Cultural sources of variance in telework adoption in two subsidiaries of an ICT-multinational.
Ongoing technological developments are opening up more and more opportunities for distributed working, such as the substitution of home-based telework for commuting to the central office (Mokhtarian and Sato, 1994). Due to the numerous academic and non-academic writings on telework, also global awareness of potential advantages of telework for contemporary organizations facing various challenges has increased. In order to commit highly valued workers, for example, organizations may feel pressured to respond to employees' growing demand for flexible work-arrangements by adopting telework policies and practices which allow for a better reconciliation of work and family life. Also globally operating organizations may be interested in adopting telework as they feel an increasing need for flexible and virtual collaboration among team members inside or outside their organizations. Managers' perceptions of telework adoption by other firms in their organizational fields are shown to enhance mimetic pressure on managers to hold more positive attitudes towards home-based telework (Peters and Heusinkveld, forthcoming) and, indirectly, to increase managers' readiness to introduce telework policies and practices in their organizations (Peters and Batenburg, in progress).
Yet, not all organizations and individual managers may respond to institutional pressures in similar ways (Goodstein, 1994; Ingram and Simons, 1995; Oliver, 1991). Across national boundaries, for example, institutional pressures can be expected to interact with cultural varieties (Maurice et al., 1980), which may provide sources of cross-national variance in managers' adoption of HR-practices (Hofstede, 1991; Trompenaars, 1993), such as telework. In fact, in the telework literature, national culture is presented as one of the explanations for cross-country differences in telework adoption and diffusion (Mokhtarian and Sato, 1994; Peters and den Dulk, 2003; Standen, 2000; Tregaskis, 2000;).
In the present study, we focus on cross-cultural differences in telework adoption, i.e., managers' telework attitudes and telework management behaviours (cf. Peters et al., 2009; Rogers, 1995). To analyze how national culture affects how managers think and act in relation to telework, we draw interview data from line managers. This management category is chosen since a lack of support from line managers is considered one of the most important bottlenecks towards a successful implementation of telework policies and practices (Peters and den Dulk, 2003). Moreover, it is particularly their power position which may be at stake when teleworkers are given greater job autonomy (ibid.).
Up until now, empirical studies into the influence of national culture on telework adoption among line managers are scarce (Baruch, 2001). The present study aims to fill this gap by analyzing differences and similarities in line managers' telework adoption in two subsidiaries of the same ICT-multinational situated in two countries which clearly differ both with respect to their national cultures (Hofstede, 1991) and the uptake of home-based telework (European Foundation, 2007; Gareis, 2002): France and the Netherlands. The Netherlands is one of the leading countries in Europe with a home-based telework penetration rate of 20.6% of the employed population in 2002 (ibid.). With 4.4% that year, France is in the lower rankings (ibid.). We seek to provide an empirical answer to the following research question: To what extend do telework attitudes and telework-management behaviours of line managers in two subsidiaries of the same ICT-multinational in France and the Netherlands mirror variations in national cultures?
In the next section, we expound how national culture, used as an analytical concept (Verschuren and Doorewaard, 1999), may help to analyze similarities or variations in line managers' telework adoption in our two concrete cases. Next, the research methodology is briefly outlined. This is followed by the presentation of the empirical results. In the final section, the results are summarized and discussed.
According to cultural theory, each nation can be characterised by a distinctive, influential and describable culture. One of the pioneers in cross-cultural studies is Geert Hofstede who has introduced the notion of 'national culture.' Based on large scale surveys undertaken in the period 1967-1973, Hofstede claims to have empirically shown that attitudes and behaviours towards work differ significantly across countries. These differences Hofstede attributes to variations in national culture which are considered a product of socialization. Hofstede defines national culture as 'the collective programming of the mind which members of a group or category share and which distinguishes them from others' (Hofstede, 1991).
Over the years, however, Hofstede's notion of national culture, the assumptions underlying his theory, and his research methodology have engendered much criticism (Javidan et al., 2006, cf. McSweeney, 2002). With regard to the causal status of national culture, some scholars state that Hofstede's view, in which cultural values drive practices, 'endorses national cultural determinism' (McSweeney, 2002: 92). Despite the extensive literature that critiques Hofstede's writings, however, the cultural dimensions distinguished by Hofstede to characterize the five basic value orientations of a national culture are still very influential in cross-national studies as they help to describe and analyze the role of the complex concept of national culture in a manageable way. For this reason, we consider Hofstede's five cultural value orientations as useful dimensions to operationalize 'national culture'.
