As the world slowly starts to reopen, it’s time for companies of all sizes to review their remote working policies and remember that it’s more than a matter of just letting someone work from home, writes Jenny Darmody.
It has been more than 100 days since An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation from a podium in Washington and announced that Ireland would close schools, colleges and cultural institutions.
He said at the time that people should continue to work, but those who could work from home should do so. Two weeks later, however, he announced more stringent restrictions, banning all non-essential travel.
At this point, everyone who could work from home was doing so, while businesses that could not work remotely were forced to shut their doors for at least two weeks. Of course, we now know those restrictions were in place for much longer than that, and stretched far beyond Irish borders, with a huge amount of the global workforce working from home for months.
At the beginning of these restrictions, our editor Elaine Burke cited this as the remote working revolution that no one wanted, pointing out that it had been “thrust upon international workforces in the midst of sobering circumstances, and so the negative effects are even more keenly felt”.
However, in the same way that laying down mass restrictions, bringing in emergency legislation and creating economic plans to protect struggling SMEs and support thousands of unemployed people was not as simple as switching off a light, turning it back on isn’t any less complicated. As the attention slowly turns from ‘how do we operate in these restrictions’ to ‘how do we make a plan to come out of these restrictions’, we must consider the remote working infrastructures that were built during Covid-19 and see how they fit into the post-Covid world.
Many remote workers who have settled into this new way of working will have their own opinions about how this set-up works for them. Parents might think about what remote working will be like when children are eventually allowed go back to school. Others might be reconsidering their long daily commutes that no longer appear necessary. Some may look around at the only place they can work being the kitchen table and find themselves counting down the days to the big return to the office.
But it’s not just the employees who need to think about the future of remote working.
More than just an office
As the country and the world start to open back up, business leaders, employers and managers need to strongly think about their remote working policies, or lack thereof. Previous narratives of the remote worker slacking off must be left in the past and strict office hours can no longer be used as an excuse to be inflexible with working time.
But there’s so much more to it than simply letting your staff work from home. For years, companies have been pumping money into state-of-the-art office spaces with physical perks and benefits that entice top talent and keep them happy and productive. But what happens if the office is no longer in use? Where does that leave your staff?
‘As a manager, you still have a duty of care, even if you’re back at the office and your employees are still at home’
Of course, we can talk about the free food, the beanbags, the breakout zones and the beer fridges. But what about the resource groups? What about the brainstorming sessions? What about the physical space that some of your workers simply don’t have at home even if you could ship their workstation to them?
Then there’s the issue of burnout. Last month, I spoke to resilience coach Siobhán Murray, who told me the likelihood of burnout is actually higher right now because we’re all in crisis mode during the pandemic, even if we don’t realise it. Of course, managers and leaders have a duty of care to their employees and not only should compassion be more present than ever, but managers actually have to make sure they’re not passing their stress onto others during these times.
When we eventually move away from the pandemic, and if remote working does become a more permanent fixture for companies, it’s important to remember the other challenges those workers may be facing.
According to a survey from the Institute of Directors in Ireland last week, 40pc of business leaders believe that there will be “an equal mix of staff working in the office and remotely” when Covid restrictions are lifted. With this in mind, it’s crucial that remote working policies aren’t just left to the companies that plan to go fully remote. As a manager, you still have a duty of care, even if you’re back at the office and some of your employees are still at home.
Far from the negative rhetoric that remote workers are watching Netflix all day, many studies have suggested that those working from home take fewer breaks and work longer hours. When all of that additional workload is taking place in the very setting in which they’re supposed to relax, it makes it very difficult to switch off, even when they do ‘leave work’ for the day.
Add to that the continued lack of social interaction and natural face-to-face brainstorming sessions, and suddenly those working from home are facing a very different set of workplace challenges, which managers have a responsibility to not ignore.
With all of these health warnings in mind, you might think I’m implying that bringing in working from home permanently is a bad idea, but it’s quite the opposite. As someone with an hour-long commute into the office and a desk at home that is not my kitchen table, I am in a privileged position to benefit from what remote working offers.
Remote working can be brilliant and, aside from the immediate need for it in the current crisis, it can give workers time back from long commutes, allow them to get other at-home things done throughout the day, accept deliveries, make appointments and save money. On a wider level, it could reduce traffic congestion, lower carbon emissions, take the pressure off rental and property prices in cities and open up a world of regional talent.
‘We’ve all shuddered at the repetitive mention of ‘the new normal’, but the truth is we’re far from any kind of normal yet’
But the familiar comforts and office add-ons that were once considered so important for good working conditions cannot simply be ditched now. Companies must find a way to bring the positives from the office environment into the homes of their workers.
They must also consult with their staff, rather than create policies within their own management bubble. Choosing to work from home indefinitely is normally a very personal decision unique to each employee, so if you’re bringing it in permanently, you must have their actual needs in mind and not just what you think they need. What did you offer them when you had an office? How will you bring that to them now? What do they feel they’re missing? How can you accommodate that?
We’ve all shuddered at the repetitive mention of ‘the new normal’, but the truth is we’re far from any kind of normal yet. Change is usually very gradual and adapting to new ways of working and figuring out the right path takes time.
As a manager, you may stumble. But if you aim to create policies with genuine consideration for your staff, if you think about their work station, their equipment, their work-life balance, their mental health, their social needs and, most importantly, if you actually consult them, you’ll be in a far stronger position when the remote working revolution that no one wanted is actually complete.
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