Some CEOs call it an ‘aberration’, others feel it improves staff’s well-being
There were notable benefits to the working from home revolution.
Fewer cars on the roads, reduced pressure on our urban centres, the end of the soul-destroying commute.
There was a glimmer of new life in our regional centres and rural areas as workers relocated outside of the city, laptops in hand.
No wonder, then, that as restrictions ease, many staff are reluctant to return to the office at all. Others are contemplating a future of hybrid work.
And then there’s a cohort of workers who desperately miss office life and the camaraderie it can bring, and can’t wait to get back to the water cooler.
So how will it unfold in the months and years ahead?
“The pandemic shone a light on something that hadn’t been acknowledged, which is that people have a life outside the office,” says Joanne Mangan, employers lead at Grow Remote.
“That’s brought a big mindset shift for employees.
“As we go back, there will be more emphasis on work-life balance and flexibility.”
For some, that will mean leaving the office behind, perhaps for good.
If “The Great Resignation” has taught us anything, it’s that the pandemic has empowered at least certain groups of employees.
“The appetite for remote working is increasing,” says Western Development Commission CEO Tomás Ó Síocháin.
“The figures of those who want remote working are up from 83pc in 2020 to 95pc in 2021.
“The other thing that’s remained constant is relocation.
“In 2020, 7pc said they had moved [out of Dublin] since Covid, that’s increased to 9pc since April 2021. And another quarter is considering relocating.”
The National Hub Network, connectedhubs.ie, has more than 400 remote working spaces funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development, and reports continuing demand.
Hubs manager Stephen Carolan says some employees are being summoned back to the office.
“Others aren’t, I think because their companies know they will have difficulty retaining and attracting talent if they don’t offer flexible policies,” he adds.
Not everyone is on the same page about remote working. Some companies have been vocal about their desire to see staff back at their desks.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said his workforce would return to the office “12 hours after a vaccine is approved”, and that he didn’t see any positives at all to working from home.
Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon called working from home “an aberration”.
What was it about working from home that got executives so vexed?
While initial evidence showed a clear productivity premium from remote working, recent research has been more mixed.
The CSO surveyed the business impact of remote working on SMEs in 2020.
Almost half, 47pc, of businesses said productivity remained the same, 7pc noted an increase, but 17pc said there had been a decrease. The remaining 29pc didn’t know.
Of course, productivity can be a blunt metric.
“A productivity dividend doesn’t mean there’s a cultural bounce for the organisation. It doesn’t mean there’s a well-being bounce,” explains DCU professor of work and organisational psychology, Finian Buckley.
“There are a whole bunch of other things that are important to measure, including employee job satisfaction, which can be a very different story.”
Then there’s creativity and innovation, both challenging to replicate virtually and neither readily respecting working hours.
Prof Buckley recalls his time working on a research project at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland.
The various teams were located in different buildings around the campus. After a while, the psychologists noticed something curious.
“The problems were being solved in social time, at coffee, at lunch, moments like that,” he said.
“The physicists would go for lunch with their laptops open, discussing the problems. And they might be sitting beside the engineers who would overhear them.
“The engineers would go, ‘well, we would go about that problem like this’. So, they collaborated organically.
“The solution in CERN was to build a large, subsidised canteen, open around the clock.
“Eventually, alcohol was available, as well as meals and coffees. So they created a massive, social Petri dish for innovation.”
In Covid times, the thought of mixing freely seems almost quaint.
But there is a gendered aspect to working from home that could affect careers.
Even before the pandemic, household chores and childcare were mainly the domain of women.
And yet, given a choice, many women with children or home responsibilities prefer the flexibility of remote working.
That, experts warn, might lead to a situation where the offices of the future are even less gender-balanced than they are now, particularly in the higher echelons.
“Research from the States suggests a gender imbalance, that women of a certain age are requesting more remote working because of the flexibility and because it’s easier to pick up a sick child from the creche and still be effective,” says Prof Buckley.
“There is a danger here that our offices become gendered in that we have loads of young people of both genders and then males of 30, 40 and up.”
Employers understand and care about their workers’ concerns as we move into the next phase – although this may be more due to a tight labour market than pure altruism.
Workplace consultant Kevin Empey of workmatters.ie and author of Thrive in the Future of Work says employers have been surveying their staff about more than just their immediate welfare – now they are asking about their staff’s commitments and responsibilities.
“During the pandemic, the research was: Are you OK? Do you have what you need to do the work?
“Now that dialogue is changing. They’re still concerned, but they’re opening a conversation about the office.
“Crucially, it’s asking about the implications of their workplace decisions in the broader team and the customer.
“It’s broaching the downside of their flexibility and proposing shared responsibility so that the customer isn’t disenfranchised.”
What will happen next? Expect surveys, lots of surveys, but no sunlit uplands just yet.
“A clash is coming,” says employment law partner Ger Connolly of Mason Hayes Curran. “Your employer has not lost the right to ask you to come back to the office.
“The [Remote Working] Bill means that an employer must consult with the employee but still retains the right to refuse remote working where it believes that the job needs to be undertaken from the office.
As to what the future brings, Connolly says: “I think we’re heading towards a series of quite interesting claims.”