In fact, as an analytical concept explaining telework adoption and diffusion, national culture strongly relates to the constructs of 'relative advantage' and 'cultural compatibility' (Rogers, 1995) which assumes that current views, beliefs, customs and practices affect the adoption and diffusion of innovations (ibid.). Line managers' perceptions of the relative advantage and cultural compatibility of telework in their departments (cf. Rogers, 1995) are expected to depend on their deeply rooted cultural values. Cultural values are also expected to influence behavioural guidelines, or HRM-principles, regarding how to value and manage telework policies and practices in their departments (Peters et al., forthcoming).
In conclusion, although we reject cultural determinism and do acknowledge that there may be interaction among key cultural values, and that the reproduction of the deeply rooted values describing a national culture may be subject to change (Early, 2006), we feel that Hofstede's conceptual dimensions can help to analyze differences and similarities in managers' telework attitudes and telework management behaviours across national cultures.
Five Dimensions of National Culture
In the present study, the five dimensions of national culture as distinguished by Hofstede (1991) are used as analytical concepts. Below, it is briefly discussed which of these cultural dimensions can be expected to be sources of variations in telework adoption across the French and Dutch line managers in our study.
* Uncertainty avoidance refers to the degree to which members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations and, therefore, value predictability, certainty, safety and formal and informal rules (Hofstede, 1991). According to Hofstede, the Dutch culture is characterised by a much lower level of uncertainty avoidance than the French. In the French culture, uncertainty avoidance is highly valued and mutual trust between employers and subordinates is relatively low. The more centralized and hierarchically organisation structure characteristic of French organisations would typically match a work mode in which managers and subordinates work in the same physical work site, according to a collective temporal work schedule which allows managers to coordinate, motivate and control employees' work effort directly. In the French culture, managers may reduce feelings of uncertainty by regulations, formal procedures, systems and rituals (Raghuram et al., 2001).
As teleworkers are less visible and harder to monitor than office workers, we expect Dutch managers to feel more comfortable with telework than French managers, and, therefore, they are more likely to adopt telework in their departments.
* Power distance refers to the degree to which members of a culture expect and accept that power is unequally distributed (Hofstede, 1991). The Dutch national culture scores significantly lower on Hofstede's power distance dimension than the French. In the French national culture, hierarchy and societal inequality are relatively highly valued, which is expressed by a high level of organisational centralisation, an authoritarian leadership style, formal rules, power differences, and the use of status symbols (ibid.). In French organizations, hierarchical positions and power differences may become manifest by the distribution of office space and privileges.
Given that telework often coincides with more decision-making authority (Gajendran et al., 2007), we expect French managers to be less willing to adopt telework. Dutch managers, in contrast, are more likely to emphasize cooperation, decentralisation and more egalitarian relationships between managers and employees. Therefore, we expected Dutch managers to hold more favourable attitudes towards telework.
* A culture is individualistic when the bonds between group members are loose. A culture is described as collectivistic when individuals are seen as part of a close group which provides them life-long protection in exchange for unconditional loyalty (Hofstede, 1991). Dutch society is viewed as highly individualised which is manifested in a high degree of individual accountability, self-interest and autonomy (Raghuram et al., 2001). In cultures which are characterized by collectivism, one would expect more group solidarity and collective responsibility (Trompenaars, 1993). Individuals have less job autonomy and are less likely to be held responsible for their own acts. As telework engenders empowerment, it is considered more compatible with a culture which can be characterized by a higher degree of individualism (Peters and den Dulk, 2003). In organisations characterized by a high level of collectivism, workers' visibility is highly valued and people feel less comfortable with telework (Raghuram et al., 2001).
According to Hofstede, the French national culture does not score very much lower on the individualism dimension than the Dutch national culture (Hofstede, 1991). Therefore, we expect that the cultural dimension 'individualism versus collectivism,' is not a source of variance in line managers' telework adoption.
* A masculine culture refers to a society in which gender roles clearly differ. Men are supposed to be assertive, strong and focussed on success. Women are supposed to be modest and tender and mainly focussed on the quality of life. A society is feminine in case gender roles overlap, that is, when both men and women are tender, focussed on relationships and on improving the quality of life (Hofstede, 1991). This dimension also reflects the degree of assertiveness compared to modesty, and success compared to helpfulness and solidarity. The French culture scores higher on Hofstede's masculinity index, i.e., in French organisations, performance, assertiveness, competition and materialism are appreciated more than social needs. The Dutch culture scores much lower on this index. Modesty, caring and solidarity are more highly valued.
