The remote-working challenge: ‘There are huge issues’

Hyperbole about remote working has given way to an understanding that making it work for everyone brings challenges and opportunities

Since the 1970s, management gurus and scientists have been forecasting that some time in the future – they usually predicted it would happen within a decade or so – we would stop moving people to offices where the work is, and start moving the office work to where the people were. The march of technology, changing lifestyle needs, and concern for the climate would make it inevitable, the predictions went.

In the end, the technology made it possible, but it took a pandemic to make the global experiment in remote working happen.

The experience of Covid-19 answered the question of whether, in an emergency, remote working can work. But it didn’t necessarily solve the problem of how to make it work sustainably. Sixteen months on, the early hyperbole about the remote working revolution has given way to a dawning understanding of the challenges and opportunities involved.

Employees who swore that they would never set foot in an office again have begun to consider the long-term benefits, but also the difficulties, of merging their home life and their work life. Employers are weighing up how to manage a remote or hybrid workforce, give everyone an equal shot at career progression, and look after their employees’ health and wellbeing from a distance, without leaving both sides feeling burnt out and exhausted – and all the while making sure the work still gets done.

“The narrative has been so pervasive over the last while that remote working has been super; it’s completely effective; the Government is rolling out supports for it; it’s where everybody is going. You’ll be able to choose where you want to live, so you can now buy somewhere that you couldn’t afford previously,” says Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec.

“But employers are kind of saying, ‘Well, that’s not really the case. They are becoming more concerned about this sense that it’s a free for all, and you’ll be able to have whatever you want [but] we’re not going to be able to achieve that.”

Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec believes health and safety is an area that is likely to prove a significant issue for employers
Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec believes health and safety is an area that is likely to prove a significant issue for employers

The emerging new ways of working put the onus on employers to reinvent ways of “communicating, motivating, monitoring, paying, promoting,” says Tony Dundon, professor of HRM and Employee Relations at the University of Limerick. “How do you communicate? How do you have a performance appraisal? How do you monitor someone? How do you make sure the health and safety is right?”

All of this goes some way to explaining why we are where we are: less than two months away from the mooted date for return to the office, Delta and other variants allowing, and most people still have no idea what the new ways of working will look like for them. “The logistics of how we navigate this are real and impactful. Not only on individuals, but on companies and the future relationship [between organisations and] customers.” He suggests a title for this article: “The nightmare of sustainable remote working.”

Illustration: Fuchsia MacAree
Illustration: Fuchsia MacAree

From an employees’ perspective “WFH (Working From Home) has the potential to reduce commute time, provide more flexible working hours, increase job satisfaction, and improve work-life balance,” a recent study by the University of Chicago entitled Work from home & productivity: evidence from personnel & analytics data on IT professionals noted.

That’s the theory, but it doesn’t always work out like that. The researchers tracked the activity of more than 10,000 employees at an Asian services company between April 2019 and August 2020 and found that they were working 30 per cent more hours than they were before the pandemic, and 18 per cent more unpaid overtime hours. But there was no corresponding increase in their workload, and their overall productivity per hour went down by 20 per cent.

Employees with children, predictably perhaps, were most affected – they worked 20 minutes per day more than those without. More surprisingly, the employees had less focus time than before the pandemic, and a lot more meetings. “Time spent on co-ordination activities and meetings increased, but uninterrupted work hours shrank considerably. Employees also spent less time networking, and received less coaching and 1:1 meetings with supervisors,” the report found.

There’s been this narrative that employees are getting a taste for remote and home working, and I’m not sure that’s true. A lot of people who thought it was great in the beginning now want to be back in the office

In theory, remote and more flexible working solutions offer enormous benefits to employees: they allow them to work from anywhere, at the times that suit them. But in practice, Prof Dundon suggests, what some are finding is that their working day is “disrupted and fragmented. People working remotely might have degrees of flexibility about when they work and when they complete the tasks.”

When work is fragmented, it “tends to disrupt the efficiency and productivity”. The working day gets longer – but it doesn’t mean that more work is getting done.

This is compounded by the problem of “digital presenteeism”, or the pressure to be seen to be online and available for work. “There’s been this narrative that employees are getting a taste for remote and home working, and I’m not sure that’s true. A lot of people who thought it was great in the beginning now want to be back in the office,” says Prof Dundon.

McElwee adds that “while there’s a very large narrative around the fact that we will all choose how we want to work and that there’s a free choice around this, actually there isn’t . . . If it doesn’t work for the business, it doesn’t work. I think we need to start to roll back a little bit the narrative that people can choose how and where they want to work.”

