The future of work: Will we ever return to the office as we knew it?

Work has changed forever as employers focus on flexibility and retention of staff

Remember Prof Robert Kelly, the academic who was explaining South Korean politics live on the BBC when his four-year-old daughter Marion wandered in, her baby brother James careering after on a walker? The 2017 clip went viral, and for two weeks, they became the most famous family on Earth. What was it that captivated us? Was it so taboo that work and family life had clashed? Or that an eminent political science professor was a dad too?

Prof Kelly said after the interview, “I thought I’d blown it in front of the whole world.” Maybe we watched it on repeat because it reflected our own reality – that work and life is a messy juggle.

Five years later, our captivation with this family blooper seems quaint. The pandemic changed everything. Widespread working from home blurred the boundaries of career and family for everyone. Kids wandering into shot became par for the course. There were other changes too. The breakneck dash to a childminder, the tedious commute, open-plan working, the TV dinner – the hamster wheel suddenly stopped. After two years of working from home, does anyone really want to get back on?

There has been an 83 per cent increase in job posts mentioning flexibility since 2019, according to LinkedIn

A work schedule that better fits employees' needs while maintaining productivity seems like a no-brainer. It's extraordinary it took us so long to try it. Before the pandemic, bosses routinely declined work-from-home requests as a favour too far. If you weren't in the office, who knows what you might be doing? Covid brought the answer. Employees working from home worked longer hours, studies show. Productivity during the pandemic was off the scale. At the end of last year, many publicly quoted companies recorded some of their best financial results. Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all saw record profits. The stock market hit all-time highs.


The concept of a five-day, 40-hour work week at a fixed location is nearly a century old. Invented by Henry Ford in 1926, it was designed to serve manufacturing plant assembly lines. Despite the advent of "knowledge" work and technology enabling workers to deliver from anywhere, most clung to old norms. Big buildings, banks of desks, fixed work hours and needing "permission" to go to the dentist meant workplaces differed little from the past. But the home working genie is out of the bottle now, and it's not going back in.

Our relationship with work has changed forever, according to LinkedIn chief operations officer Daniel Shapero. "People around the world have started rethinking not only how they work, and where they work, but why they work," he notes in his predictions for this year. He's calling it "the great reshuffle". Talent is in incredibly high demand too. "We are in the tightest labour market in recent memory, and we expect it to get even tighter in 2022," he says.

In Ireland, job vacancies were 86 per cent higher in Q4 2021 than the same period in 2020 and 43 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest Jobs Index. In this war for talent, employees are calling the shots, and what they are calling for is flexibility. There has been an 83 per cent increase in job posts mentioning flexibility since 2019, according to LinkedIn. Over three times as many candidates are engaging when company posts mention flexibility. Where employers aren't meeting the evolving needs of existing employees and prospective candidates, workers are voting with their feet.

For Kathy McKenna and husband Shane Cunningham, the pandemic has transformed their working lives. By switching to fully remote jobs, they were able to quit Dublin but maintain their careers, now under the big open skies of Donegal. A fully remote job is one that is entirely decoupled from location, and vacancies for these roles increased by 4 per cent year on year, according to Fully remote companies say they hire the best candidate, not just the best in a commutable distance from their office.

“I’m honestly still not over the fact that I can live in a place that feels like paradise to me and have a great career, in my chosen field. No compromises,” says McKenna. “We still find ourselves looking at each other going – is this real life?”

Two years ago, the couple was on a familiar track – jobs in Dublin tethered to offices, renting an apartment for €2,000 a month, with hopes of buying a house in the capital fading. "We were working on a deposit, but like so many others weren't getting far with that," says McKenna. She worked in communications for the Law Society of Ireland. He had a tough cross-city commute to a tech role with a travel booking company. They mused about one day moving to her native Kerry or Donegal where Cunningham was from. "It always seemed far away, because how would we manage our careers outside of Dublin? It didn't seem to be possible, at all."

When the pandemic hit, their apartment became their office overnight. It was an unsettling time. "It felt apocalyptic. We were right in the heart of Smithfield and to see that part of town so quiet was disturbing," says McKenna. While they continued to work long hours, for once they had more time to talk. "We were able to have these long conversations that weren't punctuated by having to leave the house to do a commute."