As telework has the potential to contribute to a better work-life balance (Peters and van der Lippe, 2007), which can be viewed a feminine issue, we expect Dutch line managers to hold more positive attitudes towards telework than French managers.
* Having a short-term orientation means that people focus on virtues that relate to the past and presence, for instance, having respect for tradition. In a culture characterised by a long-term orientation, people strive for higher virtues that will be rewarded in the future, like perseverance and thrift (Hofstede, 1991). Eastern perseverance in the development and application of innovations is placed opposite to the Western urge for truth, immediate satisfaction and short-term results. These latter values are more static, whereas the values in the long-term oriented cultures are more dynamic. In the latter, the focus is on building an enduring network during one's full career. In a short-term oriented culture, values like calmness, balance, tradition and meeting engagements are more important. In case these are too much valued, however, initiative, change and risk taking will be discouraged.
Based on Hofstede's writing (1991), we expect both French and Dutch managers to be mainly short-term orientated, the Dutch ones being somewhat more long-term oriented than their French colleagues.
Summarizing, focussing on cross-national cultural differences as presented by Hofstede and in the telework literature, we expect that telework is more compatible with the value orientations of Dutch managers than those of their French colleagues. Particularly 'power distance,' 'uncertainty avoidance' and 'masculinity' can be expected to be sources of variance in line managers' telework attitudes and telework management behaviours, whereas 'individualism versus collectivism' and 'long-term orientation versus short-term orientation' are not.
In order to analyze line managers' telework adoption, we used a 'most similar' case-study design, comparing two cases of the same phenomenon that are comparable in many respects expect for the factor that may account for differences in outcomes. We kept constant for as many as possible factors. Therefore, our comparative case study focused on two subsidiaries of the same ICT-multinational, operating in the same sector, and under similar institutional pressures of a globalizing economy. This way, we reduced the influence of type of organization, sector, and institutional pressures as sources of variance in managers' telework adoption. Moreover, earlier research has indicated that also other types of culture, such as organizational cultures or professional cultures may affect the adoption of HR-practices (Trompenaars, 1993), such as telework (Peters and Heusinkveld, forthcoming). Therefore, we focused on the adoption of telework among line managers only, assuming them to share the same professional subculture (Schein, 1992). Of course, managers' telework attitudes and telework management not only depends on culture, but also on other contextual factors, like national and international legislations, employment relations, and institutional, economic and political issues (Maurice et al., 1980; Erez, 2001; Raghuram et al., 2001). An important contextual factor may be the ICT-penetration level (Tregaskis, 2000). This, however, can be considered equally high across the two cases.
In the period November 2006 to May 2007, seven face-to-face interviews were conducted. The topic list comprised open-ended questions with regard to 1) the line manager's professional background and household situation; 2) the telework policy in the subsidiary; 3) the line manager's attitude towards the (formal) telework policy and telework practices; 4) the perceived relative advantage and drawbacks of telework; and 5) the line manager's opinion on conditions that affect the diffusion of telework in his or her organisation. In addition to these, the French contact person allowed using three semi-structured interviews on telework with French mangers of the subsidiary which had been conducted in 2006. All ten interviews were carried out in the interviewees' mother tongues, French or Dutch, respectively, and were taped and transcribed. The French transcriptions were translated into Dutch by a Dutch person who mastered the French language.
Content analysis of the subsidiaries' internal telework policy documents was combined with an analysis of the ten semi-structured interviews with French and Dutch managers. The researchers analyzed the documents and the interview data, using Hofstede's five conceptual dimensions to guide the comparative analysis. Cultural differences and similarities were expected to be mirrored both in the French and Dutch managers' telework adoption.
The Organisational Telework Policy Context
* The multinational's telework policy
According to a formal 2005-document, the ICT-multinational intends to promote telework across all subsidiaries. Due to the multinational's decentralized structure, however, the introduction of telework is left to local establishments. Organizational change is supported via encouraging establishments to be in touch with each other, rather than by directly enforcing it through strict rules and regulations. The French interviews reveal that the Belgian subsidiary functions as a role model. Contact with key persons in the Belgian establishment is encouraged in order to stimulate the introduction of telework pilots in other establishments.
