So much is unknown about how the pandemic will play out, but one thing is certain: the workplace we left in 2020 will not be the same as the one we return to in 2021.
Employers know this. Research from Ibec shows 51 per cent of companies now identify hybrid working – a blend of on-site and off-site – as a top people priority. Almost the same amount, 45 per cent, put remote working as a top people priority.
CEOs know this. In recent Ibec research, almost two thirds, 65 per cent stated they believe Covid-19 has resulted in a permanent change to their business model, with 72 per cent of them citing the return to the office, once Covid-19 allows, as a particular challenge.
Employees know it too. Research by NUI Galway and the Western Development Commission for Phase II of the Remote Working during Covid-19 national survey in October 2020, indicated that 94 per cent of workers would like to work remotely to some extent after the crisis.
As we move towards the phased lifting of public health restrictions, preparation on a number of fronts is required, including HR policy development and occupational health and safety.
“Employers are responsible for the workplace whether the employee works on-site or remotely. Having people working at home and on-site, in the hybrid model of the future, represents a doubling of the workspaces that the employer is responsible for,” points out Claire Hellen, Ibec’s HR strategy specialist.
In addition, employers must now also adhere to the new Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect and put in place a policy which sets out both their obligations – and those of their employees – and supports an employee’s right to switch off from work outside of normal working hours.
On top of that, the Government has indicated that it wants to bring forward new legislation later this year, to give employees the right to request remote working.
At present, any employee can ask their employer for the right to work remotely, but there is no legal framework around when such a request can be made, or how it should be dealt with. Any proposed new legislation should set out clearly how requests should be managed.
As remote/hybrid working proliferates, employers need to put policies in place to manage and support it.
“At the moment, those of us who can, have to work remotely. We have no choice about it. In a way that makes things easier because everyone is logging on to the same meeting from home. Things will be very different when some people are on-site, and some are at home,” says Hellen.
A hybrid working environment brings greater flexibility, helps employees manage caring responsibilities, facilitates those with a disability, and opens up access to a wider talent pool generally.
There is a potential downside however, whereby those on-site could be in a more advantageous position than their colleagues who work from home more often.
“The risk is that the worker on-site, is the one having regular chats with their boss, the water cooler moments and, the one who is more visible. When that good opportunity comes up, they may be the one the manager thinks of,” she explains.
Employers are responsible for the workplace whether the employee works on-site or remotely
Employers need to think carefully about who they bring on site, when and why.
“For team meetings it may be very good to have people in one room together. For concentrated work, such as report writing, remote working might be better,” she suggests.
The office as a social hub
“The office may become more of a social hub, with people not sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 but going on-site for collaborative endeavours, to meet both their team and teams other than their own.
“Having a wide network of collaborators and impromptu conversations during the working day may not happen serendipitously anymore, potentially to the detriment of innovation and relationships,” she says. “We need to find a way to ensure those wider links are established and nurtured again.”
All such planning must be in conjunction with whatever public health guidance exists at the time.
“Covid-19 protocols will be in place, meaning a phased return to work that will require careful management,” says Hellen.
Learning from each other and sharing best practice has been an invaluable support for Ibec members throughout the pandemic and she encourages all businesses to leverage such support.
“It’s very hard to do this from a blank sheet. The opportunity to talk to others who have gone through it, to hear how they changed their office layout, or organised their work streams, is invaluable,” she says.
What your future workplace looks like depends on the sector you are in, points out Joanne Redmond, Ibec’s head of employment law services.
“Employers should have a policy in place to govern current practices, but it needs to be flexible and iterated as the situation evolves,” she says.
Putting your people first makes for happy people, and happy people impact your bottom line
Ibec has a Flexible Work Tool Kit available on its website, which is a great place to start.
“There is no one size fits all for this, so talk to your people, including through surveys and focus groups, to find out what will work best for your staff and your business,” advises Redmond.
“Develop your flexible working policies – and be prepared to iterate – as you prepare to get back to working on-site and also in line; with possible changes in legislation comings down the tracks, both at national and EU level under the Work Life Balance Directive.”
How businesses manage this next stage of the pandemic will have far-reaching consequences for those who aspire to be employers of choice.
Communications and culture will be key. “The implementation of remote and hybrid working arrangements for the longer term will not be an easy task by any means and employers should not underestimate the complexity of managing all of the constituent parts that go with this. A well-planned approach that takes the development of hybrid working in stages as we emerge from this crisis will form the basis of flexible work strategies,” she says.
“The pandemic has accelerated the future of work by decades. How companies deal with this will impact how they attract and retain talent for years.”
It has wider commercial implications too. “It’s all circular,” says Redmond. “Putting your people first makes for happy people, and happy people impact your bottom line.”