The French Finally Say 'Oui' to Telecommuting
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this could be a game-changer for commuters.
By Fiona Zublin
My commute is 10 seconds. Thirty if I stop to feed my cat. It lasts the amount of time it takes to walk from my bedroom to my giant blue armchair next to the window that looks out over Paris.
I don’t have an office. I don’t even have a desk. My job is completely remote — all I need is a computer and Wi-Fi, which connects me to meetings, emails, editing jobs and even chitchat with colleagues, albeit via messaging tools like Slack rather than strolling to the watercooler.
The telecommuting revolution is often traced to the United States in the 1980s, but as recently as five years ago, it would have been nearly unheard of in France. Now, due to a series of legislative and cultural changes …
The percentage of salaried workers who telecommute in France has more than tripled since 2006.
Thirteen years ago, only 8 percent of French workers reported that they telecommuted. By 2012, that number had doubled to 16.7 percent, and now it’s hit 25 percent, according to a survey from insurance company Malakoff Médéric. That’s on a par with estimates of the percentage of U.S. workers working remotely, according to a 2017 report, but the growth in the U.S. has been more gradual. In the decade between 2005 and 2015, salaried workers telecommuting grew by 115 percent. But France’s growth really shines when compared to the U.K., which saw just 44 percent growth in the number of people working from home between 1998 and 2014, according to the Office for National Statistics.
To understand the real impact of this change for France, you have to understand French work culture — and specifically, how it differs not just from American work culture, but that of other European countries like Germany or the U.K. While the U.S. is known for its always-on-call, low-regulation work culture, France is completely different. “[In North America] they don’t have the culture of control over work, but in France, we have a long culture of control,” explains Caroline Diard, an associate professor at the School of Management at Normandie Business School. “That’s in the process of changing. Now, even salaried people are demanding more autonomy.”
They’re backed up by legal changes. The discussion of telecommuting began in France in 1993, Diard says, but legislative projects encouraging it petered out swiftly. While an estimated 16,000 people were already working remotely before that, telecommuting didn’t officially exist in European law until 2002 and in French law until 2005, when télétravail was defined and included in the French labor code for the first time. In 2017, further changes to French work laws made it even easier, doing away with regulations that required that telecommuters adhere to a regular schedule (as opposed to working remotely occasionally or for short periods) and dispensed with previously required employment contract wrangling. Still, if French workers are reluctant to fully embrace American work practices, she explains, they do want more autonomy. And Paris’ long tradition of independent workers like artists and designers who work from home offered an example of how to get it.
If you’re already working from home, you may be more likely to answer work emails at 10 pm.
“Telecommuting has become essential for me,” says Adrien Baud, an iOS developer who lives in Paris and clocks about 50 percent of his hours from home. He frequently hears from recruiters trying to lure him away with job offers promising good salaries and attractive offices. But he’s not tempted. “It’s about a 40-minute commute between my house and my office. It’s not that far, for Paris. But telecommuting lets me recoup an hour and 20 minutes every day, which is huge.” Telecommuting also saves on fuel — 80 percent of French commuters drive to work — which may become key in a nation recently racked by protests against fuel surcharges.
Killing time getting from point A to B is just one of the reasons people the world over may opt to telecommute — others include choosing to stay home with young children or wanting a calm environment or a more flexible schedule. But there’s a striking difference between France and the U.S.: Only 56 percent of French workers who don’t telecommute say they would like to, while 80 to 90 percent of Americans say they’d like to work from home. And there are significant benefits: 87 percent of French teleworkers say they’re more efficient working from home, 78 percent say they feel more fulfilled, and 86 percent say they’re less tired.
But it’s not all jumping out of bed refreshed for a day in a cushy armchair. “Teleworkers have a tendency to work too much,” says Diard. “It blurs the line between work life and private life.” If you’re already working from home, you may be more likely to answer work emails at 10 pm, check Slack when you get a drink of water in the middle of the night, or work when you’re sick, since you needn’t worry about passing germs to your colleagues. In addition to concerns that they’re putting in more hours working from home, teleworkers also tend to report high rates of social isolation.
Maybe that’s why the individuals who are the least satisfied with the arrangement are people without kids and those under 30. “The social side is less developed,” Baud admits. “This may be the only negative thing that prevents me from telecommuting 100 percent of the time.”