"In general, the Belgian establishment is our biggest support. So you can see that if other establishments are adopting a telework project, for example in Spain or in France, they have very good contacts with the Belgian people which started the Belgian project."
The policy document shows eight other subsidiaries to have followed suit. Based on our theoretical framework, the Dutch national culture is expected to be more compatible with telework. Strikingly, however, the Dutch subsidiary is not among these, but the French subsidiary is. In order to better understand and interpret the French and Dutch line managers' telework attitudes and telework management behaviours, the telework policies of our two single case study organizations are described below.
* The telework policy of the French subsidiary
In 2002, the Communications Department of the French subsidiary introduced a telework pilot to promote the firm's ICT-products. The pilot allowed a selection of 50 employees max to telework on a voluntary basis. According to the formal policy documentation, initially, only managers ('les cadres'), mainly working in the field of engineering, marketing or administration, were given access to formal telework for two days per week max.
In 2005, the firm decided to offer the formal telework arrangement to approximately 100 additional managers, to compensate for their longer commuting times due to them being re-located. Before potential teleworkers can formally request access to formal telework, they have to fill out an 'auto diagnostic' questionnaire to test whether their tasks and their personal characteristics are 'teleworkable,' both in their own views, and in the view of the company. According to the policy document, the basic principle of telework in the French subsidiary is mutual trust between a manager and an individual subordinate, grounded on performance management and regular face-to-face meetings. The interviews reveal that top management has agreed that, in the final analysis, the individual line manager has the authority to decide whether a particular subordinate is given access to telework, or whether access is denied. This is legitimated by pointing out that the line manager is better capable of judging whether an employee is able to telework than top management. In case a request is granted, the HR-department provides a formal telework contract which has to be signed by the teleworker. Teleworkers are equipped with a wide range of information and communication technologies.
The interviews reveal that the French subsidiary plans to rollout the telework program in the future, in a first stage, only involving managers. In a later stage, the policy may apply to all employees. The current French telework program, however, clearly reflects the French national culture emphasizing 'power distance.' That is, formal telework arrangements are explicitly reserved to a selected group of higher-ranked managers. Not in line with the centralized and hierarchical character of French organizations, however, it is line managers who can grant or deny a telework request.
* The telework policy of the Dutch subsidiary
In the Dutch subsidiary, no formal telework policy is in place. Policy documents, however, show that the Dutch subsidiary used to have a formal policy. This telework policy was introduced in 2000, a period of economic upswing in which the subsidiary had to respond to their prevalent accommodation problems due to both company growth and workers' telework demand. The formal telework policy was targeted both at managers and subordinates, mirroring low power distance to be valued. As in the French case, line managers were in the position to grant individual workers' telework requests or not, the maximum number of teleworking days being two days per week. Both the manager and the employee were allowed to decide to end the telework contract, although the policy document does not present any criteria for such a termination.
In 2002, a period of economic downturn, the policy was discontinued, which means that, at present, neither managers nor subordinates are formally allowed to perform telework. According to the interviews, the significant personnel reduction had taken away the most important management incentive for telework: the lack of office space. Another rationale for the subsidiary to reverse the telework policy which was revealed in the interviews was the severe loss of social cohesion and organizational commitment among the personnel which had led to abuse of telework by some individual workers. As a consequence, in the Dutch subsidiary, telework is no longer supported by a formal policy. Currently, management even holds very negative attitudes towards telework, which can be taken to contrast the Dutch cultural values of low power distance and low uncertainty avoidance.
* Informal practices in the French and Dutch subsidiaries
Despite the introduction of the formal telework policy, the French interviewees clearly consider telework a deviant way of working in the French context. The interviewees state that the use of the formal telework policy is even discouraged by the formal, somewhat complex, telework request procedure. Moreover, the interviewees perceive telework demand among workers to be low: 'Nobody talks about telework.' Strikingly, however, informal telework appears to be omnipresent in the French subsidiary. However, it mainly concerns paid or unpaid overtime performed at home on top of employees' 'normal office hours' which is not recognize as telework by the interviewees.
Also in the Dutch case, informal telework practices are widely accepted by line managers and subordinates alike. Importantly, in this case, informal telework does not only refer to overtime performed at home, but is considered an acceptable substitute for office work, and an option which is open to all workers. The adoption and diffusion of informal telework practices may be taken to reflect that hierarchy and power distance are less valued by the managers and employees in the Dutch subsidiary.