When Cunningham’s employer announced redundancies, their conversations came to a head. “It was quite a stressful time. We knew we had to move because staying in Dublin wasn’t an option on one salary,” says McKenna. Her employer agreed to let her work from outside Dublin, but it was clear she was expected back in the office in time. “Within 30 days we were packing up and leaving for Donegal,” she says. From there, her husband secured a fully remote job as a head of product with an IT company. Donegal became a long-term possibility.

McKenna’s eyes were opened. “I made the decision that rather than trying to fight for a one-off deal to work remotely, I would also try to find work with a fully remote company.”

Two years on from the start of the pandemic, life and work for the couple is unrecognisable. “It’s hard to quantify. Every aspect of our lives is transformed,” says McKenna. She is now communications manager with Grow Remote, a not-for-profit that promotes living and working locally.

'There is a sense of contentment there, it's hard to describe. The people who are there are there by choice and they can plug in and out of that community as it suits them'

“The flexibility that we both have to be present with our families is probably the biggest transformation,” she says. Her family experienced health issues in recent years. “I’m picturing myself battling down the M7 on a Friday evening, trying to squeeze in quality family time when my mind was always on the trip back up on Sunday. That has been totally eliminated.” Work is no less busy, but having a fully remote job means she can be physically present with them, even if she is working.

In their rented four-bed house in Donegal town, two bedrooms are converted to home work spaces. She doesn’t miss the office. Her company has a roster of formal and informal online meet-ups and she has met colleagues in person too. “I don’t feel like the connections I have with them are any lesser or greater than those I had when I was working in a traditional office environment,” she says.

She describes herself as a "sociable introvert" and the option to mix working from home and at thriving co-working spaces in Strandhill, Sligo town and Donegal suits her. "There is a sense of contentment there, it's hard to describe. The people who are there are there by choice and they can plug in and out of that community as it suits them." The couple's housing costs have halved and they can buy a home in the near future. "We feel so much more in control of our finances, and in control of our future actually."

Her job of promoting living and working where you love is meaningful for McKenna. “I’m from the butt of the Slieve Mish mountains. It was never a prospect to stay. It was always, we have to leave, we have to leave – if you want an education you have to leave; if you want a job, you have to leave. Maybe you come back, but you have to leave. If 17-year-old me had known what I know now, it would have been crazy to me. My mind is kind of blown.”

Demand for flexibility is putting pressure on employers to reimagine things. “Not since the industrial revolution have companies really had to think about work design, about where tasks get done, and when and how do you deconstruct work so that it’s done in an optimal manner,” IBM’s chief human resources officer, Nickle LaMoreaux, has said. Some companies see employees’ desire for greater flexibility not as a threat but as a positive force.

When management at the ICE Group, a Galway-headquartered recruitment and HR services firm, announced that everyone could move to a four-day week but get paid for five, staff thought it was a joke. "They were absolutely silenced. They thought it was a prank," says Margaret Cox, a director of the company. The idea was suggested by her co-director. "I thought, oh really? No. That's never going to happen." Two years on and the company's 58 full-time employees in Galway, Limerick, Sligo and Dublin enjoy a bank holiday weekend every weekend.

“We wanted to do something really fantastic, to work with them and to get the best from them, that’s why we decided to trial it,” says Cox. “The deal very simply is 100 per cent of the pay, 100 per cent of the productivity and four days working.” Staff were invited to figure out how it might work. “We came to the realisation that just dropping one day would never allow us to maintain the 100 per cent productivity and if you are not doing that you can’t afford 100 per cent pay,” says Cox. They opted to work a longer day over four days.

“You can work Monday to Thursday, or Tuesday to Friday, but you are always off for three days at the weekend.” Most of the team works 8am to 5.30pm, but start and finish times can vary. If it can maintain productivity, the company hopes to pull back the length of the day by an hour over the next 18 months. Some staff worked from the office during the pandemic, others worked from home, and this hybrid continues. Working a four-day week during the pandemic meant staff avoided the “always-on” trap that some fell into, says Cox.

