While the Irish Government wants to make remote and home working a much bigger part of working life after Covid-19, is everyone on the same page?
This week (28 June) Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, launched a #MakingRemoteWork campaign to raise awareness of the advice and information available from Government to help workers and employers facilitate more remote and blended working.
It is well meaning, but are employees and employers on the same page? Confusion still reigns about what a return to the office will really look like after almost 16 months of working from home for many office workers.
“After the pandemic, it should be about choice, so long as the work gets done and business and service needs are met”
Anecdotally many workers who were oblivious to remote working prior to the pandemic are now die-hard advocates after realising the work/life benefits to be gained.
Equally, however, many employers can’t wait to get everyone back to the office to sustain the age-old culture or team dynamic. And there are many employees too who cannot wait to return to base.
Policymakers see the economic and health benefits of a more distributed population and fewer people caught up in commutes. At the same time, they also want to bring business back into town and city centres that was lost when the lunchtime and dinnertime crowds were sent home.
Conversely other companies see the opportunities to be gained from reducing their physical footprint and also appreciate the productivity gains as workers no longer lose hours on time-sapping commutes.
Regardless of the spectre of a Delta variant, the gradually reopening economy and the vaccine rollout has led many to believe that legions of workers will go back to the office either full or on a blended or hybrid basis when the dust settles.
But will things ever go back to the way they were? Should they?
Large employers are seizing the bull by the horns and are using the pandemic to envisage a new future. For example, Vodafone is opting for a 60/40 arrangement of a percentage of time, a few days a week, in the office as the way forward and a lot of eyes are on multinationals like Google and Facebook and how they will reopen or support staff who now wish to work in other counties or indeed other countries.
The reality is there are still many employers and their employees who are confused.
A study this week from Irishjobs.ie found that almost two-in-five Irish workers are still awaiting clarity over post-Covid work practices and say there is an information vacuum when it comes to what the future of work will look like.
Nearly two-in-five employers say they are still awaiting guidance from public health authorities before communicating long-term plans to staff.
Some 45pc of 3,077 workers surveyed say the resulting lack of communication and clarity is impacting on their ability to plan their personal lives in terms where to rent and where to enroll children in school.
Making remote work
Perhaps sensing the angst of employers and employees alike, the Government this week (28 June) launched a #MakingRemoteWork campaign that will run across print, broadcast and social media.
“The pandemic has required many office-based workers to work from home,” said Varadkar. “We know now that it can be done. But, at the moment, it’s not a choice. Many want to return to the office, many want to continue to work from home or a remote hub local to where they live. Most want a blend. After the pandemic, it should be about choice, so long as the work gets done and business and service needs are met. That’s the principle I want to apply.”
Varadkar makes sense but will all employers and their workers agree?
“We need to make sure we do not drift back to the office and the old normal just because it’s safe to do so. We need to seize this opportunity to create a new normal, a better normal. So, I’m asking employers to consider how they can make remote working a more permanent feature of life after the pandemic.
“Whether it means keeping home working and remote working as an option, or a blended model of home and the office, or working from the office and remote working hubs, now is the time for employers to speak to staff about works best for them and the company as a whole.”
Clearly the Government is advocating dialogue. But what about workplaces where workers simply aren’t going to be given a choice? And even if laws are in place, will employees fear that a decision to work remotely will count against against their advancement in the organisation?
Earlier this year the Tánaiste published Ireland’s first National Remote Work Strategy. “We have committed to bringing in new laws giving the right to request remote work. We have put in place a new Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect. We are doing all we can to install high-speed broadband in all parts of Ireland as part of the National Broadband Plan. We are reviewing the treatment of remote working for tax and expenses in advance of the next Budget. And the Government will lead by example by making home and remote working the norm for 20 percent of public sector employment.
“I encourage employers and workers to talk to each other and agree a more permanent arrangement that suits both, so that everyone is prepared once public health measures ease.”
How normal will the new normal be?
Close to 16 months of remote working has proven that remote work can be both productive and viable.
There are many work-life balance and health benefits but people want to see each other again too. They miss the bonhomie of the workplace and often the division between home and work.
Insufficient guidance is holding people back. So what is the answer?
Like most things, the answer lies in between. The answer lies in collaboration, compromise and everyone deciding and agreeing on what success looks like.
Companies are no doubt keen to retain a distinctive dynamic and culture and many roles and tasks quite simply or on occasion require people being present and turning up. No argument.
Mature conversations about performance and expectations need to be had, underpinned by laws and protocols that protect employers and employees alike.
Ultimately, if the more flexible future of work is to win, it needs to take on a recognisable and tangible shape.
The Covid-19 pandemic challenged us all, but it also opened our eyes to a better way. The post-Covid world could be exciting, tangible and better. If we want it to be.
If we want flexibility, it requires a sense of ownership, responsibility and accountability from employees. Qualities that have been more than proven in the past 15 or 16 months.
It requires qualities that will never grow old or out of fashion: drive, determination, vision, focus, ingenuity, loyalty, positive attitude and a good work ethic.
As well as embodying those qualities too, it also requires employers having trust in people to get on with their jobs.
From all concerned, it requires what Irish people would describe as a fair dollop of ‘cop on’.
By John Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: 29 June 2021