As recent months have shown, even the most resistant of businesses are realising that working remotely can work. But now that the restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19 are being lifted, how will the emergency measures give way to a more sustained model of flexible working? Three Ireland hosted a webinar for its customers to look for answers to this difficult question.
Speaking at the webinar, Stephen Mulligan, enterprise technology consultant with Three Ireland, noted that in September 2019 research carried out by Three found 59 per cent of workers in Ireland said they would be more productive if they were able to work remotely or from home. The research also found that a similar percentage of people were not allowed to work remotely.
“If we fast forward to the world we’re living in now, we’ve found from the CSO stats that 69 per cent of Irish companies have implemented remote working, and 31 per cent of Irish companies had the majority of their workforce working remotely,” he said.
He made the point that the current situation is “enforced working from home” rather than true remote working. Yet despite the constraints involved in working from home while confined with a family, more companies and individuals have realised the benefits of a more flexible work schedule.
Tracy Keogh, co-founder of Grow Remote, an organisation dedicated to promoting the concept of remote working, spoke about how her grassroots organisation had been actively canvassing organisations to provide "location-less" work long before the coronavirus restrictions forced everyone's hand. It wasn't a priority then but that has certainly changed now.
Outlining the benefits of remote working, Keogh said they include making it easier to hire highly skilled people because businesses are no longer limited to recruiting someone who lives within commuting distance of a company’s office. Other gains include savings on office rentals and productivity increases.
A particular challenge arises in a hybrid model involving some people working in the office while others are based off site. The risk is that people who aren’t in the office aren’t seen, and as a result, that their voices aren’t heard as loudly, or they miss out on promotion opportunities, according to Keogh.
Change in culture
That requires a change in culture, she added. In practice, this means taking simple inclusive steps like having everyone log on to a meeting app no matter where they’re working. This puts every employee on an equal footing and avoids ‘water cooler conversations’ where decisions get taken by a small group of people who are always physically in the same place, thereby excluding others from the process.
Getting this right isn’t easy, which is why Grow Remote launched a training course in remote and flexible working for employees and for managers. “The employee needs skills, but also the company does too – the two sides need to come together,” Keogh noted.
Adam Coleman of HRLocker explained how his company had operated a dual working model since it began in 2004, combining some employees working from home, others remotely and others in the office. Yet the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 restrictions which meant going fully remote still took some getting used to. "Most of the issues that people will have faced with Covid relate to managing people. Culture is 100 per cent important when you're managing a remote or a hybrid team."
When a company wants to implement a remote working policy after Covid-19, or allow dual and hybrid working, it needs to give its people the skills to make it work by training them, he said. That involves practising empathy with employees and managing productivity based on people’s output, not on the number of hours worked.
This takes practice and doesn’t always come naturally to people who find themselves in management roles. It’s a learned behaviour to manage people remotely, according to Coleman.
HRLocker increased the amount of communication with employees. An all-hands call for the entire team is held every Monday, a rapid-fire sales call at 9am every morning, and on Thursday evenings the communication becomes more social, with people encouraged to bring ideas to liven up the meetings. “Checking in with people is really important but you also have to put an emphasis on fun,” Coleman advised.
Stephen Mulligan emphasised the importance of putting people before technology. “We know that technology is an enabler, but it needs to be supported with policy, people and practice. By taking a remote-first approach, you’re supporting all employees equally. The tools, in other words, are widely available. What will make remote working endure long past lockdown will be an emphasis on culture and policies that are inclusive of flexible working options.”