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Whether it's flexible working or the four-day week, the pandemic is opening minds to new ways of doing business

Experts believe the pandemic is forcing businesses to put theory into practice — and the results are clear.

Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

This article is part of Business Futures, a series tackling the key issues shaping Irish business today and in the future. If you’re part of that future, you might want to know that TheJournal.ie has partnered with UCD Smurfit School to offer one reader a full scholarship for the Modular Executive MBA (EMBA) worth more than €30,000. Find out more here.

WHAT WILL BE the lasting impact of the pandemic on our working lives once the dust has settled on the global public health crisis?

As we slowly but surely move towards a time when workers return to offices following a successful vaccination programme, employers, workers and academics are beginning to ask themselves that very question.

The experience of the last 11 months has forced businesses into wholesale changes, many of them a long time coming. There is also strong evidence that Covid-19 is rearranging our priorities.

But how many of those changes will survive beyond the pandemic and what arguments has Covid-19 made more for non-traditional working arrangements?

Revolut is one company that has certainly been convinced.

Launched in 2015, the UK-anchored digital bank boasts 1.2 million Irish customers and over 2,000 employees across the world.

The company has 41 employees working here in Ireland; 31 of whom were on-boarded in the middle of the pandemic.

Just this week, the firm announced that it will make its current flexible and remote working arrangements permanent across its operations.

In a statement, the challenger bank said that the pandemic has proved not just the appeal of remote and flexible work models but their workability as well.

“Revolut’s employees have adapted well to remote working with 98% saying they’d adapted well and 90% of team leaders saying that performance was unaffected,” the company said.

It’s a decision that has “absolutely been triggered” by the pandemic and lockdown, explains Caoimhe Sears, lead HR manager at Revolut Ireland.

“We believe [flexible working] will be very appealing to both current employees and those interested in joining us,” Sears says.

In fact, we already know it is appealing for the Irish workforce. Even before Covid, we always offered one-day a week WFH, and most people on the Irish team did two days from home. Offering that flexibility opened up a broader pool of talent for us. For example, our current head of legal works from county Kerry, which is something we’re very supportive of.

This is just one example among many of a company that has had to put theory “into lived experience” during a time of crisis, as Dr Maeve Houlihan, Associate Dean and Director of UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business puts it.

For many businesses, the pandemic has broken down much of the resistance to alternative workplace arrangements, she explains.

Pre-pandemic, that resistance was fuelled by inertia to a large extent but also trust.

“There was a sort of underlying theme of, ‘Yeah, but will people really be working at home? You might have good intentions but will your kids pull you away?’ Then [there were concerns] about things like security and all of that.

“So we had to get over all of that and just live it,” Dr Houlihan says.

But by most metrics, productivity hasn’t declined because of the sudden, large-scale shift to remote working —  and there is plenty of evidence that it has increased. 

Some 52% of Irish business and IT leaders surveyed by software and digital services company Expleo recently said that the switch to remote working had improved productivity. 

Sears agrees the experiment of the past year has settled many of the old, stuffy arguments about productivity and working from home.

However, she says the experience “has also thrown up other questions around well-being and ensuring that we look out for each other”. 

If the pandemic has proved anything in the workplace, says Dr Houlihan it’s “the interconnectedness of business and society”.

I’m always talking to students about the idea of a ‘sociological imagination’. There can be a tendency for business to just only think and not you know widgets and bottom lines, and what we learned [throughout the pandemic] is that we’re completely interdependent.

Remote and flexible working arrangements will suit many but they’re not a like-for-like substitute for the connections made in person.

For Dr Houlihan, remote working models in the post-pandemic world will have to take account of “individual variety if we want motivated people”.

“So I think the genie is out of the bottle, but I do think that there’s a diversity of needs. ‘Age and stage’ has a lot to do with it,” she says.

A hybrid model, such as the one being adopted by Revolut, is likely to be a popular option.

Radical change

Margaret Cox has some experience with implementing new workplace models.

She is a director of ICE Group, a Galway-based recruitment firm that employs 58 people in its headquarters, all of whom had to quickly adapt to remote working at the outset of the pandemic.

Once the dust has settled on the pandemic, Cox says that the company will look to adopt a hybrid remote working model.

“We’ve found that some people like it and some people hate it,” she explains.

The social aspect of coming to work — of getting up and putting on your shoes or your shirt and tie; doing your makeup — that versus putting a nice top on over your pyjamas: there’s a huge difference for different people in that.

Cox and her colleagues are used to radical change.

In late 2019, after a trial run, the company switched to a four-day working week, a model that has become all the more relevant for ICE employees during the pandemic, she believes.

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“People have said to me, ‘Gosh, I suppose a four-day week isn’t an awful lot of good in the middle of the pandemic because you can’t do anything special on your day off,’” Cox says.

But that is the absolute opposite to what we’ve actually experienced with people having that additional day off. We’ve structured it around the weekend — what we say  here is that we’re the home of a three-day weekend —but that additional day, just to clear your head… really makes a difference.

Cox believes that a greater appreciation of the time we spend outside of work is going to be one of the lasting effects of the pandemic.

“Our focus is about giving people time to live their life, as opposed to expecting them to live their lives around work,” as Cox puts it.

For Cox, the benefits to the employer are clear. She says that productivity has improved across the board and so has employee retention. It’s also a definite selling point for prospective employees, she says.

ICE Group is at the forefront of the ‘Four Day Week Ireland’; a trade union and business-led campaign that advocates for a transition to shorter working weeks for all workers.

The goal, she says, is to get the government to “buy into” the model, which she believes could become a unique selling point for Ireland.

“As a country, we gain a competitive edge, in terms of talent attraction,” Cox says. “So we could become a leading place in which to set up a business because talent is attracted to the opportunities that we would have here.”

 So Cox thinks the arguments are clear but she acknowledges that barriers still need to be removed.

“If you go to your boss and say, ‘Look, why can’t I do a four-day week? and they say, ‘It’ll never work for us: that to me is the greatest downer,” she says.

“That’s what we used to say about working from home before there was a pandemic and look what happened there.”

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