US businesses in Ireland have undergone a mass impromptu experiment in working from home. It has provided them with invaluable insights into managing remote teams.
That includes Citibank Europe, which employs 2,500 people in Ireland, out of a total of 200,000 employees globally.
“Prior to Covid-19, Citi Ireland had a flexible work policy so many of our employees would work remotely on a regular basis – but nothing like the scale of remote working that has been in place over the last three or four months,” explains Cecilia Ronan, ceo of Citibank Europe and country officer for Citi Ireland.
Before Covid-19, the record for the number of Citi’s 200,000 employees who could access the bank’s remote network at once was 35,000. Now it has gone up to 148,000 people globally logged onto its network at any one time.
In Ireland, 98 per cent of its people have worked from home since mid-March. “Although remote working may have been challenging at times, particularly for those with caring responsibilities, it has proven highly effective in ensuring our business remains fully operational. It has been a successful test of our resilience,” she says.
Though, in the long term, it will continue to be a primarily office-based business, the executive team has learned a tremendous amount from the lockdown.
“Anyone who has worked from home for a sustained period will know that regular communication is vital. Soon after the onset of the crisis, we conducted a survey of our employees and the results showed that what employees found most helpful was regular check-ins with their teams and managers, followed by communication from the business and leaders. We have worked hard to keep our employees updated every step of the way as we navigated the challenges over the last few months. We also encouraged our teams to maintain very regular contact,” she says.
Its HR team developed resources for staff to help them navigate the ‘new normal’ including a Remote Working Bootcamp, a virtual training resource where employees can share best practices.
Citi also developed a series for people managers with content such as focusing on self-care and managing stress, building trust, successfully on-boarding new hires remotely to ensure they feel part of the team, and ensuring employee contributions are acknowledged by managers when working remotely. “All of this is essential to a successful remote working experience,” says Ronan.
The adaptability of Irish workers is a large part of their appeal to many US businesses, according to Anna Scally, partner and head of technology and media at KPMG in Ireland, which works with a large number of US multinationals. If anything, Covid has accelerated what were already the underlying trends towards enhanced flexibility and digitisation.
“It has definitely highlighted how technology is an enabler of change. Anecdotally, we have seen a number of significant positives in terms of helping to reduce the stresses and strains of commuting and technology has provided lots of people with greater flexibility,” says Scally, who also sounds a note of caution.
“Inevitably managing teams at home all the time has its challenges too, raising issues around building and maintaining team and business relationships, and fostering creativity. There is a risk of losing out of some of the more intangible things that matter in business. That said, overall I think our experience and the experience for our US clients has been very positive.”
Experience management survey specialist Qualtrics has, as yet, no date fixed for its staff to return to the office.
The company, which came to Ireland in 2013, has 3,500 employees worldwide, including 350 in Ireland. “We have told staff globally that they can work at home until the end of the year at least, if they choose to,” says Brian O’Driscoll, head of finance EMEA.
To be effective, it’s important to recognise that not every worker’s experience of working from home will be the same.
“Even if you’re working from home with children, at least it’s your own home,” he points out. “It’s a lot harder for our staff in rental accommodation where you might be sharing with four and you might only have seen each other before for half an hour a day but now you are in each other’s pockets. That has caused some issues in our international base.”
There were unforeseen practical issues such as ensuring, when some of its international base flew home to their own countries in March, that their tax and health insurances were all in order while they were away. There were soft-skill supports needed too, including new programmes on mental health for managers and employees.
To help, the company provided an extra day off in May for everyone. “We are learning as we go along, adjusting and keeping communications going so that managers can share their learnings across the organisations. Luckily we’re an experience management company, which collects data for sentiment analysis, so it’s something we are very good at. We pride ourselves in hearing our employees,” he said.
Qualtrics is helping other companies to follow suit too, having developed a range of free-to-use solutions in relation to managing the back-to-work or back-to-the-office experience for staff. Says O’Driscoll: “It’s important to ensure that the office culture extends virtually to the home, because in the future what we are likely to see emerge is a hybrid of the two.”