Emerging into a new world of remote, flexible and hybrid working

The last two years have seen immense changes to the way we work. Timing is everything as the perfect storm of a global pandemic and global lockdowns unleashed the transformational potential of flexible working systems and technologies. All of a sudden, companies who couldn’t visualise how their business function remotely were trading and thriving, nonetheless. Employees remained productive. And their work/life balance improved.

Soon we were emerging from lockdown as workers with noticeably different needs and priorities. Work as we knew it could never be the same again. It wasn’t long before academics like Anthony Klotz coined phrases like The Great Resignation, and teams once based in one location were now logging in from all over their nations and beyond.

The change has been so dynamic that it has left many businesses wondering and strategizing about what’s next. Do they reintroduce the old ways of doing things and risk losing key employees? Should they go fully remote and risk unravelling their effectiveness and inventiveness long term? Or should they choose a hybrid strategy that risks operating under the worst of both worlds instead of the best?

These dilemmas, coupled with rising costs, are the main operational challenges for businesses today. So how do you tackle them and what does everyone actually want? We’ll examine the issues here.

Looking to the Government

In January 2021 the Government announced its National Remote Working Strategy, some of which has since been formalised into the Right to Request Remote Working Bill.

The objectives of this strategy included the following for both the public and private sectors:

  • Mandating that home  and remote work should be the norm for 20 percent of public sector employment
  • Reviewing the treatment of remote working for the purposes of tax and expenditure in the next Budget 
  • Mapping and investing in a network of remote working hubs across Ireland
  • Legislating for the right to request remote working
  • Developing a code of  practice for the right to disconnect
  • Doing what we can to accelerate the provision of high-speed broadband to all parts of Ireland

The Government has been keen to be seen to do something in this regard but reaction to the latest legislation has not been met with a positive reaction from either IBEC or Trade Unions.

IBEC’s Director of Employer Relations Maeve McElwee said “We believe that legislating for a statutory right to request remote work at this stage is premature and may stymie the ability for employers and employees to manage remote working in a creative and flexible way,”

Meanwhile the Irish Congress of Trade Unions thought the legislation was too favourable to employers and flawed around employees’ rights to appeal.

While these responses are not surprising from the perspective of either organisation, there is a sense that no-one is sure what the ‘new normal’ could or should look like.

The benefits and challenges ahead

The Government has attempted to seize the initiative by trying to nurture the benefits of a remote or hybrid future. And these include:

  • increasing participation in the labour market
  • attracting and retaining talent
  • enabling balanced regional development
  • alleviating accommodation pressures
  • improving work/life balance
  • improving child and family wellbeing
  • reducing commute time
  • reducing transport-related carbon emissions and air pollution.

But they also recognise some of the immense challenges involved with finding the best way forward. In fact they spell out these challenges in their strategy document.

“Research has highlighted different impacts for employees and employers. In the case of employees, remote working is linked with negative effects on mental health, with workers experiencing feelings of isolation, loneliness and stress. Employees also experience difficulty switching off and keeping regular working hours.

Employers too face challenges. Feedback provided to the Department has highlighted how remote working does not easily support creativity, group dynamics, shared ownership and collegiality.”

This all points towards the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for operating in this changed business environment. And if your business is still trying to figure out what model works best, it means you’re not alone in this highly fluid time.

The realities you need to consider are manifold. And like any worthwhile strategy the starting point is about defining what works best for your business. That means weighing where your company sits within the following considerations

Is your industry suited to a remote arrangement?

Not every business can operate with the luxury of working from home. Obviously any retail or customer-facing services have changed little but their head offices can find ways to keep operating on a flexible basis.  For example an airline can have both staff welcoming travellers at the airport and staff marketing travel deals from their home offices. It’s rigid for one half of the business but flexible for the other and that in itself can create issues for staff morale.

Does the flexible worker need to be in the office to offer solidarity to their customer-facing colleagues? Or will those at the airport feel aggrieved at paying for commutes and childcare while their flexible colleagues have the luxury of logging in from home.

Which type of working model fits best for your tasks?

But even within companies who were able to operate fine remotely throughout the pandemic, there are many conundrums to be solved around what works best.

Creative agencies, for instance, can function perfectly fine from home but is there a sense of magic lost when they are no longer all in the same room?

One creative partner with a leading Irish agency has said that their solution is to invite their employees in for two days a week. But one of those days should be a day when everyone comes in. Why? Because he feels the real value of being in an office is interacting with others.

He also feels that for creative interaction to happen best it should be an in-person collaboration. “For all the benefits of video calls, they have a certain formality that doesn’t allow for unrelated conversations to spark an idea.”  And this would seem to mirror the feedback that creativity can suffer if work is purely done remotely.

What best suits your staff’s wants and needs?

Then we get to the issue of the age profile of your company. It stands to reason that different age groups will want different things from a flexible working arrangement. So it’s no surprise to learn that the younger and more inexperienced groups are more favourable to being in the office, at least some of the time.

2021 research carried out by Totem, an employee engagement app, showed that 49 percent of employees aged 18 to 24-years-old wanted a full-time return to the office. That’s compared to just 29 percent of over 55s. However those over 55 did show a high preference (66 per cent) of being in the office at least some of the time. And these figures back up a basic need for personal interaction.

Meanwhile for new starters it’s understandable that the majority would also prefer to onboard in person as positive responses of 80 percent of 18 to 24-year-old employees and 71 percent of over 55s show.

Salary can also play its part. It’s been shown that those earning more are happier to work from home, while those seeking a promotion will presumably be looking for a more visible recognition of their contribution by coming in.

What’s the most productive and effective way for you to work?

Next to consider are the practicalities of being effective within a hybrid or remote working model. We’ve just touched upon how new starters prefer their orientation experience to be in person, but this holds true for many other operational activities as well.

In fact research for the Remote Work in Ireland report has identified that for the adoption of  practices to be successful, all employees need a lot of necessary supports and training.

For example their comprehensive list includes communications, management skills, leading remote teams, IT skills, performance management, culture change, and building trust. While in the longer term, wider skills issues may need to be considered such as the interplay between remote working and digital literacy, remote onboarding and workload management.  And that’s before you try to map out a way of keeping team morale, social interaction and employee well being high.

Microsoft’s latest Work Trends index has borne this out by showing that over a third of people working from home can feel lonely and a similar number said their team’s culture had suffered. 59 percent of workers thought a positive work culture was most important. Though having said that, around half of the 600 employees surveyed thought a flexible working solution was also highly important.

Do you still need that space?

Finally, there is also the physical aspect of the office space itself. Many companies hold long-term expensive leases or can’t easily downgrade their office space. It makes no sense to be paying for cavernous offices. But, conversely, is ordering all your staff back in to fill them a bit like attempting to refill Pandora’s box?

Look to the long-term

The complexities to this issue are many, and finding what works best for your business is really a highly individual task. Defining that and getting the right balance is key to your success going forward. But it is also important to remember not to rush into a fixed solution.

As the reaction to the Government’s initial legislation shows, both the business world and trade unions are not looking for a silver bullet type solution here. They are looking for a framework that can be both successful and beneficial long term. They accept that everything has changed and it’s now more of a case of maximising on the opportunities these new ways of working can bring.

FlexTime can help you develop the right solution

Finding the right balance between business objectives and employee priorities is not a prescribed formula. It’s going to take some trial and error for everyone. But getting it right will become the model of what flexible working means in the years to come.

As Ireland’s leading Time Management solutions company, we can help you get to grips with defining and mapping out how hybrid, remote or flexible working works best for you. Our software and process can easily fit in your needs and help to propel your business forward in this new era of work.