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Podcast Length Icon 37:31 11 Nov 2020

Where is the sweet spot of teleworking?

Teleworking is here to stay - what does it mean for policymakers and enterprises? In this episode, we chat with Jon C. Messenger, teleworking expert, Team Leader of the Working Conditions Group at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva. In the conversation, we touch upon ILO's recent publication 'Practical Guide on Teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond' and why Jon believes that teleworking is a viable form of work for the future - if practiced correctly.

What follows are snippets from our conversation with Jon C. Messenger - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight! To download the Practical Guide on Teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond please visit the official website of the ILO here.

Agnes Uhereczky: Welcome to the listeners. Our guest today is Jon Messenger of the ILO. It is such a huge pleasure to have Jon on the podcast again. The occasion is that the ILO has released a Guide about teleworking during a pandemic, which we will talk about in the conversation. It would be great to get your commentary and opinion on the past 9 months, and then looking ahead and getting your prediction, if possible, all through your invaluable expertise on teleworking. Looking through your expert glasses of teleworking, how were those first couple of months at the beginning of the pandemic, what were you gauging from the world of work in terms of their reaction to teleworking and the pandemic.

Jon Messenger: Well, Agnes, I think you did a good job of outlining the different stages which have happened. The thing is though, I would just say, that the stages happened at different times at different places. For example, the massive compulsory teleworking for all who were able to telework happened a bit earlier in Asia. It happened earliest in places such as China, Korea and Japan, places in Eastern Asia because that’s where the pandemic hit first. The first stage from March to April or May was the European experience, I think. The experience in America came a bit later and in particular, in Latin America, it came significantly later, I would say came last and as a result, I think all of these stages have been pushed back. So, the timing is a bit different but I think the stages are correct, as you have also pointed out, but the timing has been a bit different in different places.

At the first stage, everybody got thrown into the deep end of the pool, as we say back where I come from. They don't teach you how to swim little by little, like when you have a child and you take them in the baby pond, and then little by little, step by step, they get comfortable with the water. I think what happened was that everybody was thrown into the deep end of the water, the deep end of the pool which is the end where if you don’t know how to swim, you drown. It was rough because if you did not have previous experience with telework, either as an individual or as an organisation, it was an extraordinarily difficult, wrenching adjustment. You had organisations, individuals, both managers and workers, who had never teleworked in their life, or very very rarely, and then all of a sudden they were forced to do it not just occasionally but full time. And, it was mandatory. You had to do it. The idea of course was to make as many positions as possible 'teleworkable'. Not in all these positions would be possible to telework, but I think they maximized it, particularly in Europe, in terms of looking at all the positions that could be 'teleworkable'. Frankly, I think it is a miracle that it was not a concrete disaster because people were not prepared, many of them did not know how to telework, many managers did not know how to manage remote workers, and organisations many of them did not have teleworking policies and procedures.

So, it was, I think, a rough adjustment particularly at the beginning, I would say that it was a wrenching adjustment for everyone to try to figure out how to make this thing work, so workers can keep their jobs and so that companies and other organisations could keep operating. It was a rough go at the beginning, particularly at the first part of that. I think when you got into it more, companies and other organisations figured out what to do, and individuals figured out what to do. Later with trial and error, things improved, but it was a rough adjustment, made rougher by just how rare telework was before the pandemic.

Agnes Uhereczky: And, then also coupled with the great economic uncertainty, some of the prognosis that was projected about how it will hit the economy, and how many jobs will be lost, I think there was a clear panic around going into an even greater depression and economic crises than the one that we barely came out of.

