Remote working (where we work), flexible working (when we work) and smart working (how we work) - these are all themes currently being analysed and discussed. These approaches to work are interwoven, at times indistinguishable and can be confusing. Covid-19 has fast-tracked the debate and made some discussion irrelevant as changes have already occurred.
This is not evolution, this is revolution. In 34 years in HR, I have never seen such a radical transformation at such speed.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is the professional body for HR and people development in Ireland, with a membership of 6,000. The CIPD has a reputation for having its finger on the pulse regarding emerging trends and changes to practices within the workplace. In the CIPD Covid-19 Survey (June 2020), respondents indicated during the crisis:
:: 52pc of organisations had more than 75pc employees working remotely;
:: 66pc of organisations had more than 50pc of employees working remotely;
:: 70pc of organisations said they were willing to provide greater remote working opportunities after the Covid-19 crisis.
The new world of work is the most significant change to our working lives since the internet. Global organisations like Facebook, Twitter and Siemens have stated that remote working will be a key part of their business strategy over the longer term. Many more will follow.
During the crisis, the revolution has been driven by practical business requirements - to keep operations functioning, to remain responsive to customer needs, to remain competitive, and to retain talented workforces. Longer-term employer benefits include reduced office costs, potential for higher productivity, a richer and wider talent pool, and an attractive retention strategy. Employee benefits include greater flexibility and reduction of work-related travel. Everyone should win.
Historically, business leaders have been hesitant to embrace remote working. This was based on a fundamental mistrust of how it would work. Most business leaders get a sense of reassurance attending the office and viewing their team(s) busily working away, interacting, and engaging with each other. That is a natural reaction and as plans form that will reduce this reassurance, many business leaders feel nervous. Some business leaders remain sceptical about the effectiveness and productivity gains of remote working.
I speak with experience of the new world of work. Over the past 12 years I worked for a global organisation that had more than 90,000 employees spread across over 100 countries. In 2014, after six years as a HR leader in Ireland, I moved to a global HR role. Although still employed and based in Ireland, my global HR role had little interaction with the business in Ireland. The new role required leadership of global HR and business transformation initiatives across five continents, with representatives from up to 70 countries, all working on different time zones. My working life had changed forever.
Thankfully, my employer truly embraced the concepts of remote working and flexible working and had the technology, processes and, most importantly, the mindset to make it work. Over time work became a series of global projects, large project teams, WebEx meetings, one-to-one virtual meetings and calls, PowerPoint slides, detailed meeting agendas and meeting minutes. My role required more structure, more planning and significantly more written communication.
In Ireland, organisations are at different stages on this journey. Progressive organisations are already rising to the challenge and making changes, engaging with employees, and reviewing work practices. Some organisations will wait to see how things develop; they may think this phase will pass. It will not.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is conducting a public consultation to inform the delivery of guidance on remote working for both employers and employees. Submissions were due by August 7. This process is moving quickly: it needs to.
There are complexities with the remote working model, and a detailed code of practice is needed. Employment law, employee rights, health and safety, insurance, equality and well-being of employees are top of the list. There is a solution for each challenge. Remote working will not suit all organisations (nor all employees) and needs careful role-by-role assessment to see what is viable and sustainable within each organisation. However, it is now part of an organisation design concept for future working life.
The greatest challenge for business leaders will be to transform their mindset and make businesses smart, attractive, flexible, adaptable with a positive work environment. Remote working will be a critical component of this transformation. Business leaders will need educational support and training to adapt to new conditions.
Ireland is a small island nation that is largely export-focused, and foreign direct investment is a critical factor. Ireland prides itself as being a great place to do business. We need to move with the times. Our stakeholder representatives (employer and employee) will do a good job in advising Government; in turn, Government needs to bring clarity to this situation and communicate in a practical and succinct manner.
The key challenge is not technology -this already exists. The key challenge is not the viability of remote working - the business case is proven. The key challenge is to develop a new mindset with education, training, and engagement processes to support organisational change.
With effective guidance, Ireland can have competitive businesses and a more flexible and engaged workforce.
Niall Eyre is principal consultant at www.TransFromHR.ie - a HR consulting practice providing solutions for the new world of work.