How employers need to plan for the return to the office

With a full return to office work unlikely, Donal O’Donoghue, President of the National Recruitment Federation, looks at the future of work and says employers need to anticipate and plan operational change, policies and leadership style.

Most people don’t want a full return to the office post-pandemic. Blended is here to stay!

ESRI Ireland told us 43pc of people don’t want to return to the office and 51pc would like to work from home at least part-time.

“Employers must make decisions now that protect and secure both their business and their employees”

Employee views here are consistent with those internationally; the strong middle ground is the blended working option. 

Going on a blender

A large study by tech company Slack indicated 27pc of knowledge workers would never (13pc) or rarely (14pc) work from their employer’s office in an ideal world.  39pc say they’d want to always (12pc) or usually (27pc) work from the office, and 34pc don’t mind.

13pc said never, 12pc said always, and 75pc was a blended return.

It is not surprising to be told the majority of workers would like a degree of flexibility in where they work. But, most people who are working from home are doing so because it’s the law, and they don’t really have an option, in terms of public health and safety.

The world is in the throes of a very abnormal pandemic. And, while we optimistically try to embrace the ‘new normal’ is so many areas of our lives, abnormal situations are rarely the best place from which to agree what normality should look like, going forward.

Even with widespread vaccination, we will be defending against recurring outbreaks, globally, for years to come.  So, employers must make decisions now that protect and secure both their business and their employees.

Like a lot of workplace change, how companies and their workforces end up operating may just evolve into different patterns that suit specific types of work, customer engagement, individuals and leadership styles.

However, rather than a laissez-faire approach, employers will need to carry out some evaluation of the likely impacts. Changing where and how individuals and teams work impacts many areas of business operation, from pay-scales and office overhead, to security, health and safety and productivity outcomes.  

Blending considerations

In terms of recruitment, we know in the NRF that finding and recruiting employees remotely is eminently doable, and indeed is happening at pace in many sectors. But inducting and training someone new to your business is a different story.  While on-boarding new staff who are experienced in a sector is less problematic, how easy will it be to bring on graduates and first-job candidates who don’t yet know the business, never mind how to operate in the work environment?

In the Slack survey, 43pc of hiring managers said they’re likely to consider a remote candidate when hiring for their team.  32pc, however, said they’d be unlikely to, and 25pc are neutral. 

Experience in Ireland shows that in many sectors, hiring managers are now enjoying being able to access highly skilled job candidates that are normally outside their usual commuting distance. 

The working from home ‘experiment’ has proven to distrustful managers, who relate work to presenteeism, that productivity is not necessarily impacted once the individual has the resources available to them to do the job.

So, WFH can undoubtedly be good for both employer and employee, but we need to evolve from task based management to output based leadership.

Location, location, location

A workplace revolution will obviously mean a serious shake-up in property markets too.  The cost of renting or buying a property in the major urban areas is the number one factor for most employees opting to work remotely. 

Other compensation included time saved commuting, and more time with family; the latter perhaps a questionable perk for some, in all honesty, especially those who find themselves back living with parents.

Survey respondents also favoured the opportunity to live in a more rural setting.  A University of Chicago survey actually found that employees viewed working from home (WFH) as a perk for which they would potentially trade as much as 8pc of their salaries.

So employees appreciate the cost-savings of working at home.  The more affordable Cavan bungalow may become just as desirable as the city ‘des res’.  So, too, the days of huge office complexes may be numbered?

But there will still be a need for proper office facilities, that are not the back bedroom, and for bringing people together in person.

In our crowded urban areas and flatland, do people have adequate dedicated workspace that is safe and free from distractions?  Working in the bedroom of your flat-share is okay, once in a while, but it’s hardly a healthy long-term option.

Companies have a duty to provide a safe working environment, so crisis WFH plans need to be upgraded to form part of company policies and handbooks.

How many employers have ensured WFH locations meet occupational health and safety requirements, not to mention the need for cybersecurity and data privacy?   Then there’s the employee’s loss of perks like canteens, leisure facilities and plain simple friendship?

Company culture

There will be a cost to ensuring adequate and safe home working environments, certainly, and the long-term effects of WFH on company culture and personal performance need to be measured too.  

Some people and, more importantly, some tasks are suited to working individually or remotely, while others are not.  Organisation culture, innovation and service levels may lose out where employees are not present together for brainstorming, collaborative efforts, customer meetings, presentations and the like.

Gender equality is another issue highlighted in the WFH experiment feedback.  Anecdotally, women unsurprisingly say they resent having to shoulder much of the burden of home-schooling and care-giving, alongside their usual workload. 

Already MNCs annual reports are highlighting how remote and blended working may increase costs and reduce the productivity of employees and associates, essentially affecting a broad range of areas like sales and marketing, development and financial controls. 

Many companies will allow staff to work remotely if they wish, but not everyone will want to, or be able to, so there is a patent need for flexibility.

But the continuum from permanent remote-work, to a hybrid and flexible future, to a full-return to workplace attendance is vast.  The numerous combinations and permutations may or may not be manageable, depending on the organisation’s scale and resource.

Very few industries or organisations will be able to work without stated policies applied to all employees, such as a minimum number of working days in the office per week, and reporting protocols for home workers.

One thing for sure is that the future of work will be more flexible and remote.   However, employers also need to do a lot more adjustment and adaptation before we can consider hybrid working to be the ‘new normal’.

We can all fondly imagine the massive rush to the pubs and our favourite leisure pursuits, as soon as it is safe to do so.   Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  And, while we talk up the ‘new normal’ in these abnormal times, in so many areas of our lives, would a return to the old normal be so bad if the option was on the table?

A desire to rush back to the office may not be such a bizarre leap of the imagination either.

Man in blue suit on a Dublin street.

Donal O’Donoghue is Managing Director of Sanderson Ireland, and has over 20 years’ experience in the recruitment industry.  He is President of the National Recruitment Federation (NRF) and a member of Institute of Directors.

Published: 5 March 2021