Line Managers' Telework Adoption
* Uncertainty avoidance
Strikingly, all the Dutch interviewees state that they basically trust teleworkers to perform their tasks correctly. As a rule, the Dutch managers give their employees permission to telework, on an ad hoc basis that is. Telework management rules are not very strict. A telephone call or an e-mail of the employee to the line manager suffices to arrange for telework:
'When someone wants to work from home, he gives me a call. In that case, I will agree on this. I will say to him, it is your responsibility. I do not want to be bothered by such things [telework requests] continuously. Hence, as a rule, they [subordinates] will get my permission. Later I will find out whether my decision was correct or not. In case I notice that they are fooling me, or do their job not properly, measures will be taken. And then they have to justify [their behaviour].'
Line managers strongly express their dissatisfaction with top management's telework attitude. In the line managers' opinions, also the organisation should trust that employees are doing their work properly, regardless of their work location. When it comes to telework management, the interviewees emphasize the importance of team meetings, bilateral face-to-face meetings, telephone contacts, output targets and output management, which shows trust to be conditional. It is clear, however, that the risk of employees abusing the telework practice is considered just an unavoidable part of the telework practice which has to be dealt with if necessary. In line with our expectations, therefore, telework management of Dutch line managers is grounded on their preparedness to trust and take risks.
The French line managers, in contrast, stress that subordinates should have proven to be trustworthy before the managers are willing to provide access to telework. Their arguments clearly mirror the French values of predictability and uncertainty avoidance. One of the French interviewees states: 'In my view, a manager will never accept a subordinate to telework if trust is absent.' In contrast to the swift trust given to teleworkers by Dutch managers, the French managers explicitly value interpersonal trust which is built on a shared history and past experiences with a particular employee. In line with French national culture, the French managers do not trust subordinates beforehand. In line with expectations, the French managers view the implementation of strict rules and procedures a way to reduce uncertainty and emphasize the need for telework regulations:
'To my mind, one should make rules to maintain good relationships between individuals and teams. (-) So there should be rules to keep up the team spirit. This means that there should be a minimal number of rules. (-) Participants in this experiment clearly do so within the frame of a formal contract. (-) That is compulsory, because of insurance-issues and so on. (-) Hence, it is clear it [telework] is a very formal arrangement.'
In clear contrast to the importance given to formal rules by the French interviewees, however, Dutch line managers articulate that they strongly dislike any formal telework allowance procedures. They prefer the informal character of telework. A formal telework procedure is considered 'unnecessary' as their subordinates have a lot of job autonomy already. Most Dutch interviewees really do not see the use of formal telework regulations. One Dutch manager states:
'Teleworking occurs very spontaneously. It will not be very helpful to have all kinds of regulations. People will just ignore such rules and regulations.'
In fact, this line manager believes that a strict formal telework allowance procedure would negatively affect workers' flexibility and availability which does not match with the flexibility which is needed for the job.
* Power distance
In one of the interviews, a French interviewee explicitly refers to the importance of hierarchy and authoritarian leadership in the French culture as a bottleneck in the adoption of telework. This is expressed in the following quote:
'In France, the manager's relationship with the team is a little bit paternal. (-) The general corporate culture in France is somewhat hierarchical. Hence, the issue is to be in [the office], to be present, which is much more important in France than it is in the USA for example.'
The interviewees agree with the French formal policy that formal telework is a provision for only a selected group of higher managers. Moreover, they perceive demand for telework among employees to be low. This suggests that the unequal distributed access to telework is widely accepted (and probably expected), both by the French managers and their subordinates. Although some lower-level employees, such as sales persons who need to be mobile, are allowed to telework for practical reasons, the French managers' articulations confirm that in the French subsidiary, formal teleworking is viewed a privilege, or status symbol, signalling power differences across worker categories.
Dutch interviewees, in contrast, stress the importance of all employees having job autonomy and self-management, which reflect cultural values which are much more compatible with telework. 'The atmosphere in the Dutch subsidiary is quite autonomous. (-) There is no direct control and people are given a lot of freedom.' In line with this, Dutch employees usually do not (have to) ask for permission, but simply inform the manager that they plan to work at home. 'When an employee tells me this [that he wants to telework] he does not expect me to disapprove. My role, however, is somewhat regulative. If some days or some work activities are not suitable in my opinion, I will communicate that.' Yet, also the Dutch line managers want to be informed (through their secretary, for example) about where team members are situated: 'If they need it [telework], people are allowed to decide for themselves. I just need to be informed.' Hence, in the French subsidiary, telework is reserved to higher level managers. In the Dutch subsidiary, employees are given much more freedom with regard to telework. However, also in the Dutch subsidiary, the managers want to have some control over their subordinates and use practical arguments to decide whether ad hoc telework is allowed or not.
