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Opinion: Staff are worried that employers will just insist on an immediate return to the office

Joanne Mangan from Grow Remote is urging employers to embrace a hybrid working model and help reimagine how we live and work.

Joanne Mangan

Updated May 27th 2021, 7:10 PM

IN MARCH LAST year, thousands of Ireland’s workers were sent home from their offices with whatever they could carry, and no idea of when they would be back at their desks again.

Stuck in their homes and isolated from friends and family, they juggled homeschooling, negotiated space at the kitchen table with their flatmates, and tried to figure out how to stop their pets from interrupting their seemingly endless Zoom calls.

It was a learning curve like no other for both employers and their employees, but somehow as the months rolled on they managed to make it work.

Over a year on and we are slowly emerging from the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic.  As we blink and rub our eyes in the glare of the impending ‘new normal’, there seems to be one certainty – how we work has changed forever.

Survey after survey reveals the same results – the majority of employees want to work remotely some or all of the time in a post-pandemic world. 

The dreaded ‘return to normal’

The benefits of remote working have been well documented at this stage. For many employees, remote work means a better work/life balance, access to more opportunities and the ability to live anywhere in Ireland – not just the urban centres where housing costs the earth all the best jobs would traditionally be concentrated.

And for employers, remote work leads to improved talent acquisition and retention, greater employee engagement and lower costs. And there are many positive knock-on effects for the environment and for the reinvigoration of rural and regional communities.  

However, as we begin to look towards the post-pandemic future, there is a significant risk that the transformation witnessed in the past year will not be sustained. Instead of continuing to enjoy the benefits of remote working which they have gotten used to in the past year, employees are potentially facing a future where they have to revert to the ‘bad old days’ – sitting in traffic for hours, standing in packed trains, and rushing home in a panic to get to the childminder before closing time. Forced to choose between long commutes and unaffordable property prices, or limited job prospects.

This risk employees are facing comes in two distinct forms – the first and most obvious one is that employers will simply insist that all staff go back to the office as soon as possible.

Recently we have seen some high profile examples of anti-remote sentiment from executives, such as the CEOs of Goldman Sachs declaring remote work to be ‘an aberration’ and Netflix’s CEO describing it as a ‘pure negative’. It is likely that many more leaders share the same reticence when it comes to making remote work a permanent fixture in their organisations. 

The second, and arguably even greater risk to sustaining a remote working culture comes from the shift towards the ‘hybrid’ model. While many organisations will insist on a full return to the office-based model after the pandemic, others may baulk at this as they know it will result in their employees voting with their feet and looking for more flexible options elsewhere.

Furthermore, even when the lockdown ends, it may be some time before everyone can return to the office, as we are likely to have social distancing restrictions for many months to come. This is where the hybrid model comes in.  

What is hybrid and how will it work?

If the past year was the year of the ‘great remote experiment’, in the coming year it’s likely we will see the ‘great hybrid experiment’ playing out. The hybrid model, where employees are allowed to work either remotely or in the office, has been adopted by many high profile companies such as Microsoft, Salesforce and Facebook and it is a model which many Irish employers are also planning to adopt post-pandemic.

There are many benefits to the hybrid model and for many employers and employees, it can seem like the best of both worlds. The problem is that the hybrid model is much more complicated than either the traditional in-office or the fully remote approaches, and if it is not done properly employers will end up with all of the headaches of remote working, but without the benefits.

Companies who have not given enough consideration to the specific set challenges which hybrid presents and who fail to implement a robust set of policies and processes to address these challenges are in real danger of defaulting back to the familiar and reliable office-based model. 

By its nature, hybrid requires the implementation of two different working arrangements, one remote and one in the office. There is huge potential for this approach to lead to a two-tier workforce, with remote employees at a disadvantage as they are less visible and less involved in decision making.

Traditionally, women have been more likely to request flexible working arrangements and there is a real danger that the hybrid model could widen the gender gap even further if employers are not taking note of who is requesting to work remotely and why. 

For a hybrid model to work, employers need to rethink their processes and policies – and adopt a remote-first culture. The fundamental tenets of a remote-first model, whether fully remote or hybrid, are flexibility, choice, trust, and equal access to opportunity regardless of location.

If employers do not embed these principles into their post-pandemic planning, they and their staff will not get to realise the benefits of these new ways of working. In a remote-first model, employees can choose when they work – this means no organisation-wide mandates to be in the office for a certain number of days per week. 

Roles are location-agnostic rather than being tied to a particular location, giving people real choice about where they want to live. There is a culture of trust, with employees able to choose how they work and how they structure their day. And there are policies and processes in place to ensure remote and in-office employees have equal access to promotion and advancement. 

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A delicate shift

The coming months will be critical if we want to fully realise the transformative benefits of remote working for individuals, businesses and our communities. Employers need to be prepared to deal with complexity and ambiguity as they experiment with new remote working models.

Employees will be anxious about the future, so regular, clear and open communication from employers will be critical.  

The good news is there is time now to reflect and learn from the past year and to plan intentionally so that remote working is embedded in a sustainable way that benefits everyone. It is understandable that many organisations are still unsure about the way forward. We are emerging from a year-long crisis and many employers have struggled to keep their doors open, or have been spending their time on fire-fighting rather than on strategic planning.

Remote and hybrid working is still new to most people and we do not have a clear roadmap to follow, but if employers keep an open mind and are prepared for the challenges ahead, we have the opportunity to permanently reimagine how we live and work.  

Joanne Mangan is the Employers Lead with Grow Remote, a non-profit organisation on a mission to make remote work local.  

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