Employers’ perspective

Only a few big companies have so far divulged their vision for the return to the office, or the future of remote or hybrid working. These include Twitter, which was early out of the traps in May 2020 with an email from founder Jack Dorsey telling staff they could work from home “forever” if they wished.

Facebook offices at Grand Canal Square in Dublin. The company said it would allow employees to work from anywhere once the pandemic was over. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Facebook offices at Grand Canal Square in Dublin. The company said it would allow employees to work from anywhere once the pandemic was over. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Facebook has also said it will allow employees to work from anywhere once the pandemic is over. It said staff could move from the US to Canada or from Europe, the Middle East or Africa to anywhere in the UK and, by next January, workers could permanently move between seven countries in Europe, including Ireland – though they will be paid according to local rates. “I’ve found that working remotely has given me more space for long-term thinking and helped me spend more time with my family,” said chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

Google recently said that in places where its offices are open, 60 per cent have voluntarily chosen to go back. In the future, it estimates that 60 per cent will work on a hybrid 3/2 basis, where employees spend three days in the office “and two days wherever they work best”. Employees will not get to choose which days to come in. About 20 per cent of the workforce will be allowed to transfer to new locations, and 20 per cent will work entirely remotely, but “your compensation will be adjusted according to your new location”.

Other big tech multinationals are less convinced. Reed Hastings, the Netflix co-chief executive told the Wall Street Journal last year that “not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative”.

Here, many employers are still scrambling to figure out what the new ways of working will look like. “There’s probably as many different solutions and options and considerations as there are businesses looking at them at the moment,” says McElwee. Among Irish businesses, “there’s a huge willingness to embrace this, and see the opportunities that it can bring. HR teams in particular, who are at the coalface of having to implement it, are beginning to really understand the complexity of it now. It’s not straightforward. There are huge issues – everything from health and safety, to data security, cybersecurity to equality. There are big costs, big time factors, lots of management retraining.”

Does the hybrid model work?

Most experts believe only a few companies will remain fully remote post-pandemic. But demanding employees return to the office full time carries its own risks – the ever-present unknowns about the virus; the possibility that employees will simply leave and find a job that offers more flexibility. That means most may plump for some kind of Google-style hybrid model. McElwee predicts that, one year from now, many companies who can do it will have arrived at a model where employees spend 60 per cent of the time in the office and 40 per cent remotely.

Some experts like the 25/25 model, developed by an Indian multinational employing 480,000 people, in which 25 per cent of the workforce is in the office at any one time, and an individual employee needs to be in the office only 25 percent of the time. And many support a “remote-first” model for hybrid working, in which everyone – including those who are physically in the building – behaves as though they are remote, and attends meetings via Zoom.

How do you find childcare two days a week, if those days differ each week?

“If you’re going to try hybrid, then try and co-ordinate it so that even if half your team are in the office, and the other half are at home, you never go into a meeting room. If you’re having a meeting or a stand-up or something with your team, everybody is on Zoom,” suggests Hélène Haughey, chief operations officers at Nearform, the Waterford-headquartered software company, which has been fully remote for a decade.

Hélène Haughey, chief operations officers at Nearform, a Waterford-headquartered software company, which has been fully remote for a decade
Hélène Haughey, chief operations officers at Nearform, a Waterford-headquartered software company, which has been fully remote for a decade

Haughey has previous experience of hybrid working and is not a fan. “My own experience of it wasn’t good. I was the afterthought in a hybrid model. So people would all be in the office having a meeting, and then they would go, ‘Oh, we forgot to dial Hélène in’. If the people in the office are the ones that are getting all the benefits and the perks of the out-of-hours and spontaneous meetings, and the people at home are feeling left out, [there’s a risk] you’re starting to create two cultures in your company.”

Her colleague Ger O’Shaughnessy, head of propositions for Nearform, points out some of the other logistical considerations to the hybrid model. “How big is your office, if everyone’s in Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and no one’s in Monday and Friday?” Childcare is another issue, he adds. “How do you find childcare two days a week, if those days differ each week?”

On top of this is the challenge of how to maintain a positive culture and ensure the same career progression opportunities for everyone in a hybrid workforce. Dr Deirdre O’Shea, a senior lecturer in the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School in Limerick says that “we know from passing before the pandemic that people were somewhat disadvantaged if they worked remotely, compared to people who were present in the office, purely because those in the office were more visible. If we move even to a hybrid model, or to a fully remote model, there is the problem of managers and decision-makers not necessarily seeing all the work that people are doing, and then it just becomes much harder to recognise that and reward that,” she says.

“Career progression is going to be a major issue down the line. How to make that transparent and understandable” will need to be determined, suggests Prof Dundon.