Jon Messenger: Absolutely. And I think that is not necessarily everywhere in the world. When you mention the fact that “we barely came out of” you are only speaking about the European situation with which I would agree with you, in terms of the European context. But it is not so clear in other places of the world, like in my home country the United States, where we had a very patchwork implementation of lockdown measures state by state. The worst-hit states like New York, implemented very stringent lockdown measures but other states, for example, in the South, had very little or no lockdown measures in place initially which allowed COVID-19 to spread. You had the closing of national borders in Europe which you can't do in the United States, for example, or in a country like Brazil which is another country that is the size of a continent. You can't very well say people can't move from one state to another within the same country, so you had people from parts of the country that were heavily infected, travelling and infecting people in other parts of the country, and I think that's happened in other countries as well, for example, in France during the vacation period.

But surely, there was a huge fear of an incredibly deep economic crisis there was a massive plunge. The US is a very good example, it was a much much deeper plunge initially then even the Great Recession of 2008 and 2010 which was a deep plunge, but this was even deeper, in fact, it was record-setting in much of the world. In the US it was particularly extreme. So, yes, the idea was that we need to come up with something. There were some other measures too, for example, work sharing, reduction of working hours, to spread the reduced amount of work amongst more people. These were some of the crisis measures, which I talked about during the last crises, the global financial and economic crises, that were also deployed in countries such as Germany and France. They were also heavily deployed in some of the Nordic countries, but at the same time, they were often combined with remote working, teleworking measures as well. If it hadn’t been for this massive resort of telework promoted not only by the ILO and other international organisations, but promoted by many many governments around the world; and frankly, mandated, because when you have governments saying you may not have businesses open in person but we encourage you to help people work remotely if you can, and help your employees and provide them with the necessary tools to work remotely, then I think what you have is a situation where teleworking in many cases was the only option for saving jobs, or it was an option along with cutting working hours to save jobs.

Germany is a good example, where you had massive work sharing (Kurzarbeit) in particular, in manufacturing but a lot of professional, technical, managerial kinds of jobs it was teleworking that saved the employment there and some places they were doing both, as they were cutting working hours and at the same time, using teleworking as well. So, yes, it was a real crisis situation, it still is, but it is not as extreme particularly not in some places like here in Europe, even though it seems terrible here, it is much better off than many parts of the Globe. And I think we are just fortunate that companies and other organisations encouraged by governments realised that they had no choice but to give this a shot because the alternative was an economic black hole.

Agnes Uhereczky: The ILO has released just in the summer a fantastic Guide on Teleworking during the pandemic, and I just wanted to ask you to tell listeners what is the purpose of the Guide, who is it for, and what is it trying to help employers and employees with. Who would you recommend this Guide to?

Jon Messenger: I think that the Guide is really solid, but it’s not just me, I have had a lot of feedback as I was telling you before the interview, I just did my first webinar based on the Guide for ILO constituents in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and I have had great feedback. People are raving about the Guide. It has already been translated into other languages - it was translated into Russian. It was disseminated to Eastern Europe and Central Asia where they decided to translate it into Russian, without any support, or without even asking me for financing. They just thought that this was necessary and immediately translated it. We are translating it into French and Spanish as well, and I think it is going to be available ultimately in other languages as well. But I have got very good feedback so far, and it is not just me who thinks that it is a really good tool.

What we are trying to do with this tool is to help people figure out how to telework effectively and try to help organisations and their managers to figure out how to manage telework effectively. The purpose of this Guide is threefold though. First and foremost, to provide practical, actionable recommendations for teleworking practices, applicable to a wide range of actors. But it is also designed to support policymakers in updating existing teleworking policies and then also to provide a flexible framework through which both private enterprises and public sector organisations can develop and update their teleworking policies and practices. And even though we developed it specifically to respond to the pandemic - that was the impetus for developing the Guide - but it still can be used beyond the pandemic. It can still be used during other natural disasters, during other kinds of crises, but it can just as well be applied to teleworking in general even after this crisis is behind us which I hope will be in the near future, although I suspect it probably won't be behind us until sometime in 2021. That is the idea of it, that is its purpose, and it is designed really to help everybody interested in teleworking to figure out how to practice it.