* Individualism versus collectivism
Although we expected the individualism versus collectivism dimension not to be a source of variation in the line managers' telework attitudes and management behaviours, the French line managers consider physical presence in the main office to be much more essential for building team spirit than the Dutch line managers. French line managers particularly stress the importance of informal face-to-face meetings, for instance, during coffee breaks and lunch, which includes a warm meal in a restaurant. Informal collegial networks are deemed extremely important as these are used to know what is going on in the company. In this regard, it is striking that the French interviewees often refer to the cultural differences between the American and French cultures, which also reveals their own view on the cultural compatibility of telework in their subsidiary.
'To my mind, telework is more effective in countries like the US than in France. In France, an important part of your social life takes place in the work place and it is very pleasant to have lunch with your colleagues, or to have a coffee break together with team members. In the US that is not the case and people prefer to stay home. Given the harmonious attitude [in France], I am not sure whether telework will be an interesting solution.'
This quote shows that this French interviewee believes that social life within the French subsidiary discourages telework. Moreover, the French line managers clearly articulate their worries with respect to the risk of loosing team spirit in case telework would be encouraged in the organisation. One of them states: 'I can imagine that some issues [with regard to telework] will engender much resistance, it takes a mentality shift.' One of the French interviewees even talks about telework as a 'revolution' which illustrates his view on the compatibility of the French national culture with the telework practice.
'Team building' is also mentioned in the Dutch interviews as an issue that demands serious attention in relation to telework: 'It can be difficult to create a good work atmosphere. If everyone is out of the office all of the time, this becomes hard.' Nevertheless, the Dutch managers are not afraid that telework would seriously hinder this. In fact, the interviewees express that working in teams still allows telework, since every team member has to perform his own tasks. Moreover, the managers feel responsible for keeping the team spirit alive notwithstanding the distance. One of the Dutch line managers fears that colleagues might think that teleworkers are not working properly. He considers it his responsibility as a manager to enervate such suspicions, in order to uphold the team spirit:
'Everything is fine as long as the team remains close as a team, and contributes to the team's performance. A problem that may rise is that some people notice that other people are working at home very frequently and ask me: Is he really working at home or not?'
In such case, this particular line manager would examine whether such complaint is legitimate. If it is, he undertakes action. Otherwise, he tells the other team members that everything is going well and that they do not need to worry. Hence, with regard to the dimension of individualism and collectivism, the difference between telework practice in the French subsidiary and the Dutch subsidiary is much larger than we expected. The French line managers underline the importance of frequent informal face-to-face meetings in the office with regard to the social atmosphere in their teams which they view a bottleneck in the telework adoption, whereas the Dutch line managers view it rather their own responsible to create a good atmosphere when subordinates opt for telework.
* Masculinity versus femininity
In contrast to our expectations, 'work-life balance' and 'quality of life' appear to be more of an issue in the French than in the Dutch interviews. Some French managers articulate the need for a clear separation between employees' professional and private lives in order to prevent work-home interference. One of the French line manager explicitly refers to the French family culture which may be threatened by telework:
'For the French people, it is obvious that the weekend really means the end of the week and that one should only call people in a case of an emergency. In the US, people call each other constantly, regardless the day of the week. (-) One of the problems is the blurring boundaries between professional and private life.'
The Dutch line managers, in contrast, are far less concerned with the protection of their own and their subordinates' private lives. In fact, they rather articulate the worry that private responsibilities would reduce teleworkers availability for the company during homeworking days. With regard the latter, they reminisce anecdotes of employees who were not available for rush jobs during telework days, for example, because of family obligations. In both the French and the Dutch cases, however, managers consider the care for dependent children as a hindrance for effective teleworking. Like one Dutch line manager states: 'If a customer is calling and needs you, you have to be there because you are at work. And you are not baby-sitting.'
* Short-term versus long-term orientation
We expected both French and Dutch line managers to value respect for tradition, which is believed to discourage initiative and change, more or less equally. As mentioned earlier, however, the French managers point to the vested tradition of having lunch together which they consider to hinder telework adoption. Moreover, also the strict division between employees' professional and private lives they consider typical of the French national culture and to affect the use of telework in the French subsidiary. In contrast, no particular cultural values seem to hinder the diffusion of telework in the Dutch subsidiary. In that case, only the negative attitude of top management is considered a bottleneck.
