PARIS — There's a new wave of anxiety growing inside companies. It's been one month since France lifted its lockdown, and management teams are having a hard time convincing employees to come back to the office. Though the message to begin to return to normal is repeated, offices remain sparse, and meetings continue to take place via Teams, Webex or Zoom — the latter being now worth more than $50 billion on the stock market.

The head of Medef, France's leading employers' association, Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, has even requested a ruling from the state: "The government must tell the French that it is time to go back to work," he explained to Les Echos. Shortly afterwards, President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed the reopening of the country "which will notably allow a more widespread return to work," adding that "we will therefore be able to rediscover the pleasure of being together, of fully returning to the job."

The problem is not limited to France; pajamas have become one of the symbols of this peculiar period all over the world. In New Zealand, sales of this ultimate form of casual wear doubled during lockdown. In South Korea, a designer invented a pajama top that looks like a shirt and can fool anyone on the other end of a teleconference. In the United States, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler sketched a meeting for Wired in which the boss warns, "Obviously, we're going to have to get used to meetings in the workplace again," while all the participants are in pajama pants.

But in France, the return to normal seems considerably more difficult. The strict quarantine has exposed a deeper flaw in the work culture than elsewhere.

It must be said that the rupture was as brutal as it was massive. On a single beautiful spring day in March, one-quarter of the nation's employees switched over to 100% working from home. In service companies, this proportion is much higher. At the head offices of large companies, where thousands of employees usually flock, only the CEO continued to come every day to the office.

Employees have found excellent reasons to stop coming to the office.

Such a migration was unimaginable just two weeks earlier. Company management used to be very reluctant to telework, with agreements being often limited to one or two days a week, and many managers argueing in good faith that more could not be done. One bank explained to its traders that security standards made it impossible to work outside the trading floor ... before ordering hundreds of laptops in a hurry so that everyone could work from home. The dam had burst.

In two months of confinement, employees have found excellent reasons to stop coming to the office. First, they followed a new standard heard or read hundreds of times, straight out of their TVs: "Stay home." The end of the lockdown, on the other hand, began with a host of precautions.

Despite challenges, many prefer working from home to avoid the risk of coronavirus infection. — Photo: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/DPA/ZUMA

These precautions made life at work hell. Two-meters wide corridors mean you basically have to lean against the wall to cross each other and stay more than one meter apart, a rule posted every three steps on said corridor. Wearing masks is obligatory in the cafeteria. And when you are unlucky enough to work on the 47th floor of a tower at the La Défense office complex, you have to wait 20 minutes to access a lift usually fitting 50 people, now only accepting four.

Labor unions have added fuel to the fire: During online committee hearings, they vigorously debated what specific type of disinfecting wipe was needed; elected officials demanded 98% filtration masks, usually reserved for health professionals. In some sectors, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), a trade union, seems to have become hostile to the very idea of work, thus turning its back to its entire history.

Personal reasons also come into play. Worried about their health, some employees avoid all places where there are others in close proximity, starting with public transport and the workplace. Others have discovered that they can work perfectly well without having to endure three hours of commuting by bus and metro every day. Some have left the Paris region for the seaside or the south of France. Families who were separated between two cities were able to reunite. Millions of parents find it difficult to juggle a school that has finally resumed, but sometimes only part time. That prompted Macron's announcement to the return of "compulsory schooling and normal attendance rules."

Of course, we'll have to start returning to the office, to exchange, to learn and to strengthen ties with clients and suppliers who have finally left home as well. But as further details are brought to light, the period of lockdown highlighted the complicated relationship the French have with work, being somehow both over-invested and unsatisfied.

Many of them took the opportunity to acquire a welcome degree of autonomy, a prerequisite to well-being and efficiency at work that was too rarely granted to them. They have also taken advantage of this opportunity to escape from the often tense climate in the workplace. In a survey on working conditions carried out by Eurofound, a European Union agency, France ranks last among 35 countries in terms of the social relations within companies, both among colleagues and with the boss. It will take an extra effort to make employees come back to the office.


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