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For flexible working to fly, we need communication and consideration

27 Aug 2021

‘The next year is going to be interesting’ says future of work expert Peter Cosgrove, who thinks flexible working will only succeed with care and planning on all sides.

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Over the past year or more, there has been a wealth of surveys commissioned from Royal London to Microsoft, all of which indicate that Irish people are embracing flexible ways of working with gusto.

But what if Irish workers are setting themselves up for too much too soon? spoke to Peter Cosgrove, managing director of Futurewise, an Irish company that specialises in research and trends relating to the future of work, to ask his opinion on the issue.

According to Cosgrove, employers and employees alike would do well to remember that flexible working and remote working are very different beasts, and many people seem to conflate the two – which is understandable enough given that we are still in uncharted territory after a year and a half of upheaval.

The key distinction between flexible or hybrid working, which most people seem to be enthusiastic about, and remote working, which can garner less enthusiasm from certain demographics, is that the pandemic necessitated only one. Flexible working is something we as workers have largely come around to by ourselves, perhaps in part due to the massive workplace culture shock inflicted by Covid-19.

Positives and negatives

“What we’re hearing in the media now is, ‘I’ll never go back to work, I’m loving this working from home’,” Cosgrove said.

This sudden buzz might be doing us a disservice as “managing people who work remotely is definitely quite different than managing people who work in the office full-time”, he added, and there are positives and negatives to consider.

In Cosgrove’s view, the positives of flexible working – increased empathy and decreased bureaucracy – are well highlighted. But not enough people have realised the negatives just yet, which doesn’t augur well for the future.

“If you’re under a certain age, I certainly don’t think working from home works for you,” Cosgrove said. “It’s less innovative … people aren’t meeting each other, so it’s harder to build relationships and it really affects things like burnout.

“We used to have a defined time to go to work and leave work, and when you came home you had some decompression time when you actually move from your workspace to your home space. And now they’re all together it ends up quite difficult for people and they’re working longer or staring at the screen longer.”

Workplace culture

Whether or not a workplace can succeed with a flexible working model long-term really depends on culture, not policy, said Cosgrove.

“People are spending a huge amount of time in organisations looking at policies about, ‘What are we going to do about the future, what are the policies going to be’. And I’d almost say that policies are irrelevant. It’s all about the culture of the organisation.

“So, if you have a policy saying we’re going to let anyone work whenever they want, wherever they want, five days a week, everyone might think, ‘Wow what an incredible organisation, isn’t that fantastic’. And then the first day of October when you release this, all of the senior executives in your organisation go back to the office, five days a week.

“So, essentially what you’re saying is, ‘We have a policy in place but the unwritten rule is if you’re serious you’re going to be in the office, five days a week’. And that’s actually worse.”

He added that some workers in certain sectors, such as sales, need to meet their co-workers and clients to feel successful, whereas tech workers often do not need open-plan offices or distractions and might prefer to work remotely. He said company employees should remember they are not freelancers and are “part of a collective”.

But no matter what sector someone works in, the fundamental things they want from their boss do not change, Cosgrove believes.

“The things that people have wanted from an organisation have never changed,” he said. “People want trust. They want empowerment. They want a place where they can learn and be respected.”

Employers need to do pilots

Cosgrove is cautiously optimistic about the future of flexible work. “I think the next year is going to be interesting and I’d say the number one thing employers need to do is pilots.”

He is not at all against remote working if that’s what people want as part of the flexible future, although he thinks people should be aware of something called “distance bias”, which is when employers forget about their remote workers.

“There’s already been studies around when people are working flexibly or working from home or even on maternity leave or working away from head office,” he said. “You’re less likely to get promoted or less likely to get the most interesting job, and often with an accidental unconscious bias because people forget you’re there.”

So, if flexible working is to succeed, that’s another thing that companies are going to have to think about. As to how employers can do that, Cosgrove recommended they keep the lines of communication open to employees so both can navigate the change together.

“I would say to all companies, your starting point has to be the PR and the communication around it; all organisations have a rumour factory at the moment … get in front of the message, tell people what you’re going to do even if you’re not sure what you’re going to do.”

All in all, Cosgrove thinks that, based on what he’s seen over the past few months, companies starting today have a fundamentally different way of working than they did before the pandemic.

“There is no question if you started a company today, I would absolutely have a remote-first company because you could design it that way. You wouldn’t start by buying a massive building and having that huge cost. You could put that cost into employees and maybe meeting four times a year in a really nice venue and fly everybody there because there’s a huge amount of capital that you didn’t put into a building.”

No one-size fits all approach

Indeed Cosgrove could be right. A survey from March by employee experience management software company Qualtrics on the future of work found that the office could come to be seen as a “landing pad” for workers in years to come.

In a survey of 4,000 people from around the world, 70pc of managers said they preferred a hybrid schedule, while 73pc of respondents said they wanted the choice to work remotely one or two days a week.

The company’s chief people officer, Julia Anas, said: “Right now, every company is undergoing an experience transformation. There is no one-size fits all approach. As companies work to rewrite their playbooks, those who take the time to understand and act on how people think and feel will be empowered to make the right decisions, at the right time, in the right way, and as a result will deliver differentiated experiences.”

And, as Cosgrove said, “It’s not about the environment, it’s about the work.” So we will have to wait and see how companies and workers adapt.

Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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