The company focuses on results rather than facetime at the office as a metric for performance. The switch required intentionality and investment. ICE had to figure out how to do things differently, cross-training staff to provide cover for those off, and investing in technology so that customers receive seamless service five days a week. Having clear measurements tells them how a four-day week is paying off. Productivity has increased by 27 per cent, staff retention has been high and they have more applicants for vacancies, says Cox. ICE’s employee wellness score has increased 33 per cent and single-day absenteeism, except for Covid, has been eliminated. “People are fitter, they are more well. We don’t see what might have been called ‘duvet days’,” says Cox.

The company is now one of 17 Irish companies participating in Four Day Week Ireland, a campaign advocating for a gradual, steady, managed transition to a shorter working week for all workers, in the private and public sectors. A shorter working week has the potential to have a triple dividend of improving human, economic and ecological wellbeing, the campaign says.

Two years ago, Twitter told its 5,000 employees worldwide they could work from home full-time 'forever'

The trade-off for a day off used to be less money. Parents and carers – mainly women – sacrificed chunks of their salary to work fewer days. More progressive thinking around working-hour flexibility and the nature of productivity is gathering pace however. A five-day week now seems “crazy”, says Cox. “This isn’t about work/life balance, it’s just about balance.

"For me personally, I am more creative, I have more energy, I got back my joie de vivre for work. It's just amazing. I go swimming in the sea on a Friday, that's my day off. We call our day off our 'genius day'," she says. Her colleagues use the extra time in different ways. "Some have gone back to college, one is doing a masters, one gets to bring her daughters to school which she didn't get to do before. Another is getting to travel more in Europe. It has been life-changing."

Two years ago, Twitter told its 5,000 employees worldwide they could work from home full-time “forever”. It was among the first employers to pin its work-from-home colours to the mast as others kept schtum. Last month, Twitter’s offices reopened and its 200-plus staff in Dublin were welcomed “#BackToTheNest”. If you are a Twitter Dublin worker who spent the pandemic cooking the same four meals on rotation, images of “crispy hens egg, Parma ham and hollandaise” or “coffee topped with whipped cream and pistachio meringue” tweeted by the staff restaurant could be hard to resist – or so the company hoped.

Staff can of course continue to work where they feel "most productive and creative", said chief executive Parag Agarwal. Some days in the office and some days at home is what most staff want, he noted. But that was going to take work. Everyone working from home, as they did during the pandemic, makes for a level playing field. Distributed working, however, was going to be "much, much harder", he said. "Anyone who has joined a meeting remotely while others are in a conference room knows this pain." To make it work, the company was going to have to be "proactive, intentional, learn and adapt".

Indeed, companies who think working from home is just something they agree to let employees do, without properly investing in training, tools and culture change are in for a bumpy ride. Flexible working where staff are working some days at home and some in the office can be messy. Post-pandemic, that's where most companies are at, says Tracey Keogh, co-founder of Grow Remote.

“The first horizon we are seeing now is, let’s bring everybody back in with a little flexibility, working from home two days a week,” says Keogh. The next horizon is companies realising that doesn’t really work for them, she says.

“The general consensus from people who had been looking at this pre-Covid is that’s the worst model you could choose. It doesn’t give you the benefits of remote work and you are just kind of creating chaos,” says Keogh. “They are either going to pull everybody back into the office, or they are going to invest in transitioning to a ‘remote-first’ culture,” she says. Remote-first means things being redesigned so that everything happens irrespective of where people sit. “It’s simply underpinning the whole organisation with a location-agnostic culture.”

For a company to really see the benefits of remote work, they need to start advertising jobs as remote jobs. “You want to be hiring from a wider talent pool, so within a tax jurisdiction or within a timezone, that’s the first benefit of remote work.” Remote doesn’t mean “remote from Dublin”, it means distributed hiring, distributed power and distributed performance. Successful remote companies track the career progression of those who work from home versus those in the office, they educate teams on distance bias and the inclusion of remote workers is actively managed so that there is equal access to information, people and opportunity, she says.

