JP Morgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon hit the headlines in April when he told managers they needed to return to the office five days a week. This was not Dimon’s first time to court controversy over his views on remote and hybrid working.
As early as May 2021 he had told employees they were expected back in the office on a rotating basis by July of that year and, speaking to CNBC at the time, said: “I’m about to cancel all my Zoom meetings. I’m done with it.”
Dimon is one of a number of senior executives who are not fans of “alternative” working arrangements. Closer to home, opinion is also divided.
Hybrid is still evolving but it has already become clear that it does not suit all roles or all sectors and that it brings particular challenges for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Dimon also voiced the private concerns of many business leaders about the perils of not having boots on the ground when he said that one reason JP Morgan had lost client business was because, “bankers from the other guys visited and ours didn’t – that’s a lesson”.
Even with the glitches, hybrid has become the go-to choice for many organisations
But regardless of the drawbacks, hybrid is here to stay. It’s just a question of what it’s going to look like when the dust settles and companies have weighed up the respective benefits of office first, remote first or hybrid first, which comes with its own sub-set of options around flexitime, core hours and fixed or anchor office days.
During Covid, companies were prepared to let people work where and how they wanted, to keep the wheels turning. In this scenario, employees held all the cards. However, for most organisations, flexible working was only a temporary arrangement or at least an arrangement subject to review. It was simply a matter of time before employers started taking back some of the control and that is what is happening now.
The number of fully remote positions is falling and rules around hybrid working are being tightened up largely because accommodating hybrid has brought significant logistical, cultural and operational headaches for those in leadership roles.
However, even with the glitches, hybrid has become the go-to choice for many organisations.
“Our policy is, if it works for you, your team and your clients, we don’t really mind where you work – office, client site or home,” says a spokesperson for PwC in Dublin. “However, most of our people realise that regular weekly connection with the office or at a client site is central to good teamwork and creating a sense of belonging. So, we have very strong attendance Tuesday to Thursday, while Mondays and Fridays are quieter.”
The 2022 Working Model Survey from global talent services firm Morgan McKinley noted an early shift from fully remote to hybrid; the most common working pattern last year was two days on-site and three days remote. Fast-forward to May 2023 and this has already changed in favour of two days remote and three days on-site, says Trayc Keevans, global FDI research director at the firm.
“We’ve seen the initial shift towards greater on-site presence and that’s likely to become more prevalent by the end of this year,” Keevans says. “A lot of the current adjustment is happening at team level because what makes sense for one team may not make sense for another, while the big challenge at an organisational level is how to be fair to all when balancing different working arrangements.”
Also shaking up the shape of the working landscape is the fallout from big tech lay-offs and the creeping return to in-person meetings. Some companies have reverted to their pre-Covid working pattern which was everyone in the office, while others have become more confident about prioritising the needs of the business.
The view that performance and growth are better driven by face-to-face collaboration is also influencing hybrid arrangements, as is the fact that the main job opportunities now are in sectors such as life sciences, engineering, hospitality and construction, which require people to be present most or all of the time.
The quarterly jobs index from IrishJobs, published in April, shows that the decline in fully remote vacancies, which began in quarter three last year, is continuing, with the number of positions falling by 12 per cent in the first quarter of 2023.
However, hybrid opportunities remain robust and, according to LinkedIn, “Ireland has one of the highest shares of hybrid job postings, with nearly half (42.2 per cent) of all paid job postings now offering hybrid.”
‘We’re fully committed to hybrid but it will be a process of continuous review over time ... It’s still very early days’
Blanaid O’Regan is director of people and culture at broadband company Siro, which employs 150 people. Siro is operating hybrid working – two days a week in the office, although this is not mandatory – and O’Regan says one of the biggest challenges facing it and many other employers is overcoming people’s reluctance to come into the office at all.
Interestingly enough, it tends to be senior employees who are more unwilling, which is being attributed to the fact that they need less social interaction than younger workers and usually have dedicated, comfortable working spaces at home.
“During Covid we were fully remote but we subsequently moved to hybrid because we want people to come together some of the time for the collaborative piece,” O’Regan says. “Initially, the return to the office was really slow, but towards the end of last year it picked up. On a busy day now, we’d have about 45 people here – some are always in the field – and it has gone as high as 60.”
Siro set up focus groups to better understand why people were reluctant to return to office working and found one of the main reasons “was that they didn’t feel it was worth the effort if hardly anyone else was there”, O’Regan says.
“People also found it hard to concentrate in a busy environment after the quiet at home and they resented the commute,” she adds. “Another issue was that although staff were coming in for meetings, they were going home again straight afterwards so we still weren’t getting the interaction.
“Based on this feedback, we reconfigured our space to make it more suitable for events that would draw people in and we also created quiet areas, added in more sound absorption and created more socialising and collaborative spaces. We have a framework for hybrid working, not a fixed policy, and we’re getting there but it’s an iterative process.”
The Central Bank, which employs around 2,000 people, is operating a mixed working model as some roles require employees to be on-site all the time. However, most staff have the option of working 50 per cent of their workdays from home, with one common anchor day per week, which is decided by individual teams.
“Last year we had a hybrid test-and-learn phase which ran for about six months and we’ve just finished reviewing it,” says the bank’s chief operations officer, Marcella Flood.
“In the main, people have adapted well and the feedback is very clear: staff really value the opportunity to work in a hybrid way. There are still some challenges but they’re not huge and it’s about getting the right balance – specifically in terms of organisational cohesion and how we all come together to be more than the sum of our individual parts.
Flood says the bank has redesigned floor space to improve the flow of people through its campus and create more breakout, collaborative and quiet spaces.
“We’re fully committed to hybrid but it will be a process of continuous review over time,” Flood says. “It’s still very early days and it could be five or even 10 years before we really see the impact of hybrid on work and society, not just for the bank but for all companies, depending on what model they’re pursuing.”