Moreover, for the larger part, both the Dutch and French managers' evaluations of telework are grounded on short-time profit considerations, such as efficiency and productivity gains, or in social cohesion issues. Above all, the French managers stress telework as a necessary strategy to respond to global market needs and to build an international community of workers. One of the French managers participates in seventeen teams across different countries. He states: 'At present, I have some people in my team which I only know through video and telephone contacts.'
In view of this, the French interviewees also articulate a long-term orientation on telework adoption. In this regard, one French interviewee refers to the United States as a country where people work from any location.
'I think that it [telework] is something that surprises us, the French people, but in the US that is completely normal. (-) So, I expect that in a second stage, when the firm will really organise telework, and really integrate it in the functioning of the organisation, that this stage will end, and ultimately, nobody will be concerned with the telework issue anymore.'
This French manager expects that telework will be more common in the future, but acknowledges that it is not very common at present. The future importance of telework is also placed in the context of technological developments. In the manager's view, the spread of telework and the possibilities for 'working anytime, anywhere' are challenging traditional working hours, also in France.
'You simply cannot say: 'I don't have the information. I was not in the office so I am not informed.' Information is supplied via the mobile phone, via e-mail and via the database. So at present, everyone is supposed to have direct information regardless of where one is situated.'
Hence, on the one hand, the Dutch line managers seem to value tradition less than French line managers. On the other, however, the French managers do recognize telework as an unavoidable future work practice.
Discussion and Conclusion
In this comparative case study, we used Hofstede's five analytical dimensions of culture as analytical concepts to guide our cross-cultural comparison of telework adoption across two subsidiaries of the same ICT-multinational in France and the Netherlands. We expected cultural differences and similarities to be reflected both in the French and Dutch managers' telework attitudes and in their telework management behaviours. Telework was expected to be more compatible with the value orientations of the Dutch managers than with those of their French colleagues. Particularly 'power distance,' 'uncertainty avoidance' and 'masculinity' were expected to be sources of variance in telework adoption, whereas 'individualism versus collectivism' and 'long-term orientation versus short-term orientation' were not. In order to place the managers' adoption in context, we also inquired after the formal telework policy at the organizational level. In this concluding section, the results of our study will be summarized and discussed.
Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance as Cultural Sources of Variance
Although telework attributes were expected to be more compatible with Dutch value orientations, only in the French subsidiary a formal telework policy was in place at the time of the data collection. Despite of French top management's support for telework and Dutch top management holding negative attitudes towards telework, the line managers' evaluations of the telework policies, procedures and practices in their subsidiaries, and how telework was managed in their own departments, clearly reflected the expected cross-national differences in cultural value orientations regarding 'power distance' and 'uncertainty avoidance.'
The Dutch managers certainly did not appreciate top management's lack of trust in (teleworking) employees and considered this attitude the most important single barrier for a further spread of telework in their subsidiary. On the other hand, however, the Dutch managers also articulated not to welcome a strict and formal telework request procedure, as this would not fit with their cultural values emphasizing worker autonomy (low power distance) and trust (low uncertainty avoidance). Despite the lack of a formal policy, but much in line with Dutch cultural values, informal, but substantial telework practices were widely used, accepted and appreciated both by the Dutch line managers and their subordinates.
The French formal telework policy was much in line with French national values emphasizing high levels of power distance and uncertainty avoidance. Telework was reserved to the higher managers and was strongly regulated by the formal policy. In contrast to the Dutch case, however, informal telework was frequent, but not considered an acceptable substitution for office work, but was only used to perform overtime at home.
Unexpected Cultural Sources of Variance in Telework Adoption
With regard to the cultural dimensions 'individual versus group orientation,' 'masculinity versus femininity' and 'short-term versus long-term orientations' the results deviated from our expectations. The risk of group cohesion being affected by telework, for example, was much more emphasized by the French than the Dutch managers, revealing a more collectivist value orientation in the French case. In both subsidiaries, the managers were aware that informal telework was used to work longer hours, rather than to balance work and family life. Although the Dutch culture was believed to be more feminine than the French, however, the French managers much more expressed their concerns about their subordinates' work-life balance. In fact, the Dutch managers were rather worried about employees' private lives affecting their professional work. Related to this, the French managers more often pointed out the importance of tradition, such as the importance of social life within the organisation and the importance of employees' family time in the weekends. On the other hand, however, the French managers also expressed a long-term orientation on telework. Particularly the multinational's internationally oriented business activities increased the French managers' expectations regarding future telework practices.