Agnes Uhereczky: What would be your key one or two arguments to convince employers, senior managers, who are still on the fence about teleworking, or, are still can not commit themselves fully to teleworking, and still might harbour doubts or resistance? What are your sure-fire arguments that you would use to convince them that this is the right thing to do especially now?

Jon Messenger: I think I have done everything that I can to make the argument throughout the pandemic that this is an effective approach. Teleworking is not going to necessarily be hugely more productive than working in the office, but that's not the point. The point is that all the available evidence that we see suggests that teleworking can be effective when practised correctly, with the proper tools. This also includes the role of managers. They need to know how to manage remote workers correctly based on objectives, based on the results they produce, not simply based on monitoring them or tracking their time or activities. Managers need to get away from this monitoring mindset.

I have read several articles talking about this monitoring mindset that tends to not help teleworkers. What managers need to do is to manage, and the only way to manage teleworkers effectively and get the result, on an objective basis. This includes managing by results, and setting up objectives, setting up deliverables, time frames and reporting. This means reasonable reporting, not super heavy reporting, and not crushing people with heavy reporting requirements which have happened in some cases because managers simply fear a loss of control. That is what is behind a lot of this. That's what the literature suggests. That's what my own research and other research, done for example by Eurofound, suggest: managers fear a loss of control. I understand why. They fear it because they are usually the ones, and in particular, the front line supervisors fear possibly the most, who are ultimately accountable for delivering the results, and if their team don't achieve the results that they are expected to achieve they are going to be in trouble, which is why you need a good results-based management approach. Things need to be properly set up. You need to have good training for both workers, individual employees on how to work remotely effectively. For example, how to handle issues of work-life balance, the blurring between paid work and personal life. You need to also have training for managers in how to manage remote teams effectively because it is a different kind of management style, compared to the management style a lot of managers are used to, so they need to understand how to do it effectively. If you do all of that you can at least be as productive and have as high performance as you do in the office.

Most of the articles I have read say that the vast majority of employees of these organisations, public and private, have been at least as productive, and the performances have been at least as high as it was when they were working in the office. So, I think we have more evidence there that we need to go through in the aftermath of the pandemic. My point is saying, okay if it's the same and why should you use it. You should use it because it gives employees blocks of really uninterrupted time to be able to focus on their tasks, to be able to focus on their deliverables. It promotes an objective-based approach because it is the only way you could do teleworking effectively which makes you more likely to deliver the results that you are accountable to deliver. So that I think is very important.

Also, you should keep in mind that the way we did telework and the way it is still being done as the pandemic continues to rage around the world, we should not overlook the fact that it is not how telework was designed to be done. Telework should be a voluntary arrangement and not a mandatory one. It was very clear from the studies we did. For example, Working Anytime Anywhere, the ILO - Eurofound joint report, found that the sweet spot for telework was not working full time remotely. It was working half time remotely and half time in the office. Because you are half of the time in the office you get to meet with colleagues, you get to interact with other people in the organisation, you can go to different kinds of events that nurture the organisation culture, even if it's things as simple as lunches and coffees together, individual meetings and discussions, meeting colleagues at the watercooler and coffee machine are all part of the culture too. So you have that half of the time all of these kinds of interpersonal activities and communications, and the other half of the time you can just focus on tasks. So it works best, telework is most effective when you work part-time in the office and part-time remotely. That should be I think easier for even people who are resistant to telework to swallow, and then, in fact, is the best approach, not to go to full-time teleworking, and certainly not to force people to telework.

That's what we did because it is a crisis and because we had to do something to avoid economic cataclysm. But at the same time realizing it was not ideal. We did not have the proper preparation, in many cases we did not have the proper tools, they did not have things like our new Teleworking Guide, they were just really flying by, they were trying to figure out how to navigate a new world. With proper preparation, laying the groundwork, having an organisational policy, having the proper hardware and software, providing training to both workers and managers, you can make teleworking an effective arrangement on a part-time basis. That way any organisation can minimize the downside, and maximize the upsides, and at the same time make it probably more acceptable because you are not always working remotely, managers can meet you in person sometimes, they can speak with you onsite and have meetings and exchanges of information and communication, both formal and informal, within the organisation.

