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Transformation of work to renew focus on leadership skills, say experts

Focus to shift from traditional benefits to balance between performance and wellbeing

Karen Killalea, head of employment at Maples Group

“There are two changes which employers need to get ready for now. Firstly, the EU directive on work-life balance for parents and carers will likely come into force in August 2022. The directive drives change in relation to family leave arrangements which materially improve the position of new parents, and new dads in particular. Many of these leave enhancements are being addressed through existing domestic legislation which has introduced paid paternity leave, paid parent’s leave and unpaid parental leave in recent years.

“But there is a significant focus on flexible working arrangements and our framework around flexible working arrangements in Ireland is in need of reform. It is under review at present and we are awaiting the outcome of the recent public consultation on flexible working.

“We are also expecting draft legislation on a right to request remote working this summer or early into the autumn. This will bring change. It will likely require employers to give fair and transparent consideration to requests to remote work. It may also build in enhanced requirements to maintain working-time records for remote workers. New obligations may be created to ensure remote employees have the same access to training and career development as non-remote workers. In addition, employers should already be updating their risk assessments and safety statement to take into account a hybrid or remote working pattern.”


Karan Sonpar, professor of organisational behaviour at the UCD College of Business

“The next decade of work, as evidenced in the growth in virtual and hybrid work arrangements, will lead to greater efficiencies from an organisational perspective and some gains for individuals who want greater autonomy and choice in their work conditions. On the positive side, we all know that a lot of work practices such as ceremonial displays of putting in long hours in office or engaging in time-wasting, lengthy journeys in peak traffic are not needed. We are also aware that, under the right conditions, we can be more efficient while working from home.

“However, what might seem to be a moment of liberation, could also turn out to be an even more oppressive iron-cage from the perspective of employees. In his book titled The Paradox of Choice – Why Less is More, the psychologist Barry Schwartz explains how greater autonomy and choice do not necessarily lead to greater satisfaction. Similarly, this ‘paradox of choice’, as presented through greater options for hybrid or virtual working, could also have a variety of unintended consequences. These include the acceptance of unclear boundaries between work and home, risks to career progress for employees who do not display presenteeism, and the exercise of greater organisational control and surveillance under the disguise of employee autonomy.

“These challenges will make good leadership and management even more important as managers will be required to manage a variety of differing work arrangements based on both employee and organisational needs.”

Cathal Divilly, managing director of the Great Place to Work Institute Ireland

“Many of us have now experienced a very different way of working with our colleagues and business. Any organisation’s ability to navigate and embrace this new way of working has largely been dependent on the quality of their culture pre-pandemic. Organisations that already had trust in the bank with employees found this new way of working was embraced a lot better than those that didn’t. Organisations must now take a strategic approach to building healthy cultures because, as the pandemic has taught us, you never know when the next big change will happen.

“Those organisations that focused on doing the basics well, such as consistent and transparent communications and employee involvement, have thrived culturally. I hope that organisations will draw on the lessons learned over the last year in relation to what has worked well, what aided productivity and employee wellbeing, when thinking about their future way of working.

“The critical piece, however, is how an organisation arrives at its answers. Surveying employees for their opinion is a great way to gather data and involve employees. The post-pandemic legacy will likely be less about perks and benefits and more about the things that really matter – a focus on strong people, good leaders, consistent communications practices and the balance between performance and wellbeing.”

Dave Flynn, executive director of workforce agility and innovation at Skillnet Ireland

“A versatile workforce is a key enabler in helping businesses to become more sustainable and embrace technology adoption. Many employers are set to rapidly digitalise working processes, including a significant expansion of remote work, according to the World Economic Forum. Evidence suggests that businesses will increasingly prioritise creativity, initiative, resilience and flexibility, and workers who proactively sharpen these abilities are more likely to boost their careers.

“At the same time, businesses must devise longer-term initiatives that strengthen wellbeing and a sense of employee connection and belonging, as well as nurture uniquely human skills and reimagine how they translate ideas into new or improved products, processes and services.

“Over the next decade, we anticipate businesses will increasingly collaborate within their communities, through engagement with other businesses and consumers, along with Ireland’s education and training system. Collaboration is an important step for companies planning to leverage technological innovation and preparing for environmental and other transformative changes.

“However, navigating change of this scale can be daunting. Companies can take a very practical step by joining a Skillnet business network, which places skills and talent at the heart of joint approaches by businesses to innovate and grow.”

Colin Hughes, head of the Graduate Business School at TU Dublin

“We need to try to allow employees to work in a location which enables them to do their best work. We need to focus on output, rather than being overly focused on electronic performance measurement which can damage trust badly. We need to monitor these arrangements on a regular basis to ensure they are working for everyone and that the wellbeing of employees is a constant discussion point.

“We also need to be careful when measuring productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. Where there are concerns about performance some people are quick to blame the virtual environment when sometimes performance issues existed beforehand but were not as visible. It reminds me of a quote often attributed to Warren Buffett, that it is only when the tide goes out that you discover who has been swimming naked. In my experience the virtual environment shines a light on poor communicators and leaders who are not employee-centric.

“Therefore organisations need to consider not only how suited employees are to virtual working but also whether their leaders are equipped to lead in a virtual environment and what upskilling they might require. My own research on virtual working suggests that virtual leadership can be a lot more difficult and a conscious effort is required to build relationships and trust, to ensure communication is effective.

“Lastly, I believe that organisations need to consider the impact of virtual working on career progression. Research shows that virtual employees can feel quite isolated and at a disadvantage to colleagues who frequent the office more – this can lead to an unhealthy them-versus-us culture.”

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times