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Plan C: post-Covid planning for the workforce of the future

Is remote working here to stay? Will it affect work-life balance? Companies need to know

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for Irish organisations to engage in workforce planning – the process of analysing the current workforce, determining its future needs, and identifying the gap that exists between what the organisation needs now and what it will need in the future.

"An extra lens has been added by the rapid shift to remote working," says Skillnet Ireland chief executive Paul Healy. "There is a need for additional workforce planning and design, and not just in the context of remote working. Companies have to look at workforce planning in a broader sense in the context of things like the advent of AI and automation and the other complexities of the modern world."

We are still at the early stages of the remote working experiment, according to Healy. “It is completely unprecedented. Nothing like that has ever been done to the same extent and scale before.”

While there are many positive reports on the home working experience, it doesn’t suit everybody or every occupation.

“What we are seeing through our engagement with employers is that when tasks are rules-based, logical and involve linear workflows, they lend themselves to remote working,” Healy points out. “Where it gets challenging is in the more collaborative and creative space which tends to benefit from physical contact between the people involved. There was a debate at the beginning of the lockdown about the extent to which technology can accommodate remote working. The answer for linear and logical tasks is yes. But more creative and collaborative activities and people like entrepreneurs engaged in start-ups are more challenged in that environment.”

The mass remote working phenomenon is also presenting challenges in relation to skills. According to Healy it is democratising skills and access to them. It is making skills easier to access for organisations regardless of where they are located. In the dispersed workplace model it may not matter where an employee lives.

Overseas

That opens up the possibility of companies located in Ireland employing people living overseas, with potentially negative consequences for employment in this country.

“There are risks and opportunities as access to skills gets easier,” says Healy. “The risk is real but, against that, people have additional routes to employment as long as they have the right skills. The risks need to be addressed by upskilling and talent development in companies by agencies like ourselves.”

The social aspect of people's lives provided by the workplace shouldn't be overlooked either

Performance management is another issue which has been brought into focus by the move to remote working. “On the question of productivity there is no substantial evidence to indicate whether it has increased, because it is still too early to say,” he says. “The Department of Business, Enterprise, and Innovation has led a public consultation on this and will publish the results shortly.”

He also believes people should be cautious in relation to the work-life balance benefits claimed for home working.

“The arguments are not black-and-white. There are individuals who like to work from home while others prefer to go to work. The home environment is not conducive to work for everyone. Also, not everyone has a family and we have to be careful about promoting remote working as family-friendly in that context.

“The social aspect of people’s lives provided by the workplace shouldn’t be overlooked either. It gives people a physical focal point. This is abstract but important.”

Looking beyond

Governments and employers are looking beyond the current crisis.

“They are doing horizon scanning in relation to megatrends such as digitisation, automation and the carbon neutral economy and their implications for the workforce. Every organisation should be doing that and training and preparing their workforce for the future so that it is capable of dealing with these megatrends.”

Management and leadership development are also critically important, he contends. “Research shows that there is a strong link between investment in management development and the productivity of an organisation. Also, managers are more likely to invest in the skills of their workforce if they have invested in their own.”

And free management development is available through MentorsWork, the Skillnet Ireland programme which connects business owners and managers with experienced and skilled mentors to address issues on a one-to-one basis. Key business topics covered include strategy, operations, commercial and financial analysis, change management, people management, product review and business development.

“It is a virtual mentoring scheme aimed at supporting SME owner-managers and boosting productivity and innovation by addressing the management capability gap that can exist small firms in Ireland,” Healy explains.