Ebay and Shopify are the "evangelists" building data from which others must learn, says Keogh. "They can now speak about impacts to their margin, their bottom line, retention and acquisition of employees and productivity."

The ESB, which moved 4,000 of its office-based workers to home working during the pandemic, is embracing the new world too. "Most of our employees don't want to return to the office full time after the pandemic, yet there are others who are really struggling at home. We are working to accommodate both groups," head of organisation development Sarah Claxton has said. "People in the future will come to the office to collaborate, to build social networks and engage in learning and development. They won't commute for the sake of sitting in front of a screen or having a meeting with their team."

The company’s “virtual first” strategy means that meetings should mostly take place online, regardless of whether people are working in an office, at home or in another location. Graduate induction went fully online last year, giving new hires a glimpse of the company’s future working practices. “Our offices will still play a very important role in our future but when we go back, we don’t plan to go backwards.”

At TikTok Ireland, the 1,000-plus employees continue to have the choice to work remotely, but the company is seeing a growing trend of workers returning to the office

Management teams who don’t like staff working from home should just say it. One Dublin law firm insisted its staff be in the office throughout the pandemic, because “clients expected it”. “If a company is saying you can work at home two days a week, but if you do, it’s well understood you are not interested in your career, why don’t they just say everyone has to be in the office so? Just own that and drive it,” says Keogh.

For some job disciplines, being in the office is best, some workers say. Ivan Gaine is delighted to be back in the office. A self-confessed extrovert, he missed the "buzz and the work/life separation" when offices were shuttered. As managing director of Sherry FitzGerald New Homes, his teams in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick worked hard to keep connected as they worked from home. It was hard on new recruits too who missed out on the job training. Being back in the office feels good.

“The camaraderie, the innovation and the social side is brilliant. That human connection, it can’t be replaced.” The best place to work depends on the sector and the type of role, but in-person works best for sales and marketing teams, he feels. “Definitely, the competitive piece is much better in person as well as overall collaboration with clients and customers. The whole gambit is much more natural.”

Indeed, despite the desire for flexibility, remote work caused issues for some, according to the latest Microsoft Work Trends Index published earlier this month. Almost a third of Irish workers said they found it difficult to disconnect from work, and more than a quarter struggled to stay motivated and inspired, according to the study which included 600 respondents here. More than a third said their team culture had deteriorated or they felt lonelier. Remote or hybrid working made innovation and creativity more challenging too, respondents said.

With three small children, combining work and family life at home was hectic, says Gaine. “My wife is like, get out, you are too stressed. It’s too busy, it’s too crazy. So definitely, having that delineation is good. It’s good to work in a different location.” His working day feels different now. “We are more efficient, working a tighter, shorter day. We don’t have presenteeism,” he says. Staff fit in school drop-offs and pick-ups if they need to. The sales cycle has peaks and troughs and in quieter periods, staff may work from home.

The pandemic improved communication. “We had elevenses every single day for months ... Because of the pandemic, we stay in touch a lot more than we ever did. We were forced to change our behaviour, which I think is really good.” Things look a bit different too. “The dress code has changed, hairstyles have changed, it’s definitely a more relaxed and casual environment.”

At TikTok Ireland, the 1,000-plus employees continue to have the choice to work remotely, but the company is seeing a growing trend of workers returning to the office, mostly for one to three days per week. Over the last number of months, TikTok Dublin has progressively increased its office capacity in response to the trend. A small capacity office event to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with live traditional music and treats brought back a buzz of energy, which the company says is helpful to build connections and culture.

Post-pandemic, the new employee/employer contract isn’t just about where we work, LinkedIn chief operations officer Shapero predicts. “It’s also about how we work, and a necessary focus on employee wellbeing will emerge as a key part of this new contract,” he says. Employees are moving away from the often-glamorised “hustle” culture. In response, companies are listening and promoting work/life balance, along with better resources to support their employees, like mental health counselling. Such wellbeing policies, along with flexible working hours, and a positive work culture are enticing Irish employees to move jobs, the Microsoft survey revealed this month.

After the pandemic, companies that allow for more human-centred working that eases the juggle may just win the day.

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance