Telework: Hierarchies need to become flexible

Whether in the private or the public sector, digitalisation does not only entail changes in the technological industry. Lots of thought patterns and modifications are suddenly getting questioned. The hierarchy pyramid, to which much is still attached, is getting increasingly wobbly. Change management is in all mouths and many people talk about new freedoms coupled to personal responsibility. What used to work well over years apparently needs to be looked at in a new light.

Pandemic push in the digital sector

Even though the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over, it can be stated that telework got heavily pushed overnight. The State is currently considering a maximum of three full teleworking days and regarding the Communes, the Minister of the Interior started a survey with the objective of making remote work from home more and more socially acceptable.

At the beginning of the year, on request to stay home teleworking, your boss would probably have looked at you in a funny way. However, once in lockdown times, people whose job would allow for it, managed to go over to remote work in a swift and effective way. As we were experiencing an emergency situation, we precisely did what was doable. Nobody would ask for regulations and procedures.

The motto was rather “legal, illegal, fuck it”. And it made sense, given that we were in an emergency situation.    

Emergency is not normality

Living and working together in an emergency situation is certainly not the same as evolving in ordinary everyday life. Therefore, we need to give it some thought and find a way to work together in the future, all the more as digitalisation is a hot topic and we cannot collectively stick our head into the sand.

Considering that even the Government had no clear ideas on how to regulate what, by law, ruling etc., the Economic and social council (Conseil Économique et Social – CES) got tasked with issuing a position on telework. Globally, it was about discussing a unified position of employers and employees with regard to the economic and social consequences of telework and come up with a general piece of advice. Parts of this paper reproduce concrete positions that were elaborated in the CES’s advice.

It seems pretty clear that promoting and regulating remote work from home is indeed not enough. The matter is far more complex and parallelly entails a plethora of interrogations and challenges.

Among the recent topics in the labour world, there are:

  • More autonomy and responsibility for the teleworker.
  • Risk of social isolation for the teleworker.
  • Fear of hierarchical superior to lose control.

Valuing of personal autonomy – Focus on individual skills

In general, it can be found that due to increasingly higher qualification and the resulting willingness for self-realisation, more and more people, some more, some less, strive for liberation from the constraints of organised work. Personal autonomy is getting more important. An evolution that definitely is at the detriment of hierarchy, specifically full of rigid constraints. And this evolution leads to questioning the existing hierarchy. Furthermore, this prompts the question of who should control work. More and more, the stakes are about valuing personal autonomy while focussing on individual competences.    

Long-chain organisational charts with many levels as currently implemented, will make way to flat organigrams, precisely meaning that an ever-increasing number of employees will exercise a real authority in their specific field of competence. Internally, communication is evolving horizontally and getting less hierarchised. In this way, autonomy, empowerment, work on common objectives will evolve increasingly in the direction of an individualisation of work and self-control. What will of course render telework more interesting. This implies transferring certain responsibilities from the employer to the employee, such as time management, work organisation and also transferring certain risks.

Risk of social isolation for the teleworker  

Teleworkers isolation is one of the main concerns in this context. We are intentionally going to disregard this aspect in the current article as our aim is to focus on the hierarchy and its evolution.

It is to be noted that remote workers’ involvement will be an important task for those handling staff, lately also referred to as human resources in Luxembourg. Special approaches are needed as far as training and teambuilding are concerned.

Fear of hierarchical superior to lose control

The fear to lose control over one’s staff is one of management’s major challenges. Due to the distance from normal work environment, different workplaces as well as the flexibility in working hours, a personalised control over staff is rather difficult. Telework is suppressing two fundamental parameters of traditional labour, that is the workplace itself (thus the possibility to control the workers) and their physical presence (the ability of the workers to interact with their colleagues).

Even though there exist specific programmes allowing work to be somehow “supervised”, some questions remain open, notably: What is it that is needed, controlling working hours or results? What objective criteria do exist to carry out such supervision? How to measure what needs controlling?

There is not one single solution for all those questions. There are as many different companies with various tasks as there is a variety of persons in the labour world. Moreover, the supervision factor depends on their skills, responsibilities and so forth. A core element is definitely mutual trust. This is a must. And that is exactly where the problem is in the working world.

