In places including the US and UK, remote work is here to stay. But that’s not necessarily the story around the world.
Two years ago, the pandemic thrust us into remote work out of necessity – but now that many of the safety measures have lifted, large swaths of employees are still working from home. And many are doing so permanently. In several countries, companies have transitioned once in-office roles to become either entirely or partially remote. Plus, job listings with a remote component have soared.
A recent study from employment site Indeed shows the number of global job listings that mention remote work has nearly tripled since the onset of the pandemic, up from an average of just 2.5% in January 2020 to almost 7.5% in September 2021, with countries like Ireland, Spain and the UK seeing the greatest increases. Meanwhile, careers site Ladders predicts that 25% of all professional jobs in North America will be remote by the end of 2022. This doesn’t even account for the number of jobs that are not technically classified as remote or hybrid yet, but where workers are still at home while bosses toy with formal return-to-office arrangements.
Meanwhile, many employees who have been called back are returning to a partially remote workplace; globally, some 38% of employees now work in a hybrid office, according to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index. Much of the world is rapidly embracing a more progressive model for the future of the workplace, with employers going either remote and hybrid on a large scale.
Yet, this isn’t necessarily the case with every nation.
In some places, remote work just isn’t as culturally sanctioned, hasn’t been embraced by society or never caught on due to technological or logistical barriers. So, while many countries march head-first into a work-from-anywhere future, workers in locations including France or Japan are often returning to the office full-time, rejecting the notion that a five-day in-person work week is a relic of the past.
‘French people are, most of the time, reluctant to change’
Working from home has become so commonplace for many workers during the past two years that it can be hard to remember that, outside of Scandinavia and a few pockets in Western Europe, the practice was still quite rare in the 2010s. Now, most European nations – particularly those with higher GDPs – have embraced the concept whole-heartedly.
However, France remains an outlier.
According to an Ifop study for the French think tank Fondation Jean-Jaurès, only 29% of French workers say they work remotely “at least once a week”. That compares to 51% of Germans, 50% of Italians, 42% of Brits and 36% of Spaniards. Even those in France who report working remotely appear to do so far less often than their European neighbours. While in Italy, 30% of workers said they teleworked for four to five days a week and 17% for two to three days, in France, the figures are 11% and 14%, respectively.
“French people are, most of the time, reluctant to change,” says Sonia Levillain, a professor at the IÉSEG School of Management in Lille, and author of the Little Toolbox of Remote Management. “This is a stereotype, but it’s also a reality.”
Hybrid work has made some headway in France ever since workers began returning to the office last June. Many companies are now shifting to a flex office approach with hot desking. Yet, “employees are very sceptical of it”, says Levillain. “They were really attached to the physical office – to the place where they were working – because it was a sign of identity and of belonging to the organisation.”
Reluctance to work remotely may also have to do with how the French workplace has traditionally operated, with bosses feeling a strong need to control their employees. “Historically, the management practices were not developed around trust and autonomy, but more of a top-down approach,” explains Levillain.
Social interactions are also a key tool for decision-making in the French office. Because they’ve traditionally happened quite informally, that’s been hard to replicate on a computer screen. “Communication is spontaneous – it’s not really organised and structured at a specific time with specific people,” explains Levillain, noting that managers prize unplanned contact and interaction in the workplace. “You walk around the office, and you discuss things at the coffee machine, because that’s a place where a lot of decisions are made and solutions are found.”
To work in a hybrid mode on a sustainable basis would mean moving from the current informal office structure to a more structured one. “Culturally speaking,” says Levillain, “I think we still have lots of work to do to achieve that.”
‘Everyone wanted to go back to the office as soon as possible’
Japan is another place whose highly social work structure made it a poor candidate for remote work, as evidenced by the Indeed study, which showed almost no uptick in remote jobs between January 2020 and September 2021.
Parissa Haghirian, a professor of international management at Tokyo’s Sophia University, explains there are a lot of unspoken messages in the Japanese workplace – such as subtle body language cues or ‘reading the air’, which might steer the direction of a meeting – and these just couldn’t be examined on a screen. “In Japan, it’s always better to have a meeting in person than to write an email, because nonverbal communication plays a very important role,” she explains. “There is this idea that I know you, I like you, I have a good feeling about what you’re saying.”
In Japan, it’s always better to have a meeting in person than to write an email, because nonverbal communication plays a very important role – Parissa Haghirian
Dialogue is also essential for decision making. Whereas overseas companies typically assign unique responsibilities to specific workers (and evaluate them individually), roles are far less defined in Japan, with employees working interdependently in teams, and making assessments as a group. This makes it difficult to divide processes and distribute work in a remote setting, leading to lower perceptions of productivity outside the office.
“Since you don’t have a clear line of where your job ends and mine starts, everyone is doing everything together,” says Haghirian. “This kind of interaction in a Japanese firm is very fluid, but it’s often confusing to the outsider, because you never know who is really in charge or who is doing what.”
Japan also prizes mentorship in the workplace. Senior members are often tasked with regularly teaching and monitoring younger peers – something that just did not happen as efficiently in a remote setting. “After a while, people just got really tired of remote work, and everyone wanted to go back to the office as soon as possible,” says Haghirian.
Presenteeism is also a problem that has long plagued Japan. Many workers fear a lack of career progression if they don’t toil away for long hours at the office, says Haghirian, who knows many people who didn’t do a single day of remote work during the pandemic.
Yet, there are some signs of change. IT giant Fujitsu, for one, launched a “Work Life Shift” program last year that transformed the office into a “collaboration hub” for hybrid work. It also created more clearly defined job roles, making it easier for its 80,000 employees in Japan to work remotely. Car maker Honda, mobile carrier SoftBank and telecom company NTT Communications have all made similar allowances for remote work, suggesting a rift in Japan’s conservative corporate culture that may align businesses more with the will of workers, 80% of whom expressed a desire to continue working from home in a February survey from Persol Research and Consulting Co.
Still, despite some changes, many Japanese workers are hesitant to combine their home life with office life, as they prefer to have clear roles and boundaries for each (the office is for working, and the home is for recovering). The nation even has one of the lowest rates in the OECD for access to personal computers, with home offices far less common than in the West, due to the small size of the average city apartment in this highly urbanised society.
Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based think tank, says real estate plays a key role in determining a culture’s attitudes toward remote work. “The long-term sustainability of remote work is contingent on the housing conditions of workers,” she says. “So, in Asia, where many people live in conditions where there are far fewer square feet per member of the household, work from home is not viable or attractive.”
‘Globally, most people are still going to need offices’
Access to high-speed broadband is another barrier that can determine a country’s successful transition to hybrid forms of work, says Loh. Employees in much of the Global South, for example, have now returned to the workplace after lukewarm experiments in remote work hampered by poor technological infrastructure.
“The knowledge economy is growing tremendously, but cultural preferences and typical living standards are not changing to that great of an extent,” says Loh. “So, globally, most people are still going to need offices.”
There has, however, been an undeniable global shift in the ability to get work done beyond the confines of a traditional office, with many white-collar workers now equipped to log-on from home after learning how to do so during the height of the pandemic. So, although not every country may be as keen on remote work as the US or UK, hybrid and remote trends are here to stay.
Of course, so, too, is the office. Companies around the world are now navigating the pros and cons of each model, picking and choosing which aspects gel with the particularities of their unique cultures. Countries like France or Japan might have been slower to adapt to remote and hybrid work, but progressive companies are now chipping away at corporate norms there, too, meaning it may only be a matter of time before the dominos begin to fall.
This article was first published by Mark Jahanson on bbc.com