Is remote work the future? Not in these countries
23 feb 2022
Since the beginning of the health crisis, most countries have had to resort to remote working to keep business going. Outside Scandinavian or Western European countries, the practice wasn’t widespread around the world before the pandemic. And while working from home has since become commonplace, some countries just haven’t managed to pull it off, whether for cultural, legal or technical reasons. Will they ever manage to? Let’s have a look at those countries where working from home just isn’t working out.
Japan: presenteeism rules
The pandemic forced the Japanese to resort to remote work and it turned out to be a disaster. While most employees say working from home made them more efficient than they were in the office, Japanese employees have become less productive by an average of 20%, according to a study by economist Toshihiro Okubo. This result is all the more astonishing given that in Japan employees waste an enormous amount of time simply getting to work. Japan has one of the highest daily commuting times in the world. For Sébastien Lechevalier, director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris and president of the France-Japan Foundation, this drop in productivity can be explained by the country’s managerial culture. In a column published in the French newspaper Le Monde, the researcher explains that for the Japanese, working well means spending long hours in the workplace.
In addition, Japanese employees prefer to work collectively, as opposed to individually, and company performance is mostly based on teamwork. Staying at home means missing out on informal conversations – the water cooler moments – and hinders contact within teams. Ultimately, out of the 20-25% of regular remote workers in the country, more than half say they are less efficient when working from home. For Lechevalier, this complicated relationship with remote work can also be explained by living conditions in Japan: there are big disparities when it comes to the size of housing, which tends to be very expensive in the big cities. Another important element is whether or not they have children to take care of.
The Czech Republic: legal limbo for remote workers
Although the Czech Republic is just as tech-equipped as any other Western European country, remote work has not been fully accepted, especially by employers. This is mostly for legal reasons, according to Frantz Gault, director of the consulting firm LGMB Worklabs and author of a study on remote work around the world. “The Czechs are struggling to give remote workers proper status, and the law does not specify whether a remote worker is a normal employee or not,” says the researcher. In fact, many companies prefer not to take that route given the legal uncertainty. A growing debate on legislating the status of remote workers is beginning to emerge slowly, but there hasn’t been much progress.
“The legal factor is a direct result of the cultural factor,” says Gault. “The Czech Republic places a lot of importance on hierarchy and community.” There is an expectation that there will be a layer of management supervising any work being done, meaning that employees need to be accessible to their managers. “As long as this notion of hierarchy is there, then an employee can’t do their work independently, away from the gaze of their colleagues and bosses,” he says. This reluctance to allow remote working is common for the same reasons in several Eastern European countries, particularly Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. But the Czech Republic is the only country that has never given legal status to remote workers. It is as if they have never, and could never, exist. Could things change over the next few years? The younger generations are pushing for change and, according to an Ipsos study, 51% of the employees questioned were interested in permanent remote work and 59% in a partial remote work job.
Angola: in last place
In the Frantz Gault study, Angola stands out as the country that is least friendly to remote working in the world. “We had three criteria to classify the countries we surveyed [legal, cultural and technical],” says the researcher, “and Angola was at 0 for each of these three criteria”. According to LGMB Worklabs, each of the three criteria tends to influence the other two. In Angola, there just simply isn’t the necessary infrastructure in place for any kind of successful remote working. “The average internet speed is simply not good enough for people to work from home,” he says. Since the country does not have a powerful enough internet network to allow workers to do their jobs from home, most employees simply stopped working during the peaks of the health crisis.
In 2020, 0.70 out of every 100 people in the country had broadband access with a fixed line, compared to 36.41 in the United States, according to the World Bank. Many workers didn’t receive any financial aid during the crisis, despite a government decree to protect those forced to stop working, according to an article by the African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation. The number of remote workers in the country in 2022, however, remains difficult to estimate, as government institutions and employers’ associations provide too few figures to International Labor Organization evaluators to provide an accurate national picture.
China: the other great leap forward
It was the first country to have the unfortunate experience of dealing with the coronavirus, but also the first to impose remote work: any workers with the ability to work from home were required to do so. According to the consulting firm Bloomberg, it was one of the largest experiments in home-based work in the world. At the time, 40% of the workforce was forced to work from home, compared to only 7% of employees who had been allowed to do so until then. While it had a rough start – the servers of WeChat and Tencent messaging systems were overwhelmed – and small businesses, which have massively invested in the internet in the hope of building customer loyalty, were forced to adapt. This is a rather unexpected cultural shift from a country very attached to presenteeism and hierarchies. However, according to Bloomberg, some companies, such as the Hyatt hotel group in Beijing, kept a firm grasp on their employees, even remotely: every morning, the employees had to check in with their bosses telling them their location and whether they had symptoms of the virus.
The other cultural factor that may explain the difficulty for the Chinese in adopting remote work: the country’s communist heritage, which forces Chinese employees to negotiate agreements collectively. This automatically excluded remote work, which was considered inappropriate because it “concerns individual workers,” says Gault. Despite a strong collectivist culture that had previously held back the development of remote work in the country, the new habits developed during the pandemic are sticking around and there’s been strong growth with the digital economy.
Europe’s bad student: France
Before the successive lockdowns that forced companies to resort to remote work, France stood out as Europe’s underperforming student, according to a study carried out jointly by Ifop and the Jean Jaurès foundation. While it was implemented by 61% of Germans, 56% of Italians and 50% of Britons, only 34% of the French regularly worked remotely. According to the study, the amount of time the French worked remotely was also lower than that of their European neighbors: 11% of them worked remotely four to five days a week, compared to 30% of Italians. These low figures can be explained by the strong disparity between upper-management — the majority of whom work remotely — and the other socio-professional categories, who largely continued to go into their place of work: there was a 39 “point” difference between the different socio-professional categories, compared to an 8-point difference in the categories in Italy.
Another explanation for these disparities in France is age, with older workers less comfortable with digital technology than the “digital native” generation, and above all, much more used to the culture of presenteeism, which seems to affect the younger generations much less. A situation that might not be changing, as the French respondents to the survey asked for fewer remote working days, compared to their European neighbors, with only 1.8 days requested, against 2.7 requested by Spanish workers. For the authors of the study, this low demand for telework days is the result of a form of “resignation,” coming from that strong divide between socio-professional categories, with the authors suggesting many French workers believe that it’s not accessible to them.
Translated by Kalin Linsberg
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