generally accepted. What can you tell me about remote training?
If I was a HR director again and I had to start somewhere to make the move [to remote] it would be with training. One way to sell remote working is by making sure that people don't plug in for the interest of others, but for themselves. Even for the very soft skills kind of development, which we usually do face-to-face in circles, I think that's the past. You can definitely work just as well in a remote environment. The cost of training and putting people together in rooms is absolutely huge. And I think this crisis has probably created the opportunity for companies to realize this.
Those who have experienced it probably realized it was absolutely great because of the quality of the interactions, the fact that you can have a Mr. X that raises his hand. I have a window that says, Michael wants to say something. He doesn’t interrupt me, but you have the kind of flexibility that you have with a face-to-face.
One of the technical beauties - that's actually far better than with face-to-face - is that online you can split people into subgroups. You can create rooms. One of the problems we have at [French business school] HEC, is that I can have a class with 70 students in an amphitheater. When I want to organize them into subgroups, it takes time to get the people in the room. They have to get up and go there. So you basically lose half an hour. Now in virtual rooms, you click and say, “OK, now you go into groups”. The tutor clicks the button and all of a sudden you find yourself in a group of six or seven people. You switch right away. From a productivity - and not just productivity, even from an experience standpoint - people will see that as a real benefit. This is extremely powerful.
Collectively, not just as people and companies but as individuals, we are now getting used to functioning remotely.
At the time, [early teleconferencing] really pushed people to some discipline. Let me talk and then you talk. It was actually pretty effective, even if it was a bit boring. For decision making things, I realized at the time that although the technology was not so good it was actually making us very effective and very productive. You wanted the call to be short because you had enough of the screen pixelling. This discipline that technology brings into the system is also kind of useful.
Philippe Gaud is an affiliate professor at HEC Paris, following several years working in senior HR positions at Apple, Reckitt Benckiser and other companies.
In a world where distancing and/or travel bans will be more frequent, companies have to compose teams differently and learn new skills. What’s more, they must be delivered in new ways. Blended training combines the best of both worlds, with the benefits of distancing and all the human interactions that make training effective for students and a pleasure for the teachers.
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