So, that's what I am hoping will be an effective argument, and I frankly expect, some organisations I have seen, some IT and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are talking about making this permanent for a significant portion of their employees. I just don't see that happening for most organisations, even those that embrace telework, and frankly, I don't think it makes sense. I am not just a blind advocate of telework, I am advocating and promoting a reasonable, practicable form of telework based on what our research tells us. I'll say this one more time to emphasize our research tells us the "sweet spot", the best way to do teleworking is on a part-time basis. Not no teleworking, not always working in the office, but not full time teleworking all the time. No, you need a balance. We need time in the office for reconnecting with colleagues and the organisation as a whole, to maintain the organisational culture, and we need time working remotely for concentrated work on particular deliverables and tasks.

Agnes Uhereczky: Jon, coming to the last question. We spoke about employees and employers but we would be also interested in your experience with policymakers, and of course, the ILO is also speaking to policymakers. We knew during the pandemic that Spain was debating legislation to promote remote workers, in Wallonia in Belgium they were thinking about setting up a task force. Where do you see the role of policymakers in these times? What would you recommend them to focus on? Because I think it is so easy to get lost in details. Should they plan for an emergency or the after-COVID period? In your experience, where do you think they could focus on? Where they could spend their energy and their thinking?

Jon Messenger: I think, from my perspective, it depends on what you are talking about. Is it the immediate crisis, or whether you are talking about the longer term? I think that most governments have done what they needed to do. They had to promote telework because they had to do something to try to keep people employed and try to keep businesses operating. So they did I think what they had to do in terms of measures designed to promote telework. Some pieces of legislation, for example, not the legislation in Chile that predated the pandemic, but some other pieces of legislation which were explicitly designed for the pandemic, like in El Salvador, for example. These laws were only focused on the pandemic.

But I think now what policymakers should be focusing on, according to my opinion, is helping workers and employers and others to be able to scale up teleworking. They need to be trying to facilitate that.

They need to be trying to provide frameworks as well as information and support for workers and employers and the bodies that are supporting them (trade unions, employers’ organisations). They need to try to give them the tools that they need and a framework to be able to develop and implement effective teleworking procedures in their organisations. I think, providing up-to-date and reliable and accessible information to all stakeholders is very important. During the pandemic, for example, the dissemination of information on occupational safety and health including ergonomics was key. Getting out information is something they can do now and continue to do later so that they give people the best available information. They can also share information developed by other organisations like the ILO which has also developed information on other issues such as ergonomics and the OSH implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. They should also provide diverse forms of financial and other kinds of support, particularly I think it is justified in terms of SMEs and supporting them with purchasing IT equipment, offering taxes and financial support. I think you have to be careful to not overly subsidize things but at the same time particularly for organisations that are quite small, they might not have the resources financially to be able to provide their workers with the right hardware and software. This is important.

We need frameworks. And I think new frameworks are important, new regulations and other kinds of frameworks regarding teleworking provide an important structure within which teleworking arrangements can be developed in specific organisations both public and private.

That doesn't mean, in my opinion, that these things should be detailed regulations that are very inflexible and very prescriptive. That won't work with telework. But what you need are the flexible frameworks of the kind offered by, for example, the EU Framework Agreement on Teleworking from way back in 2002, that is still being used today. You need things like that. You also need to make clear that it is important to offer teleworkers flexibility which you can include in the framework. You need to offer teleworkers flexibility regarding their working schedule, "time sovereignty" which means that policies allow workers to organize their own schedules in order to be able to balance their paid work and personal life. And with the results-based approach, this is perfectly fine because they are accountable for achieving those goals regardless of when they choose to work.