Advances in technology have been slowly but steadily influencing how we work for a number of years, through increased digitalisation and connectivity and advanced workplace communication tools. However, no one could have predicted, or indeed imagined, the seismic shift in the work environment we've seen since March 2020 from Covid-19.
Prior to the pandemic, some 216,000 people here were working from home. However, virtually overnight, thousands of businesses and employees were forced to work remotely, and the work environment was suddenly overhauled.
The last 12 months accelerated many of the trends we were expecting over the next five to 10 years. Businesses became digital-only operations, employers operated entire workforces remotely and employees managed their workloads, and personal life, without having to commute to a fixed space every day.
What is now clear is that these fundamental changes are here to stay. Importantly, through the welcome launch of the National Remote Working Strategy, the Government has rallied behind the cause and signalled an end to a traditional work environment by providing people with the right to seek alternative options to how they once worked.
We have been afforded an opportunity to test on a mass scale what remote working can do for organisations, employees and wider communities - and to design a future for the benefit of all.
As a business community, the radical changes in the last 12 months must be balanced with the right structures and processes to ensure the benefits of remote working are there for everyone. Employers need to understand the different needs and circumstances of their employees and what the right balance between office and remote working is - what many are now calling the 'hybrid' model. This new way of working needs to be enabled by appropriate tools and policies which focus on wellbeing and the right to disconnect and a culture underpinned by trust and empowerment.
At Vodafone, we began to shape the future of work through our 'Future Ready' programme. Following extensive engagement with our people via regular surveys and conversations, we are co-creating a post-pandemic experience that will meet the needs of our employees and our business.
We asked how our employees would like to work long-term and there was a strong preference for a hybrid model, with 83pc expressing the desire to spend a portion of their time in the office and a portion of their time remotely.
Our people have valued the work-life balance of remote working over the past year, with reduced commuter times and increased productivity for certain activities, but they also had a desire for the experience the office environment provides. Without question, many missed the emotional connection that comes from working in teams or groups in the office, along with being able to separate work and home life a bit more.
In response to this feedback, we were excited to announce this week, our intent to move to a '60:40 hybrid model'. What this means is that when restrictions ease, our office-based people will spend 60pc of their time working remotely, and 40pc working in teams in the office. This will bring together the benefits of remote working and the flexibility it offers, with the benefit of coming together regularly to accelerate innovation, collaboration, connection and learning.
However, while this approach was the best fit for Vodafone and our employees there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different operating models, structures and cultures will require different approaches. We've also found that employees need to be equipped with the right capabilities and tools to carry out their work. Robust people strategies to develop worker potential as well as investment in the right technology and software are key as we transition to a new way of working post-pandemic.
As the future of work evolves, training and skills development are fundamental to maintaining competitiveness and productivity. Ireland is particularly vulnerable to experiencing a sustained digital skills shortage, which would severely affect our ability to remain competitive. A recent report from Accenture has shown that at least 25pc of the Irish population is excluded from an "increasingly digital society" for socioeconomic reasons, and 42pc of citizens who took part felt they had average or below average digital skills.
Such skills are no longer a luxury but a necessity for securing a job, establishing a business or managing operations - be it in construction, retail or accountancy. This is an issue that needs to be rectified to ensure the benefits of remote working materialise, and employees are able to take advantage of the opportunities generated by greater flexibility. Equally, the opportunity is there for forward-thinking organisations to gain competitive advantage and build their business for the years ahead by preparing their people for the future and helping them transition easily.
Beyond the employer/employee relationship, there are wider considerations in relation to the future of work that large and small organisations need to assess. Businesses will need to understand their infrastructure requirements to operate remotely - namely in technology and connectivity, as well as their physical assets. For example, will your business require a dedicated fixed office space or will it instead use a network of digital hubs or provide flexible office arrangements, when required? Is it equipped with the right IT security services to operate remotely and is there equal access to broadband for all employees?
More broadly, as a collective, we need to consider the impact of the future of work on our communities and what challenges and opportunities this presents. Of course, our cities will continue to be relevant, but for some, rural town and village life is a big draw. Technology has afforded us an opportunity to hit reset in relation to how our villages, towns and cities operate and to address the urban /rural divide that exists in Ireland.
The opportunity now is not to return to our old way of working, but to embrace the pandemic as an opportunity to reshape the future of work, benefiting employees, businesses and communities all around the country.
Anne O'Leary is CEO of Vodafone Ireland