Mind the gap

Studies showed that even where both partners in the household were working remotely during the pandemic, “women tended to do a lot more, both in the house, and also then working longer hours in their job remotely,” says Prof Dundon. He worries that a move to hybrid working could inadvertently widen the gender gap, as women opt for flexibility and end up with even more of the domestic burden at home, while their partners spend more time in the office – and benefit from better promotional opportunities.

“It’s a very interesting time in terms of gender relations. [It’s important] that if those sort of conversations are happening, that they’re not disadvantaging women and taking them out of the workforce,” says Dr O’Shea.

Younger workers, particularly those on precarious contracts, also risk being marginalised in this conversation. They may have less influence in negotiating flexible working arrangements that suit them. They’re also less likely to have a housing arrangement that allows for a suitable, dedicated workspace. And they may be conscious that they’re missing out on mentorship and learning while they’re working remotely.

But, Prof Dundon says, “the employer is not excluded from the obligations. They have to look after their staff. If they end up extremely stressed because of the pressures of being in a precarious housing market and working from home, that employer, I would predict, is likely to bear some responsibility in that.” Employers could afford to overlook some of these issues when they were dealing with an emergency response such as a pandemic. But the conversation now has switched to what work will look like in the longer-term, and all of these are issues that need to be addressed.

“All of the equality legislation remains the same. Employers are going to have to be very conscious of the demographic within the office. So who’s coming in? Is it all your young employees? Is that all your more mature senior managers? Is it all the men? Is it older women? There are all kinds of equality implications,” says McElwee.

Making it work

There’s one key element to creating a successful remote or hybrid model, Haughey believes. “Trust. Trust your employees that they’re working at home. Give them the flexibility on their working hours, so long as the work is getting done.”

Don’t check up, but do check in, she adds. “Do a 10-minute call in the morning and a 10-minute call in the evening as a team.”

Managers should plan to “over-communicate” with teams, suggests Haughey. “Make sure that you are over-communicating with them, and have the proper tools in place that you can communicate effectively. In the tech industry, it’s easy to say use Slack and Zoom”, but every company should look at how technology can help ensure the lines of communication stay open.

One of the big challenges concerning companies is how to keep company culture alive without spontaneous chats around the kettle, or Friday night drinks. For this, Nearform uses Slack to create “virtual watercooler” moments. “We have a Wellness group on Slack, a Show Your Pet group, a gardening group and a Show Your Desk group. Because we’re fully remote, we have people working across Europe. We have people, whether you like it or not, showing us the sunny beach that they’re working at today. We mute those channels,” she laughs. In pre-pandemic times, the team would get together once or twice a year at client locations when a new project kicked off.

Health and safety

Health and safety is an area that hasn’t had much consideration but is likely to prove a significant issue for employers, suggest both McElwee and Prof Dundon.

“It wouldn’t be unfeasible to anticipate a whole wave of claims and litigation,” similar to the wave of claims over repetitive strain injuries (RSI) that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, when employers failed to foresee the need to ensure ergonomic workspaces. “So you can think of all the parallels now working from home remotely.”

McElwee suggests there may be some difficulties for employers in trying to carry out remote health and safety audits. “What’s your right [as an employer] to ask, who do you live with? Are you working out of your bedroom? Can you share with me your broadband status?”

Nearform’s approach is to do a remote health and safety check as part of the onboarding process with every new employee. “For every new person who joins, we have our health and safety inspector take a call with them as part of their onboarding. They look at their home office and make sure that they are set up correctly,” says Haughey. Last year, the company introduced a fund to enable employees to purchase any equipment they might need.

Widening inequality

Underlying all of these discussion is the uneasy knowledge that these challenges affected only one privileged segment of the workforce. Professionals in desk jobs might be thrilled or dismayed to be unmoored from a daily commute to the glass box in the city. But at least they have options. You can’t build houses or deliver parcels or look after sick people from the safety of your spare bedroom. “It’s a really small cohort of the labour force” that can even have a discussion about remote working, says McElwee. “About two-thirds of our labour force has to go out to work.”

Ultimately, she says, we should think about this time not so much as a remote-working revolution, but a steady transition towards more flexible ways of working. Whatever the new ways of working ultimately look like, they will involve “more flexibility around start and finish times to avoid commute. Or recognising that people have a particular caring responsibility that falls in the middle of the day. Or that someone wants to take a sabbatical to work on some educational piece, or wants time off to train for the Olympics,” she says.

“The one common thread for employers at the moment is that they’re saying this is a test-it-and-try-it. They’re trying to say to people you’ve got to live with us a little bit through this and work with us. What we go with in the beginning isn’t necessarily going to be what the final iteration will look like.”