Core element: Trust between employer and employee

It appears that the trust among the parties is a determining factor for telework. And this is obviously a human quality that needs fostering and maintaining within a company.

However, it can also be found that a working world based on many staff working from home and exclusively based on trust, is a bit daring. Consequently, solid trust needs to be complemented with a sound control. Both are mutually dependant. 

On the importance of a competent human resources management  

As a conclusion of the previous, it clearly appears that it is not enough to simply implement telework. While considering the context of an ever-turning digitalisation, it is obvious that the orientation of human resources management has to be quite different. It is no less than a paradigm shift in the labour culture. Communication is again key. It is about creating transparency as to telework, not least to avoid any abuse. Moreover, it must be ensured that those who are not working from home and are present at work, do not consider that they get the second prize.

This leads to the conclusion that remote working is an organisational project rather than a technological one.

Supressing hierarchy makes no sense

When talking about an organisational project, we are again not far from our hierarchical structures in our companies and administrations. Does this mean that we should suppress this hierarchy? Doesn’t this pyramidal structure have a great deal of advantages that we could include into the changes?

Let’s put it as follows: The classical decision pyramid from the industrial area, where the boss would make all the decisions and the others execute them, certainly is a discontinued model. As seen, the future begs for different organisational structure so as to allow us to handle our digitalised world.  Which does not mean that all hierarchical mechanisms need to be removed.

What is hierarchy capable of ?

By definition, hierarchy isn’t that bad. It does indeed present a few decisive advantages:

  • Orientation = clearly defined tasks, responsibilities, and decision procedures.
  • Reliability = Team and processes are defined and rolling.
  • Safety = Individuals seldomly risk far-reaching consequences as responsibility lies somewhere else.

Orientation, reliability, and safety are aspects that most people find important, even when already working in a techno-agile and connected way. The exciting question would thus be how to transmit the advantages of the pyramidal model to our digitalised world? Over the last 50 years, the world has been spinning ever faster. Everything is moving. Missions are gaining in complexity, decisions need to be taken always quicker, requiring the pyramid to get increasingly moveable, decisions to be taken swifter, especially when distributing the decision-making power is at stake. A classical hierarchy is coupled to a particular position: The higher the position, the larger the executional power. A model where it does not matter whether the deciding person would indeed have the necessary knowledge to make that particular decision.

In the future, this model will reach its limits. In case that less complex tasks are anyhow taken over by a computer, the more complex missions will have to be carried out by humans, in collaboration with co-workers and in the context of the world’s global evolution. Everyone has some knowledge that someone else has not. The one having the solution for a specific question has to get the possibility to take the related decision. Such an emerging mobile pyramid will be able to distribute the decision-making power differently, according to a mission or project. Meaning that it is no longer about the position one occupies in the company, but about the best competence to complete an actual task.

A young intern might for instance take the lead for one particular project simply as they would know more on the topic. Their boss would play the part of the intern, learning new stuff.  Roles and responsibilities will thus be newly defined according to the task to be executed.

Self-responsibility needs self-confidence

Will everyone be able to take over responsibilities? Theoretically yes. Not immediately of course.  Persons who would only have executed instructions over years will hardly be able to turn into an independent entrepreneur overnight. Self-responsibility and organisation have to be learnt step by step. It is about making people aware of their own capabilities. How to do so will be the topic of the next edition of FGFC ‘Mag. Overall, this subject is quite complex when considered in-depth, but instrumental for the future orientation of our working world.

The elementary thing is to recognise that changes are under way, whether we like it or not. The challenges are huge. The Covid-19 pandemic even puts these challenges in a different context. Collectively, there is no need to be scared by the future. Living means changing, on an everyday basis. We face up to that, together with our children.

Quotes :

Telework is an organisational project rather than a technological project.

What should be measured in what way in a controlled manner?

It is about personal autonomy with a focus on individual skills.

It is not one’s position in a company that matters, but the person sporting the most concrete skills.

Marco Thomé
FGFC Président
Luxembourgish General Federation of Local Administration