Ciara Garvan of WorkJuggle sitting on a brown leather chair in a modern office looking at the camera directly.
Ciara Garvan. Image: WorkJuggle

The return to the workplace is not ‘clear cut’ for anyone

1 Feb 2022

If Irish employers take an ‘Ah, sure it’ll be grand’ attitude to the return to workplaces, it may fuel a great resignation.

After a few false starts, Ireland finally announced on Friday 21 January that people could begin to return to the workplace on a “phased” basis from Monday 24 January as the country lifted most public health restrictions.

The decision was welcomed by many, including business owners and employees. Others, however, advised caution.

Future Human

Ciara Garvan, founder of Dublin-based WorkJuggle, a recruitment platform for flexible work, has no easy, definite answers to quell the return-to-workplace-nerves. Even after months of talking to workers and business leaders about reopening issues, she said everyone is still very wary and unsure about future plans.

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That includes employers. “They’re scrambling a little bit as well,” Garvan told SiliconRepublic.com. “They’re having town halls with their employees and they think, ‘Oh, they expect us to have all the answers. But actually, this has happened so fast we’re not 100pc sure what we’re going to do yet ourselves.’”

From the workers’ point of view, “people have created whole new lives based around working from home and they are not sure what going back to the office is going to look like,” Garvan added.

With some workers wanting to remain remote and others wanting to be in a hybrid arrangement or in the office full-time, employers are stuck in an awkward position.

According to CSO figures released last month, nearly 90pc of those aged between 35 and 44 in Ireland who could work remotely would like to do so to some extent going forward – but only 28pc said they would like to do so all the time and 12pc said they would not like to work remotely at all.

The introduction of remote working legislation in Ireland is testament that workplace culture is undergoing a transformation. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD, published long-awaited legislation around the right to request remote work last week. However, the new rules would also give employers 13 grounds for refusal.

While the legislation is being introduced to provide “legal clarity” around the topic of remote working, people’s reactions have indicated that it has done little to ease uncertainty.

‘Remote working suited established workers more so, and people who already had inbuilt informal networks within their organisation … I think it has been difficult for younger people’
– CIARA GARVAN

Garvan advised companies to “tread carefully” right now. She thinks it is “very much a candidates’ market”, so companies that take a hard line on the return to the workplace “will lose people, no question about it”.

Most employers want to get the balance right. They have seen the so-called ‘great resignation’ spread across the US as workers reconsider their career options, and they are acutely aware that workers will vote with their feet if they aren’t happy.

But getting the balance right is proving difficult, Garvan said. She mentioned a recent conversation she had with a client who attempted to have an in-office meeting with workers dialling in remotely and found it “just didn’t work”.

Garvan is also concerned about the issue of proximity bias, a topic that will no doubt become more prominent as the return to offices plays out over the coming weeks and months. With the workforce divided along the lines of the returners and the remoters, Garvan said she was particularly concerned that women, in particular, may lose out on promotions if they are adamant about not returning to the office.

“I absolutely think the pandemic was a step backwards for women, no doubt about that,” Garvan said. “Particularly in Ireland where we had home schooling for so long.

“We would talk to a lot of female candidates and they’re saying, ‘Oh, I only want remote work. I don’t want to go back into the office.’ My concern is proximity bias. So, in three years’ time, who’s going to be promoted? Is it going to be somebody who’s working away in their room in the back of the garden? Or is it going to be the guy who’s sitting beside the boss who he sees every day and they have coffee together?”

Garvan added that she has seen working mothers having to pull out of final interviews because these clashed with their children’s home schooling schedules. “Home schooling was an absolute killer for working mothers and it will be a long time before we come back from it.”

However, she is not at all anti-remote or flexible working. “We are huge proponents” she said, adding that WorkJuggle has been operating in the flexible work space “since long before the pandemic hit”.

“Remote working suited established workers more so, and people who already had inbuilt informal networks within their organisation. It has certainly been harder for people who onboarded, and that includes younger graduates. I think it has been difficult for younger people.”

SiliconRepublic.com’s Jenny Darmody recently warned employers that they may need to consider long-term flexible work options because “the remote working genie will not go back in the bottle”. But Garvan pointed out that remote working is not an arrangement that has suited everyone.

She saw a candidate say recently that they “left a very good job in a tech company” because they were sitting in a room by themselves at a desk for eight to 10 hours a day.

The issue is not clear cut and any conversations employers have had with staff around the reopening need to be re-evaluated – something Darmody and Garvan agree on. After all, many people may want to go back to the office. But do they want to go back to the office as it was pre-pandemic?

According to Garvan, the conversations she has been having with employers are centred around how they can make the office “more attractive” to people.

“Employers are looking at things like learning development, and they’re looking at events, and asking how can we make it attractive to people that that they’re going to want to come back in here?”

Many are looking at different ways of working, according to a recent report on the future of work by WorkJuggle and Dublin City University. Out of more the more than 200 professionals surveyed, just 2pc said they wanted to return to the pre-pandemic office model.

The report was intended to serve as a guide for HR managers as they get to grips with the post-pandemic world of work. It looked at flexible and hybrid working options and the reduced workload model as ways of finding a middle ground between employers and employees.

The reduced workload model is a form of part-time work that involves input from both the worker and their supervisor as they devise a tailored work plan. Almost two-thirds (63pc) of respondents had a positive view of this model, while 93pc felt that a key benefit would be retention of high-expertise staff.

The majority (82pc) felt the model would enhance sentiment about employer care for employee wellbeing. However, implementing a whole new way of working could take time. More than two-thirds (68pc) said that mapping out efficiency and outcome measurements of multiple staff with flexible or reduced workload arrangements may be an issue for their organisation.

In Darmody’s recent piece, she wrote that “change isn’t just coming, it has already happened and it needs to be acknowledged.”

Garvan agreed with this sentiment, saying that the return to workplaces is not a “clear cut” issue. Employers will need to be “agile” in order to retain their workers – who, having acquired a taste of something different, may or may not be willing to part with it.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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