French managers are trying to transition from assessing attendance to assessing results, the American tradition. But their are drawbacks.
SAINT-PÉRAY — Where is work heading? For Rachel Peter and Jean-Baptiste Audras, a couple in their thirties, the southern French department of Ardèche has become their chosen place to both live and work. For nearly three years, the couple has worked from their home in Saint-Péray, both collaborating with Whodunit, a website development agency.
"Working with Whodunit meant working from home. It's become our lifestyle," Audras explains.
Though they share the space, the couple has different ways of working: She is in a room designed for this purpose, with a desktop computer, working 9 a.m.-6 p.m. He is on his phone, anywhere in the house, any time of day or, sometimes, night.
And yet, every morning they share the same ritual: daily team meeting via video conference. Each Whodunit worker — they are 10, soon to be 15 — logs in from home. They live in the French cities of Nantes, Metz, Paris and Lyon. The agency doesn't own or rent any office space: It is a "full remote" or "distributed" company, they note, using the English jargon. Dematerialized, nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
Not many companies have been won over to 100% teleworking, but the model is expanding, says Rodolphe Dutel, founder of Remotivo.io, a work-from-home website specialized in tech. His platform gathers together some 1,000 companies recruiting teleworkers – two-thirds of which are North American and just 20 from France only. These are mostly "small startups of 10 people but also "unicorns," those young companies valued above $1 billion, Dutel says. A pioneer in this area is the website development company Wordpress, which closed its head office in San Francisco in 2017 and converted all of its employees to teleworking.
Tech is not the only field involved, with fully remote companies in e-commerce and e-learning, notes Clément Marinos, an economics lecturer in Bretagne-Sud university. "This model will get bigger because the fields that are involved tend to create jobs," he predicts.
Bit by bit, we all felt like leaving Paris.
Whodunit made the leap in 2018. "When we created the agency, ten years ago, we dreamed of having an office, it looked good," recalls Emilie Lebrun, a co-founder of the company. In 2010, the five founders settled in an open space in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. The switch to teleworking was gradual. "One of us started working from home two days a week to limit the commuting," Lebrun said. "Bit by bit, we all felt like leaving Paris. In the same time, we needed to recruit people, we had to expand." A tricky period began, where a part of the team worked from home while the other remained in office. "It did not work," Lebrun observes. "There were two clans with their own way to communicate. We ended up getting rid of the office."
In the full-remote galaxy, some companies have never owned any office, even at first. BoondManager is one of them. It is a 28-employee startup specializing in editing management tools and was created in 2009 by two brothers, one living in the northern city of Lille and the other nearly 800 kilometers away in Brest. "Soon enough, we realized the time we had saved and the convenience of working from home," says co-founder Anthony Lamber. Without considering renting any premise, they started to recruit from all over the country. "At first, we didn't dare tell our clients. We did not want to be seen as the little guy that couldn't afford offices. For the past three years, we've stopped hiding it. Nowadays, it is even an asset in recruiting."
Silicon Valley culture, startup spirit, this phenomenon can be explained by mixing together different factors. "Real estate pressure in big cities and the lack of talent in tech industry have driven companies to recruit beyond any border," Clément Marinos notes. At the same time, technology got better and new collaborative tools — to share documents, send messages, make video calls — appeared.
Some investors are convinced that the teleworking revolution is happening and spend millions to create companies in virtual reality, with meeting rooms, colleague avatars … A bit like the famous virtual 3D game universe Second Life.
Among the perks mentioned by these companies, the easiness of recruiting, the savings in rent, the possibility to grow fast. O'Clock, a "wall-less' web developing school has gone from four collaborators to 46 in just two years. "I did the math. We would have had to move six times within two years if had we'd had offices," says Dario Spagnolo, president and co-founder.
How do you maintain team cohesion when you don't see one another?
On the workers' side, people are fed up with commuting, as well as with noisy open spaces. "It means more time to work and more spare time too," says Aimée Le Roux, a BoondManager instructor working in a corner of her bedroom in Paris. For Rachel Peter and Jean-Baptiste Audras, working from home was their chance to go back to their native Ardèche, and buy a house.
It doesn't mean that this new way of operating does not need some adjusting. "It comes up against a dominant management model in France, where the manager wants to keep an eye on their collaborators," notes Alain d'Iribarne, a sociologist of labor relations. "(Managers) need to make the transition from assessing attendance to assessing results, the American tradition."
Another challenge: how to maintain team cohesion when you don't see one another. "We spared no expense to create a community, our own identity," says Anthony Lambert. At BoondManager, the "boonders' use Slack, an instant messaging platform instead of the coffee lounge. Every week, two employees offer Cross-Fit and meditation classes by webcam. Other video conferences are fixed each week. Above all, the team meets up three times a year for an in-person seminar — "the fuel of teleworking," according to Lambert.
Finally, not all were born to telework. "You need to be autonomous, to communicate, to handle your time, to prioritize your tasks," notes Le Roux. If 80% of teleworkers are happy with it, according to an Actineo survey conducted in April, and monitored by, "teleworking is not the favorite option for all because most workers need to socialize," d'Iribarne, the sociologist, stresses. "What's appreciated is a mix of teleworking and places to meet: company's offices but also co-working spaces, which are increasing."
On the companies' side, it's not working out for all. Some are even backing off. In 2017, the American company IBM moved all its employees back to its offices. The firm concluded that teleworking hampered the company's "ability to innovate," Marinos explains. As for Facebook, they have started to offer a bonus to employees locating near their California headquarters. It's a way to keep them close.