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The future of flexible work

What will the world of work look like after Covid-19? Adam Coleman, CEO of HRLocker, shares his thoughts on the future of flexible working

Adam Coleman is CEO of HRLocker, a cloud-based HR platform, which serves more than 20,000 daily users in more than 55 countries from its headquarters in Lahinch, Co Clare. While the company has had a flexible working approach since it started, Adam shares what he’s learned about how the recent restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 have prompted some lasting changes in how the company operates.

A lot has been said about how the Covid-19 restrictions are likely to spark a surge in working from home, or remote and flexible working. So it’s worth asking the question: when life and work start to return to normal as the restrictions ease, will things go back to way they were, or will it change our behaviour?

Many businesses that would never have considered remote working before are now discovering how productivity levels have gone up or stayed the same. It’s changing the perception of individuals who might never have contemplated working from home on a more permanent basis. There is a growing acceptance that dual working arrangements could become the norm going forward.

What you do, not where you go

Then there are wider benefits to the business, like being able to retain excellent staff who might have otherwise left if they were relocating, or in search of more flexible working conditions. And when location no longer affects someone’s ability to work well, suddenly it opens up a much wider talent pool to recruit from, beyond people who happen to live within commuting distance of the office.

But let’s be clear about one thing first: there’s working from home, and then there’s working from home during Covid-19. Anyone who had worked remotely before the Coronavirus struck will tell you there’s a world of difference between having a designated work space at home, compared to working from home when you’re sharing that space with a partner, as well as children who need home schooling or supervision.

I can speak as someone who’s been an advocate for flexible working for a long time. When I started HR Interventions Ltd back in 2004, I set it up from Lahinch in the West of Ireland after moving back there from the UK.

I founded a HR consultancy in 2004, then in 2008 when the downturn hit, we had to scale back the business and

. Together with Assembly Point, a software development company in Cork, we pivoted to being a software SAAS company. This started getting real traction from late 2013. The beauty of being cloud-based is that it enables the HRLocker team to work from anywhere. So far, we have attracted people from Galway, Dublin, the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

Productive in a pinch

We use a technology stack that’s designed to let people get productive from any desk within three minutes. As the business grew, we built an open, transparent meritocracy based on dual working, a concept that combined people coming to the office for some of the week and working from home at other times. But then the Covid-19 restrictions happened, and everything changed.

Even though we had the tools and we were already familiar with them, we still needed to make the mental leap

From a technology point of view, we found the jump to being a fully remote company easy. We haven’t needed to start using new tools as a result of working remotely. We were already using a cloud-based phone system -

- very successfully for example, this meant we could easily divert calls to mobiles no matter where we happen to be working. It also lets us dial out using a number that’s local to the region our customers are in, like the UK or USA, which is critical for sales.

Even though we had the tools and we were already familiar with them, we still needed to make the mental leap. When the restrictions began in March, it took the team a few weeks to get reasonably comfortable with a new rhythm of work, and we needed to make some adjustments along the way based on early feedback.

Lessons from lockdown: making remote work, work

Our mindset has even changed in that now we can see how 100 per cent remote can work, and after six weeks, we can say it is working – but it took effort. So what did we learn?

When people can’t come to the office, the conversations, collaboration and sharing of ideas that would happen organically in an office setting aren’t available to us. Collaboration has to be scheduled and designed. For example, we hold an ‘all hands’ meeting for the entire team on a Monday, a management meeting on a Tuesday and I have a dedicated 40-minute catch-up with all of the people who report to me, every week. Our sales team has daily meetings at either 9am or at 4.30pm, rarely for more than 15 minutes.

Leadership 101: empathy and understanding.

As this crisis should teach us, remote working is about so much more than having a policy or ticking a box

More than ever, businesses need to coach their leaders in empathy. I can’t emphasise this enough. It’s a manager’s job to be attuned to their team’s needs. In the office, it’s much easier to read visual cues if someone is unfocused or worried. In a remote setting, it’s only by asking direct questions and listening attentively to the answers that managers can get a feel for how people are coping – or not. If someone on the team has a problem, the manager needs to empathise and understand that they might need some leeway on a deadline if they’re dealing with personal issues.

The lesson for businesses is to understand how their people want to communicate and make decisions. Some people are perfectly happy to dive into the detail of a discussion as soon as a call starts, other people need time for small talk before tackling the issue at hand, and you’ve got to allow for both approaches. The same is true of teams: one size doesn’t fit all so you might need a different approach for marketing than for billing or development.

Learning as you work

Ultimately, work in all its forms – dual, remote, or flexible – comes back to people. Making it a success starts with hiring individuals who are comfortable with evolving ways of work, or else they’ll find it difficult. As this crisis should teach us, remote working is about so much more than having a policy or ticking a box. This is about adult development, and about empowering them to do their jobs as well as possible, wherever that’s possible.

For further information about HRLocker, visit