Interplay between Institutional Pressures and National Culture
Institutional theory (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) assumes institutional pressures to lead to isomorphism, also with regard to HR-practices. Cultural theory (Hofstede, 1991; Trompenaars, 1993), on the other hand, emphasises national cultures to enable or hinder the introduction of new HR-policies, such as telework. In line with Maurice et al. (1980), our comparative case study tried to analyze how two subsidiaries of the same ICT-multinational characterized by different cultural conditions respond to various challenges, such as globalisation, technological developments, mimetic pressures, and the growing need for flexible work arrangements, explaining cross-national variance in managers' telework attitudes and telework-management behaviours.
In both cases, the managers were aware of telework as an alternative work practice. Particularly in the French case, the intensive global collaboration across virtual team members, enabled and stimulated by technological developments, can be recognized as institutional pressures stimulating telework adoption. Particularly there the adoption of telework was explained by the self-evident dominance of international business rules and technological developments. In this respect, the French line managers, often referred to the United States as a role model with regard to flexibility and business norms to which other national cultures have to adapt. Moreover, the Belgian subsidiary was considered a role model for how the multinational's European subsidiaries could implement these values. Strikingly, the French managers seemed to accept that the international culture of permanent accessibility is gradually replacing their own national cultural rules, also regarding the strict division between work and family life. In the Dutch interviews, such mimetic pressures were not as much articulated, may be because informal telework was already considered a normal way of working, typically matching the Dutch culture.
In line with expectations, however, managers considered national culture a bottleneck in the telework adoption process in the French, but not in the Dutch case. Moreover, national culture was mirrored both in the telework policy and practice. For example, the rationale of the French telework pilot (promoting the firm's ICT-products by introducing telework) revealed that the adoption of telework in the French case may rather be viewed a symbolic gesture (Goodstein, 1994; Ingram and Simons, 1995; Oliver, 1991). The strict telework selection procedures and criteria and the French managers' telework attitudes and management can be interpreted as a compromise between responding to institutional pressures without fundamentally challenging French values.
In the Dutch establishment, informal telework appeared to be an established way of working for both managers and their subordinates. One of the striking features of the adoption process in the Dutch establishment, however, was the abolishment of the former formal telework policy and top management's resistance to its re-introduction. The lack of a Dutch formal telework policy can neither be explained by the managers' cultural orientations, nor by the institutional pressures which are also likely to affect work practices in the Dutch case. In the Dutch case, the local telework history can be viewed to have affected the telework adoption process.
Both globalisation and technological developments supported convergence in telework adoption across the two cultures. Particularly our French case showed how value orientations become subject to change over time (Early, 2006), as globalization seems to have soften some of the hierarchical distances which characterize employment relationships in French work organizations. The long-term orientation expressed by the French interviewees, however, does not mean that the rollout of the French telework program would be an easy job, as these changes may not have been fundamental. It is obvious that in the current situation, French cultural barriers affect interest in and use of formal telework practices. Therefore, resistance to the further spread of telework can be expected.
Although our comparative case study drew data only from a limited number of managers representing only one organizational subculture, it became clear that in order to stimulate a successful spread of telework, organizations need to recognize, understand and be sensitive to differences in local cultures (Sparrow et al., 1994), and should also take the history of the location's telework adoption process into account as it may affect top management's and line managers' telework attitudes and behaviours. Especially in view of mergers, multinationals who plan to rollout a global telework program should be aware that there is no such thing as 'a European culture.' In order to further elaborate the role of national culture in telework adoption, however, future studies could also include other European or non-European national cultures. Moreover, the present study particularly focused on line managers' telework attitudes and telework management. In order to gain further insight into a successful spread of telework policies and practices in organizations, future research should look into how telework practices are embedded in internal HRM-system (Peters et al., forthcoming). In order to understand the political processes, it should be researched which stakeholders were included in the wider implementation process, including unions, employer organizations, work councils, top management, employees and customers.
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|Author:||Peters, Pascale; Bleijenbergh, Inge; Oldenkamp, Elise|
|Publication:||International Journal of Employment Studies|
|Article Type:||Case study|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2009|
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