As more companies commit to remote and hybrid working, is it time for Ireland to accept this workplace revolution?
Few would argue that Covid-19 had a positive impact on the world; its arrival in Ireland last spring caused devastation to the labour market as some industries were disproportionately impacted by skills shortages while others, like haulage, experienced increasing demand.
Now, over a year into the pandemic, the Government is trying to deal with the fallout, and employers are coming to terms with the likelihood that a high percentage of their workforces are not willing to return to the office full time.
The pandemic has changed the way people work, perhaps forever. Thanks to technological advances it is now entirely possible for most employees to be just as productive at home as they would have been in the office pre-pandemic.
A 2020 survey of 500 Irish workers from Amárach Research found that 76pc of people believed greater flexibility about working from home would be key for the future of work, while 10pc said they weren’t sure and just 9pc disagreed.
Whether employers like it or not, they will have to face facts and implement more permanent hybrid working models for those employees who wish to avail of the opportunity to work from home some or all of the time.
Joanne Mangan a remote-working expert and employers lead at Grow Remote, spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about the issue.
“As we move into the post-lockdown world, employers in Ireland are now in the process of figuring out what their post-Covid workplaces will look like. They know that the majority of their employees want to keep working remotely – whether that means fully remote, or in a hybrid model – and they know that they run the risk of losing their best talent if they force everyone back to the office,” Mangan said.
Grow Remote, which counts major tech companies such as HubSpot, Shopify, Glofox, Automattic and Ebay as partners, runs outreach events and webinars for people curious about hybrid and remote working to attend.
Founded in 2018, it has more than 130 different groups, or chapters, in 17 different countries, as well as online resources tailored towards employers and individuals, who can become a chapter leader of Grow Remote locally. Each chapter has their own projects – some organise meet-ups or events and others do promotional activities for their town.
It may bring Hells Angels with its talk of chapters, but Grow Remote’s approach to revolutionising the traditional nine-to-five life is thankfully much more moderate than that of the aforementioned motorbiking gang.
As Mangan said, a softly-softly approach is best when introducing any radical changes to the workplace, “It’s important to highlight that we do not know what a broad adoption of hybrid working will bring, as this is still a new model for most employers. And hybrid working is not without its challenges,” she warns.
Hybrid working not without challenges
In the US, which is slightly ahead of the curve in terms of hybrid working, research shows mixed results. According to Nicholas Bloom, William Eberle professor of economics at Stanford University, hybrid working does not always work for the best.
Bloom’s research since the pandemic began – and he has been studying the issue for many years – indicates that the sudden shift to a working-from-home economy could spell trouble for cities as well as causing economic inequality.
After all, not all work can be done from home, and the trend is more common among higher-educated and higher-paid employees. If not managed correctly, this could create an “inequality time bomb,” writes Bloom.
Mangan agrees, advising that companies implementing a hybrid working policy do a bit of soul searching to avoid leaving anyone behind.
“Companies need to take a ‘remote-first’ rather than an ‘office-first’ approach. This means a complete review of internal processes to ensure a fair and equitable workplace” she said.
Mangan believes that hybrid working will only go smoothly if there is a mutual trust agreement between all parties.
“To really benefit from hybrid working, employers need to leave it up to their employees to choose if and when they come to the office. It’s really about trust – employers who trust their employees to do their work without feeling the need to monitor and micromanage them are the ones who will thrive in the new hybrid working world,” she said.
“Another risk when it comes to hybrid working is the possibility of creating a two-tier workforce, with remote employees at a disadvantage as they are less visible and therefore less likely to get a promotion.”
She said that employers need to be very deliberate and intentional in their planning to ensure there is equal access to opportunity for everyone, regardless of their location.
“It is particularly important that employers are aware of gender dynamics, as research has shown that women are more likely to request flexible working arrangements, while men can be fearful that this would hurt their career prospects.”
Reaping rural rewards
With the help of dedicated organisations like Grow Remote, and now the Government’s ‘Make Remote Work’ awareness campaign launched recently, Ireland’s economy should hopefully have enough support to navigate the change and begin reaping the rewards.
Rural areas and small towns will certainly benefit hugely from hybrid working. So long as broadband is in place, workers living in these areas can stay locally and work from hubs or their own homes, cutting out hours of commuting time.
Mangan points out that there are positives for employers too. “One of the key benefits of remote working is the ability to work from anywhere, which means people are moving from expensive urban centres and settling in their hometowns, or other rural and regional areas,” she said.
“This brings endless benefits to rural communities. More people living and working locally means more jobs will be created in these areas, a multiplier effect which will help transform and sustain local communities. For employers, it also means a wider pool of talent to draw from, as they are not limited by location.
“For employers in Ireland, hybrid working also brings cost savings in terms of their real estate footprint, as they can manage how many staff are in the office at any one time.”
But other than tech companies, whose can allow a significant portion of their workforces to work from anywhere, is anyone else dipping their toes into the murky waters of remote and hybrid working by choice? The answer is yes, it would seem.
‘Whilst Covid-19 has created many challenges for us all, it has also provided an opportunity to test the concept of remote working’
– RENA DONAGHEY
Liberty Insurance recently announced they would be the first non-tech company partnering with Grow Remote to increase the visibility of remote and hybrid working in Ireland.
The move comes following Liberty Insurance’s announcement earlier this year that all of its nearly 2,000 employees across Ireland, Northern Ireland, Spain and Portugal would be able to work remotely on a permanent basis from anywhere within their country of employment.
And the insurance company is not the only one outside the tech industry to register its interest in hybrid and remote working.
Donegal County Council recently became the first local authority in Ireland to launch a remote working for business strategy. The strategy aims to promote Donegal both nationally and internationally as the ideal location for remote working.
Local councillor Rena Donaghey explained that: “Whilst Covid-19 has created many challenges for us all, it has also provided an opportunity to test the concept of remote working and throughout the last year, it has proven to be an effective solution that not only protects people during a pandemic, but is offering a new alternative for people looking for that work-life balance and an opportunity to relocate to places such as Donegal.”
Chief executive of Donegal County Council John McLaughlin said that the plan would be implemented as part of a wider regeneration programme for the county, including initiatives such as Donegal Digital and the development of a range of co-working spaces.
It would also include key infrastructural projects such as the development of the road network, water and waste water provision, and increased outdoor recreational facilities.
McLaughlin said that the recent uptick in hybrid and remote working offered new opportunities to more remote places like Donegal. “With a superb quality of life, a low cost of living, open spaces, excellent connectivity, a talented workforce and a range of digital working hubs, Donegal is well placed to reap the benefits of remote working in an increasingly digitalised world,” he said.
For workers, the benefits are obvious. Donegal is a beautiful county not a million miles from big cities like Dublin, Belfast, Galway and Derry. It’s an ideal location to maintain a steady work-life balance and raise a family with a relatively low living cost.
Thanks to a hybrid model, employees get the best of both worlds, enjoying the benefits of remote working, while still interacting face-to-face in the office. No doubt most will jump at the chance to meet with their colleagues in person, after more than a year of working at home.
However, employers and employees alike should embrace hybrid working, as whether we like it or not, it is here to stay as the pandemic has changed the way we work – perhaps for the best.