Rethinking Europe

France and the Art of Getting Back to Work

After the Corona pandemic, French firms’ management teams have great difficulty convincing their employees … to return to the office.

Credit: Alvaro


  • As social distancing winds down, French firms’ management have great difficulty convincing their employees to return to the office.
  • The stay at home rules during the pandemic highlighted the complicated relationship of French people with work.
  • During the height of the pandemic, French employees could act with more autonomy in their home offices. This advanced their well-being and efficiency at work.
  • French workers have discovered they can put in a full day’s work without having to spend three hours commuting to and from the office.
  • A key reason why employees in France like working from home is that France ranks last among 35 European countries on the quality of relationships at work -- referring to both among colleagues and with managers.

One month after the COVID 19 induced lockdown was lifted, the management teams of French companies have great difficulty convincing their employees … to return to the office.

They have been repeating the message to come back, but the offices remain empty. Meetings continue to take place via Teams, Webex or Zoom.

Will you please, please come back?

Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, the head of MEDEF, the French employers’ association, has even asked for the government to intervene. It “must tell the French people that it is time to return to work,” he explained in “Les Echos.”

Shortly after, Emmanuel Macron dutifully proclaimed the reopening of the country “which will notably allow a stronger resumption of work.”

The French President insisted: “We will therefore be able to rediscover the pleasure of being together, to resume work fully.”

The global half-pajama revolution

The problem of moving beyond home office work is not limited to France. Sleepwear sales provide an interesting global indicator.

In New Zealand, their sales doubled during containment. In South Korea, a truly innovative designer invented a pajama model, the top of which was designed in the shape of a shirt, to create an illusion in front of the computer camera.

In the United States, the cartoonist Shannon Wheeler drew a cartoon for the magazine “Wired” where one manager warns: “Obviously, we need to readjust to in-office meetings” … with all participants around the table wearing pajama pants.

It’s simply harder in France

But in France, the return to normal seems even more difficult. It appears the sudden move to home containment had exposed a deeper flaw in the work environment here than in other countries.

It must be said that the rupture was as brutal as it was massive. On a beautiful spring day in March, one quarter of French employees switched to 100% of teleworking.

In service sector companies, this proportion is much higher than that. At the headquarters of some large corporations, where thousands of employees usually flock in daily, only the CEO continued to come in every day.

A revolutionary moment — not just for France

Such a development had been simply inconceivable a short while earlier. Top management in large companies — often still stuck in full control-freak mode — was often very reluctant to agree to staff doing teleworking.

Any such agreements were often limited to one or two days a week. Many top managers argued with great intensity that more could not be done.

A telling example: One bank had always explained to its traders that security standards made it impossible to work outside a trading room … before ordering in a hurry hundreds of laptops so that everyone could work from home.

The dykes of insisting of coming to the office every day suddenly collapsed.

Precaution at work

In two months of lockdown, employees found excellent reasons to stop coming to the office.

First, they followed a new standard, heard or read hundreds of times a day, even at the top corner of their TV screens: The call to “stay home” had become a public health command.

Now that the tables are turned and it may well be time to come back, the current wave of pursuing “deconfinement” (=ending the confinement at home) came with a host of precautions.

Experiencing the office as a nightmare of weird rules

These precautions make life at work a nightmare. When the corridors are two meters wide, everyone walking about the office should press against the wall, to ensure that people remain more than one meter from each other.

As if employees had all of a sudden gone into collective amnesia, that distancing rule is displayed every three meters in office corridors.

Life on the upper floors

Never mind that wearing a mask is compulsory in the canteen. The real hardship happens when you are unlucky enough to work on the 47th floor of a tower in the Paris business district of La Défense.

Once considered a matter of prestige to work on the higher-up floors, you may now have to wait 20 minutes to access an elevator which usually has a carrying capacity of 50 people, but which now only accepts four people.

Unions weighing in…

Some unions have added even more pain. In some works councils, wiping specifications have become a major topic.

Some union representatives demanded 98% filter masks, usually intended for health professionals. In some sectors, one key French union, the CGT, seems to have become hostile to the very idea of work, thus turning its back on its entire history built on demanding people have a workplace.

The hassles of suburban commutes

Personal reasons also play a role. Worried about their health, employees avoid all places where proximity is inevitable, starting with public transports and the workplace.

Others have discovered that they can work perfectly, i.e, putting in a full day’s worth of work, without in addition having to go through a total of three hours of bus and subway travel every day to and back from the office.

Family separation

Some people have also abandoned the Paris region entirely for the French sea side or the country’s South.

Families torn between two cities were able to reunite. Millions of parents find it hard to adapt to school classes that have partially resumed, sometimes only for day care on Tuesday afternoons, Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons.

Hence the return announced by Macron of “compulsory education and according to the rules of normal presence.”

Is there a middle path?

Of course, we will have to return, at least a little, to the office. To exchange, to learn, to strengthen ties with customers and suppliers who are leaving their homes.

And yet, the stay at home rules during the pandemic highlighted the complicated relationship of French people with work.

Evidently, they find the past arrangements, not least because of often long commutes, too time-intensive and generally quite unsatisfactory.

More autonomy anyone?

During the height of the pandemic, many French employees took advantage of being able to act with more autonomy. Rarely possible before, this advanced their overall well-being and efficiency at work.

They also took the opportunity to escape an often-tense business climate. In a survey on working conditions, carried out by Eurofound, an agency of the European Union, France ranks last among 35 European countries on the quality of relationships at work (referring to both colleagues and with their managers).

That explains why Presidential exhortations may not suffice to bring French companies’ employees back to the office.

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