Hybrid working is quickly emerging as the new norm. So far, most employers have taken a softly-softly approach to the return to the office, driven by labour shortages and successive Covid waves. Typical arrangements might be a requirement to attend the workplace a couple of days a week, or attend three or four times a month. In most cases, companies have still to settle on a longer term model. Central Statistics Office figures show that nearly four out of 10 people worked at home at some stage in 2021 compared to just 8 per cent before the pandemic.
Survey evidence suggests remote working is here to stay for most companies, though trade unions complain that there are cases where employers are not showing flexibility.
A survey by the Whitaker Institute and the Western Development Commission earlier this year showed 52 per cent of respondents were engaged in some form of hybrid working. Significantly, around half said their employer had confirmed longer term plans and in 60 per cent of cases these involved hybrid working continuing, while 31 per cent planned to work fully remotely. Just 9 per cent planned a full return to work. While the percentages vary, other surveys confirm that, where they can, employers now plan a hybrid future. It is a massive change from before the pandemic, with big implications for lifestyles and economies.
1. The key drivers
International and Irish research on working from home during the pandemic — and the experience of businesses — points in a few directions. In general, employee productivity was at least maintained and in some cases even increased slightly, though the international evidence here remains a bit mixed. A saving on commuting time can often lead to a bonus for the employer and employee — some more time is typically spent on work, while the rest of time saved is used for personal reasons. A survey by CIPD and the Kemmy Institute at the University of Limerick reported that three-quarters of employers found productivity was steady or increased, once remote working bedded in.
Over half said teamwork and collaboration are more difficult in a remote setting — mirroring international studies. Remote working is seen to present particular challenges for newer employees and younger people. A study published in the journal Nature, and based on studying what happened in Microsoft during remote working, found that interconnections between groups fell off and collaboration suffered — people tended to retreat to communicating with close colleagues and were thus less open to new ideas.
Employment experts say labour shortages in most sectors are also a key driver of the continuation of remote working beyond the lockdown phase. “If people aren’t getting the option to work on a hybrid of remote basis, many are just looking for another job,” says Caroline Reidy, owner of consultants The HT Suite. “Hyrbid is now becoming the new norm.”
“The current situation seems to be that the market is dictating that employers need to be very flexible about remote working to remain competitive and attract talent,” said Jennifer Cashman, head of the employment law practice at solicitors RDJ.
Whether this remains the case if the jobs market softens is an interesting question — but there is always a fight for the best employees.
And for now Covid-19 remains a worry. Many employers will note that in Australia the government recently asked that people work from home if they can because of the strong spread of the disease there. With the Health Minister Stephen Donnelly — referring to the Australian experience — warning that a difficult winter season could lie ahead due to a mix of flu and Covid, employers will be aware that they will need to be flexible with their plans.
2. The challenges
The key challenge for employers is fitting the remote working pattern around the needs of the business. Surveys show that many are going with a model of requiring people to be in the workplace for two or three days a week — two days seems the most popular. However, there are a range of other models — including a number who require a specific number of days per month, leaving it to the employee and/or their line manager to decide which days these are. Some allow staff to show up when needed for specific functions or meetings and otherwise to work from home if they want to. A key issue, according to Reidy, is to make people’s time in the issue feel meaningful and not just something that happens by rote.
Few big companies appear to be insisting on a full-time return to work, for now anyway. But most have their offices open and surveys show a divergence in age groups, with those in their 30s and 40s, with young families, more inclined to want to stay at home, and over-55s — and some younger workers — keener to work more from the office.
Cashman of RDJ says the rising cost of utilities could be a factor for some employees during the winter — they may prefer to let their employer pay for the heating. On the flip side, for those who drive, petrol and diesel prices are higher. And there have been some cases of complaints and tensions where employees return part time, or due to the complications caused by remote working.
Managing in an era of hybrid working brings a whole new era of challenges for managers, according to Reidy of the HR Suite, who says they need to develop new skills and awareness. In particular they need to guard against “presenteeism” bias — favouring those who are in the office for promotion, or for handing out new projects. “ Just because you can’t see someone doesn’t mean they should be disadvantaged,” she said. Maintaining contact with people who are working remotely can be hard — in some cases involving issues with performance management, giving feedback or helping with problems. And Reidy says that hybrid meetings — with some present in the office and others dialled in — can be even trickier to manage than the fully online meetings, to which everyone is now accustomed.
What all this means for commercial property remains to be seen. Employers may want to space out employees more and offer more meeting places, but the need to have enough space to fit everyone, each day will be gone.
3. The policy issues
The most immediate policy issue is what rights employees have in the area and how they are balanced with those of employers. Draft legislation in this area is going through the Oireachtas, giving employees a right to ask for remote working options, though unions have complained that as now set out it, gives employers too many reasons to refuse. Similar legislation — though with fewer employer opt-outs — is going through parliament in the Netherlands, also including a specific right to work from home on a Tuesday. A code of practice on the right of employees to disconnect outside of working hours is already in place.
However, remote working also brings a host of other policy issues. City centre restaurants and coffee shops, who held on during the pandemic, often with reduced hours, may face a future of lower footfall. Remote working would have environmental benefits if it limits long car-based commutes and could help to revive rural areas — though the initial benefits are being felt more around commuter suburbs and towns. Remote working hubs in rural towns are one policy measure being used here. In the longer term, the rise of remote working raises big questions for State investment in urban infrastructure, housing and transport. If, say, a quarter of the working population is working from home typically on any working day, that is a huge change.