Companies are coming out in favour of “hybrid working” to bring employees back to the office. But the reality is that nobody is quite sure what this means. For some it is three days in the office and two at home. For others it is turning up to work only for specific things, such as meetings or training. And another group sees it as an employer offering flexibility in terms of working practices, but this too means different things to different people. This is going to get interesting as companies and employees try to reach a consensus on the new normal, with no sign yet of a common approach to how it’s going to work.
1. The return to work
September 20th was billed as return to work day for office workers in the Republic, when a phased return was signalled under Government guidelines. But most companies are taking it softly, softly.
Employment experts confirm that many companies are still at the stage of consulting with employees. Some have offices open for those who want to use them, but have no strategy for a more general for return yet. Others – including some Government departments – are now encouraging employees to come in for a day or two a week. October 22nd, when most remaining restrictions are set to be removed, is likely to see an acceleration of office returns, especially if it is clarified that the two-metre distance rule is to go, or be changed to one metre, as seems likely. In terms of office capacity, this is a vital issue for many companies.
Since September 20th, there has been a big move by companies to try to work out what their new model will look like, according to Caroline Reidy of The HR Suite, which advises companies on employee issues.
“We have proven remote working can work during the pandemic,” she says, and “now a lot of companies are landing with a hybrid model”. But there is, she says, no one-size-fits-all solution.
2 . Different approaches
The move back to the office is still "in a state of flux", according to Jennifer Cashman, a partner in RDJ solicitors who heads the company's employment law practice. No one common return plan is emerging.
Some companies are actively getting teams back into the office, while others are delaying, nervous about the path of Covid-19 over the winter. Others are awaiting clear guidance on what advice will come for October 22nd. It is unlikely that one new way of working will emerge quickly – companies are likely to experiment.
Accenture, the consultancy company, in research on the area has warned that companies and employees should not seek one silver bullet solution.
“Seeking out a magic solution will not work,” it says, with success likely to come via experimentation and trying out different approaches. Reidy says collaboration with employees is central to the next phase of working, including on issues such as how to interact with colleagues and manage time and ensuring that both managers and employees have the necessary skills for the new environment.
Accenture believes that while employees typically say they want hybrid work practices, what they are actually seeking is flexibility and the right – in so far as is possible – to set their own working patterns, in consultation with their employer.
There is no doubt that remote working has operated successfully in most cases – and time saved from commuting has been seen to be a key factor in boosting productivity and also leaving people with more time in their day.
Major research by Microsoft during the pandemic, including an international survey and mining of its own data on how people use its platforms gives some interesting insights. While productivity held up during the pandemic, some strains are showing.
A majority of remote workers feel overworked and many are “exhausted”. Microsoft found the digital intensity of people’s days had increased significantly. Online meetings have doubled, average meeting time has increased from 35 to 45 minutes and email use has soared.
Crucially, it found that “ the barrage of communications is unstructured and mostly unplanned”. In other words, while tech tools have been central to businesses keeping going through the pandemic, the digital overload is real.
Another key issue was that remote working tended to put teams back into their own silos, and lessen communications with others in their organisation and outside. Teams – and companies - were communicating frantically among themselves , but less with outsiders, a threat, the researchers felt, to new ideas and innovation.
3 Staff shortages
A vital backdrop in Ireland and internationally is a shortage of skills and the desire to hold on to skilled staff. Skills shortages now exist in a whole range of industries , including many office-based jobs in areas such as the digital and tech sectors and some specialist general office roles, such as HR.
At interview, potential recruits are now routinely asking about flexible or remote working policies, Cashman says.
At the same time companies are dealing with departures, with a range of surveys showing that the pandemic had caused many people to reassess their careers. Talk of the “ great resignation” post-Covid may have been overstated, but people leaving or not returning to old jobs is one of the factors in the skills shortages. And the fact that office workers have operated remotely for so long, and that it has broadly worked, has changed expectations.
While the future shape of office work remains unclear, nobody believes the old ways are returning and, just like salary, working practices are now a key recruitment battleground, not only to hire new staff but also to hold on to existing ones.
“Not having flexible work practices will mean losing really good people,” according to Caroline Reidy. In a buoyant market for many jobs, employees not offered flexibility may just resign, she says.
This will lead to issues for some companies – for example employees working outside the country in the long term can cause legal and tax problems in some cases.
4 . What employees want
Understanding exactly what employees want – and what employers feel is workable – will be key to the next phase.
Accenture warns companies not to just assume that one hybrid model will work, or that all employees want to work at home as much as possible. The Microsoft survey, covering 30,000 employees in 31 countries found that people, not surprisingly “want the best of both worlds”. Over 70 per cent want flexible remote working options, while 65 per cent want more in-person time with their teams and colleagues.
Clearly there can be contradictions here – and difficulties in working out how to achieve both these things, but an old-style return to the nine to five office will not happen.
“Extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace,” according to Microsoft. According to Accenture, there has been a fundamental shift in power between employees and employers and employees now fundamentally want the freedom to choose.
And it varies from one group to another. “ A lot of people want flexibility, not remote working per se,” says Cashman of RDJ. They may want specific times to collect children from school, or look after elderly relatives, or to have flexible start and finish times. “So it can be difficult for employers to understand exactly what employees want,” she says.
Furthermore, different age groups can want different things. The Microsoft research showed that longer-established employees, women and part-time workers are more likely to want to work remotely. Meanwhile 18-to-25-year-olds, so called Generation Z, have often felt remote and disconnected during the pandemic.
For many younger employees there can be big advantages being in the office, says Reidy of the HR Suite, including learning from colleagues, meeting people and just seeing how things work . Many also tend to have smaller accommodation which is harder to work from. One issue is to ensure that new arrangements do not put this group at a disadvantage or widen inequalities in the workplace.
5 .The future
It is clear that what exactly the hybrid model will mean is still far from clear and will vary from one employer to another. But it is also clear that there is no going back and that to hold on to the best people, companies are going to have to offer much more flexible arrangements.
A notable marker recently was when PwC in the US said it would allow 40,000 of its 55,000 employees to work remotely from anywhere in the US in future. Those who move to lower cost areas will, however, be paid a bit less. According to Accenture the key is to think about how people can work most efficiently and in a sustainably productive way, rather than getting hung up on where they are working from.
The office may not be dead, but it is going to look very different. Setting random rules, for example that people should be in three days a week and at home for two, are only likely to be a first stage and may not survive as practices. The key decision is why and when people need to be at their workplace.