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A whole new world (of work)

How work has changed since the pandemic and what the future holds

With all the changes that Covid wreaked on the world, how — and where — people work is one area that has fundamentally and perhaps irreversibly been affected. Are these changes likely to last or will the world revert to working full-time in the office again?

“We have seen a fundamental change in how people work, how they want to work and what employers expect, primarily brought about by and accelerated by Covid-19,” says Laoise Mullane, senior manager, PwC People and Organisation. “People have realised that often they can be more productive at home, without the loss of time given to commuting or the cost of commuting, and they can achieve an improved quality of life.

“But, on the other hand, many people need and appreciate the human interaction, collaboration and social dimensions that the office brings. So the future of work most likely will be a blend of working from home and office-based, where of course the type of work lends itself to working from home.”

Ivailo Kalfin, executive director of Eurofound, says their research showed the impact of Covid was the same all across Europe. “Strangely enough, we see absolutely the same patterns happening everywhere.” He says that work changed for everyone, not just those on furlough but for remote workers as well as those that had to go to work during the pandemic. “They had to see this through the whole environment, the anxiety, fear of the pandemic, and the overburden of the health system. This inevitably affected the way we work across the board whatever type of work we are doing.”


Lasting impact

One of the most fundamental changes is the move towards remote and/or hybrid operating models., “Everything I am seeing would indicate that hybrid working is here to stay,” says Niamh O’Brien, director of talent management at BDO. “The benefits of a flexible working model have been experienced by the wider workforce and companies in the main have now material proof that a flexible working model does not have to impact employee and teams’ performance.”

Elsabe Buys, manager of human capital consulting at Deloitte, agrees that hybrid and flexible working will become the norm. She says that businesses will have evolved their work strategies and what this new world of work means for their organisations and their people.

“It will be important for organisations to embrace new and evolving technologies, investing in digital skills and digital transformation. PwC research indicates that people are becoming less worried about technology replacing their roles and more worried about not being given the opportunity to upskill digitally or the opportunity to work with those who have digital experience.

“We are experiencing a tight labour market, which looks set to continue in the near term. Organisations will need to invest in their people to ensure they have the skills they need in the future.”

Becoming more flexible

It’s not just about where people work though. “We are also seeing new levels of flexibility,” says O’Brien. “It is no longer just about days in the office or days working from home: we are seeing flexible start and finish times, staggered starts to the working day and a more outcome-based approach to working.

“There is a new focus on what tasks are best suited to home working and what type of work is best in the office environment. Collaboration, training, coaching and networking are all focused in office time, while more focused administration tasks are being completed at home.”

Buys agrees. “We are living in an employee-driven world where individuals demand more from their work and organisations they work for. The events of the past two years have given people the push they need to act when they are dissatisfied, and the great resignation is living proof of this.

“Organisations should therefore put renewed focus on understanding employee sentiment and carefully consider how they design their work models going forward to meet the unique needs of their employees.”

However, Mullane says that this has led to problems for employers trying to accommodate these needs. “Many organisations are faced with the conundrum of how best to accommodate employee workplace choice, and preferences, whilst ensuring flexible working arrangements don’t negatively impact productivity, cost, organisation culture or undermine other strategic ambitions.”

Not a perfect world

It’s not only employers that have issues with hybrid working. Kalfin says that while the preference is overwhelmingly for remote or hybrid working, given its positive impacts in terms of less time on commuting, reducing traffic and related emissions, at the same time there “is a bad side which has to be addressed if the policymakers really want to unleash the potential of teleworking.

“People are working much longer hours. The time that someone saves from commuting is spent in front of the computer. You might manage your working time better if you don’t have restrictions around core hours but as a rule, people are working much longer.”

He says that stress levels are also on the increase. “This is a paradox — remote workers want to continue to work remotely but have higher stress levels. Why? They want to have the freedom and flexibility and a better quality of life, but at the same time because of the long hours and element of insecurity — people feel insecure when they don’t have social interactions or communicate with colleagues — increases stress.” Kalfin says that the stress is higher in women and younger people, and lower in older men.

Edel Corrigan

Edel Corrigan is a contributor to The Irish Times