Special Reports
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Is this the end of the great remote and hybrid working experiment?

A shift in attitudes on Covid-era working arrangements means we’re all back in the office, more or less

Speaking at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos in January of this year, L’Oréal chief executive Nicolas Hieronimus complained that staff working remotely have “absolutely no attachment, no passion, no creativity”.

There are surely plenty of remote workers who would disagree with him but he’s not the only senior leader with an “office-centric” mindset. According to KPMG’s CEO Outlook 2023, most believe there is still progress to be made on the return-to-office agenda (70 per cent in the Republic of Ireland, 67 per cent Northern Ireland and 64 per cent worldwide). Seamus Hand, managing partner at KPMG, attributes this to business leaders “increasingly recognising the office as being critical to collaboration, innovation and building working relationships”.

With many companies now decreeing a full-time return to the office, has the remote and hybrid experiment failed? And how do employees feel about it?

For many, the workplace was not just a place where working relationships were built but also lifelong friendships were forged and, sometimes, romance blossomed. Only interacting with colleagues online takes away a level of human experience.


While today’s digital natives might be perfectly happy to live life online, even those of us who are misty eyed for real-life interaction would still prefer to hang on to the benefits that remote and hybrid arrangements have brought. For many of those later in their career, with family and caring responsibilities, and a spare bedroom to use as a home office, the additional flexibility and autonomy in their daily lives has been a joy.

Many moved out of cities to buy more affordable homes in the country, closer to grandparents (aka free childcare), and enjoy a better standard of living. Spreading out from the capital seemed like an idyllic solution to revitalising rural Ireland, with high-quality jobs and “Dublin salaries” bringing life back to forgotten towns and villages.

For the young, the return to the office might not be so bad if they can afford to live, or are lucky enough to find somewhere to live, anywhere relatively near it. They are also more likely to live in shared accommodation where there isn’t space to accommodate a home office. Early-career workers are also most likely to benefit from the osmosis effect of the workplace – peer learning, on-the-job training and mentoring.

For some aspects of work, presence is essential. For others it is preferred – for collaboration, for new recruits who can learn from more experienced professionals and for creating a workplace culture.

In a poll conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in August 2023, two-thirds of executives indicated that remote work had adverse effects on four key areas: workplace culture; cohesiveness and team environment; communication among employees; and training and mentorship.

Conversely, over half of respondents expressed the belief that remote-work policies facilitate staff recruitment, with more than two-thirds stating that such policies contribute to staff retention. For savvy start-ups and companies who willing to be flexible, continuing to offer remote and hybrid working can give them an edge in recruiting talent.

Matt Conlon, chief executive and co-founder of Cytidel, a cyber threat intelligence start-up, has some employees who are fully remote and some who come to the office every day. Cognisant that the start-up grind is demanding, he is transparent about that to new hires and thinks that this openness, paired with flexibility, has helped him build a really committed team. His message to potential recruits to the expanding business: “I don’t mind where you are – we’ll facilitate that.”

One worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, recently got the news of an impending full-time return to office and has been totting up the cost, such as increased spend on commuting and doggy day care. By her reckoning, a pay rise of several thousand would be required to offset it. Plans to job hunt for a new role in early 2025, something more flexible, are being brought forward.

She’s not alone. Flexibility is something employees want and in a full-employment market, which is where we have been sitting pretty for several years, employees have been in control. But with tech lay-offs and rumblings of a global downturn, the upper hand is once again with the employers.

However, Diana Scott, leader of US-based think tank The Conference Board’s Human Capital Center, thinks “flexibility in one form or another, is here to stay”. A recent survey the Human Capital Center conducted on more than 1,500 American workers found that workplace flexibility was important to 71 per cent of respondents.

“A year ago many foresaw an impending recession that would loosen the job market and compel workers back toward the pre-pandemic normal,” says Scott. “Instead, 2023 has seen a remarkably resilient economy continue to empower workers – and workers value flexible work arrangements.”

Her colleague Rita Meyerson, principal researcher The Conference Board, adds: “Unlike salaries, bonuses, healthcare or retirement plans, workplace flexibility is the rare employee benefit that can save – rather than drain – financial resources, giving an advantage to companies that plan proactively.”

In Ireland, the right to request remote working was signed into law last April with the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2023. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has drawn up a code of practice for employers and employees, which was finally approved and published in early March, 20 months after the EU deadline to transpose the EU Work-Life Balance Directive.

The delay has created headaches for both workers and companies, which have been uncertain on how to respond to requests.

Announcing the commencement of the right to request flexible working, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney said: “This Government committed to facilitating and supporting remote working, to reduce our time commuting and to enable families to spend more time together.”

Under the new provisions all employees will have a legal right to request remote working after six months’ continuous service and once the request is submitted at least eight weeks in advance of the proposed date to begin remote work.

Employers are obliged to respond within four weeks (which can be extended if they are struggling to decide if the request is viable) and give reasons if the request is refused. They also have the right to end the arrangement if it is having a substantially negative effect on the business.

Crystel Robbins Rynne, chief operating officer at HRLocker, a fully remote operation, says: “I think we might see a lot of the mandating being challenged; from a professional-services perspective, if we were able to work from home the last three years what’s the reason for coming back? And companies need to have a reason for us.”

However, she predicts that it could be problematic for employees who push back: “You’re going to see that reflected in how you’re treated at work from a promotional perspective or even joining different taskforces or things like that, from an opportunity perspective.”

It’s not fair, of course, but if the employer is not committed to being remote-first, they are unlikely to be making significant efforts to level the playing field.

“If you’re going to be hybrid and remote, there’s a lot of work you have to do to make sure that everybody is treated fairly,” adds Robbins Rynne.

Because it is committed to being a remote-first company, Robbins Rynne describes a plethora of initiatives in place at HRLocker to create engagement and culture, from Friday morning chair yoga to everyday check-ins and more frequent of appraisals. The effort pays off, she says, with an excellent staff retention rate.

“We get it back from people because they’re committed to the company and they can see that we’re committed to them, and we’re committed to their growth as well,” she adds.

If employers aren’t willing to commit to flexible working, employees will at some point have to follow the work. What will happen next? Is this the end of the experiment? Time will tell but, if it is, it sure was nice while it lasted.