We have yet to unlock the full potential of remote working, but the Irish government is aiming to make it possible, writes Elaine Burke.
We still don’t know the benefits of true remote working. The revolution brought by the Covid-19 pandemic has been a scrappy response to a global emergency, not a systematic, carefully planned transformation.
Though the global crisis turned up the heat on a trend that was already simmering, we have yet to experience the way of remote working that future of work experts had foretold. The emergency continues, and rebuilding the workplace in a new image has yet to really begin.
The Irish Government, however, has laid out a roadmap for this post-Covid transformation. The new strategy revealed last week will make remote working a permanent option available to employees in Ireland. Of course – as one civil engineer on Twitter humorously pointed out – this won’t apply to all types of work, but it will certainly make remote working feasible for many in the long term.
The strategy itself is not a knee-jerk response to the way we worked in 2020. Studies and consultations on remote work in Ireland were ongoing ahead of the current crisis, though Covid-19 certainly shifted attitudes. In fact, it’s hard to imagine this bold strategy being announced without what we learned on the fly in the past year.
Employees, many of whom have wanted more flexible working options, have realised that this can be achieved, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. But there are also employers who may be pleased by this strategy, including companies that can be major sources of foreign direct investment.
Recent announcements from international companies have included remote positions at Genesys, the expansion of Shopify’s “digital by default” Irish team, and the establishment of a sales and support hub for Medallia starting with remote hires initially. Not all new roles may be remote indefinitely, but surely a significant number will continue as such, or even as part of a hybrid model.
Work from anywhere will not truly mean ‘anywhere’ as long as tax regimes require employees to at least be based in the same country as their employer, so it behoves Ireland to craft an FDI pitch based on the quality of life offered by a country committed to remote working as a concept.
‘Signs point to a hybrid future, not a fully remote one, which is in the spirit of the flexibility this new world of work means to support’
Coping with workplace transformation in a crisis is one thing, but realising it in the long term will be something different entirely. There are many working parents who have only had glimpses of what work at home without children in the mix can really look like. And many more still who have yet to experience what remote working can mean when you are able to do it outside the confines of your own home.
Some people have already been converted wholly to the idea of working remotely, either because of their experience in the last year or because they can see a horizon ahead where it doesn’t involve a global crisis. And when the pandemic has passed, it will be hard to convince employees of the necessity of commuting to a desk from which they can do everything they were already doing from home. Furthermore, from the employers’ perspective, removing the drudgery of a demotivating daily commute could lead to a happier and more engaged workforce.
There are also convincing arguments that distributed workforces will be better for climate action and for regional development. Plus there’s the clear health benefits we are now hyper-conscious of. Can you imagine going back to an office during flu season after the year we’ve all been through? The annual scourge of cold viruses passing back and forth will hopefully become a relic of the past.
The office, though, will not. Signs point to a hybrid future, not a fully remote one, which is in the spirit of the flexibility this new world of work means to support. These workspaces will be dramatically transformed, though. Rather than optimising offices for individual productivity, they can become hubs for socialising and collaborative work (with ample space to accommodate any future pandemic restrictions, if you’re really planning ahead).
And it is important that employees are still given the chance to connect in person from time to time. But as the challenge of human connection through online work has long been touted as the chief argument against remote working, I wonder have we missed the silver lining to this potential cloud.
Lockdowns have taught us that being confined together for long periods of time can put a strain on relationships. Long hours spent in the office with your colleagues can have a similar effect, plus you can’t behave in professional relationships as you would in personal ones. Your loved ones might forgive your moods and personal grievances, but your colleagues don’t have to tolerate them. So perhaps having a team that meets in person infrequently, and largely under positive circumstances centred on collaboration and team-building, will give you happier team members excited to work together.
‘We have shown how remote work can cope, but leadership will prove how it can succeed’
While there are many potential positives, remote working still presents dangers for work-life balance. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see the right to disconnect as a key pillar in Ireland’s remote working strategy.
How this plays out in practice, however, will be driven by company leaders. Employee rights alone don’t protect workers, especially junior ones who don’t have the wisdom of experience to back up formal complaints. Top-down attitudes to switching off will be vital in the new world of work, and leaders who realise this will benefit from a well-adjusted team.
And it is the leaders and people managers who have the most learning to do in the long term. We have shown how remote work can cope, but leadership will prove how it can succeed. There will be managers and experienced hires who will struggle to adapt, and supports will be needed to help them along.
Marketing strategist Jean Callanan recently spoke on RTÉ Radio 1’s The Business about extending the kindness of Covid into the new world of work. This is of course a good look for a brand but it’s also a welcome attitude for employees.
A major lesson learned in the past year is that of seeing the humanity in our colleagues, appreciating their individual struggles and approaching them with empathy. Flexible work options are an extension of this kindness and empathy, giving employees the opportunity to find the way of work that works for them and shape their professional lives around their personal lives, not the other way around. It is certainly a bright prospect to look forward to.
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