After an employee reported flu-like symptoms in early March, Google told its 8,000 staff and contractors to work from home for a day, to trial remote working and test its coronavirus preparations.
Soon, remote working became the norm for many in Ireland, with companies forced to change rapidly how they operated in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19.
While some organisations already facilitated working from home, few businesses were managing entire workforces remotely, but they had to adapt quickly.
Geraldine Casey, chief people officer at AIB, said about 7,500 of the bank's employees are working from home due to the coronavirus, adding the bank already had a business continuity crisis plan.
“When this crisis hit, we were able to scale that framework within a week. It allows all our staff (remote, in offices and in branches) to work seamlessly and collaboratively.”
AIB staff members use tools such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, email, intranet and existing conference facilities to connect, but Casey said the sudden introduction of cross-company remote working situation had brought challenges.
“People are used to working collaboratively and have nurtured relationships over time. Those relationships have generally been developed through physical interaction and communication. Moving that 100 per cent into a virtual world has been the biggest challenge.”
While a significant part of Glanbia’s workforce continue to work in plants and production facilities, given the essential nature of their work producing food, the company has also had to shift its office-based employees to home working.
Michael Patten, Group HR and Corporate Affairs Director at Glanbia says the company drew much from the experience of its employees in China, who were working from home since January, and took steps to prepare, such as sharply increasing its network capabilities.
Similar to AIB, Glanbia’s HR and engagement teams have also worked to ensure colleagues feel motivated and engaged. Along with online training on new ways of working, they have also introduced online keep fit sessions, relaxation webinars and virtual coffee breaks.
Facilitating productive teamwork at a distance can be tough, however. Des Travers, managing director of DPD Ireland said the presence of colleagues in the workplace made it easy and before Covid-19. With employees dispersed, communication and collaboration were more difficult, while many find their new work environment distracting and isolating.
“For teams that do lot of collaborative work, where exchanging ideas is important in terms of their output, remote working is difficult. This is where our morning and evening briefings are important,” he said.
“Some people find the isolation difficult and some also find it hard to focus without the physical presence and direct guidance of a supervisor or manager. It’s really important for them to have clearly defined objectives laid out for the day and a straightforward way to monitor performance,” he added.
Some 60 per cent of DPD Ireland’s total workforce deal directly with parcels, meaning they cannot work from home. Most of the remaining employees (in HR, marketing, customer services, finance, sales, IT, network, and CRM roles) are working remotely, up from less than 5 per cent before the pandemic.
Furthermore, said Mr Travers, most people didn’t have home office spaces with a monitor or comfortable office chair. They hadn’t had proper training in tools such as Zoom, and they weren’t used to doing a full day’s work in the presence of their children.
Remote working can undoubtedly feel unstructured, disconnected and isolating, and this was only heightened for many by government lockdown measures. To boost morale and look after people’s mental health, companies have had to put various initiatives in place.
“Through our website and app, we have hints, tips, documents and videos on all kinds of things to support all our staff. These range from advice on setting up your home office or leading teams, to nutrition, art competitions for the kids and yoga,” Ms Casey said.
One key to successful management of remote working, says Mr Patten, is flexibility. “Many people have children and partners at home and are juggling parenting, teaching and feeding families as well as doing their work. So a flexible mindset is critical.”
Mr Patten adds that flexi-time is crucial in this. “We are counting on our people to do their jobs to the best of their ability during the time they have to do it. We understand that may not always be between 9am and 5.30pm and we are grateful for the mammoth effort from our staff.”
In theory, remote working sounds ideal. No long commute to work, no transport costs, no traffic or annoying co-workers, and even no need to get dressed. But employees can be left feeling socially and professionally isolated, while managers can struggle to facilitate team communication and collaboration. Unfortunately, only time will tell if this temporary situation will become our long-term future.