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Opinion: Remote working is here to stay, so let's approach it properly and get the balance right

Arlene Vithaldas, head of the UCC Academy says it’s time to unwind our old-world view of a workplace that includes a long commute to expensive offices.

Arlene Vithaldas

WOULD A CAREFUL examination of the last 20 years show that businesses were slow to adopt the technology that has allowed many of us to work from home since March?

Hindsight is of course 20/20, but imagine if businesses had already adopted a hybrid policy, where 35% of staff worked remotely on any given day. Would cafes, for example, operating under tight margins, have become so reliant on office workers? 

Would bank managers have even provided the start-up loans that now need to be repaid? Perhaps they both would have adopted entirely different business models? Who knows how such a counterfactual scenario would have played out.

Nevertheless, given our rapid adoption of remote working, they remain pertinent questions, particularly given much of the enabling technology has been available since the turn of the 21st century.

A balanced approach

When I was working for a global insurance company, for example, the workflow applications that we used were designed to operate across time zones, which meant that teams in Delhi could start tasks that could be passed onto the London office, before being reviewed and completed by management on the US East Coast and Bermuda. 

In effect, by connecting offices remotely, the ‘follow the sun’ flow of information meant that the company was able to produce the equivalent of nine days of work in just 72 hours during time pressurised periods.

After I returned to Ireland a number of years later, similar platforms allowed me to represent an Irish company setting up their first overseas office in London, from my home in Kinsale. 

Although I did have to commute a day or so a week to attend face-to-face meetings, by splitting the ‘face time’ and the ‘desk time’ into different days, the majority of my time was spent working within reach of my kettle.

On those flights into Heathrow and Stansted, I bumped into a significant amount of people who were doing the very same. It wasn’t just the employees of major international companies that engaged with this technology either. 

I remember speaking with a partner from a UK based consultancy firm some years ago who told me that they operated a ‘work from home’ day every Friday in order to have one day completely free of meetings so as to improve the quality of their output.

Predictably enough, employee wellbeing also improved. However, what they didn’t predict, he said, were the business development opportunities that cropped up at the school gates, or in local cafes and farmers’ markets.

A cultural shift

This begs the question, why were business leaders reluctant to really embrace remote working prior to the pandemic?  

From my perspective at least, despite having both the technology and working from home policy at our disposal, I had to be shocked into acceptance on 12 March. When our HR department suggested some years ago that we adopt a platform like MS Teams, I couldn’t get on board. I felt that it would become a distraction and yet another platform for us to log onto.

My apprehension, I expect, was replicated in organisations across the country and around the world. Like many other ‘digital immigrants’ in leadership positions, I subconsciously accepted that roads would be perpetually clogged with commuters and normalised the excessive use of office space and the cost associated with it.

While a possible answer to gridlock stared us in the face, entrepreneurs established businesses that provided local jobs and supported regional supply chains. Now as we adopt different models of remote working, it is these businesses that stand to lose most.

However, if the last 20 years has taught us anything, it’s that the Darwinian approach to business simply does not work. Simply allowing businesses to fail without offering people the opportunity to retrain wastes talent and sows the seeds of discontent. We need to nurture people so that they possess the high-value skills associated with remote working.  

Political backing

With this in mind, the Government’s recent announcement of €30m investment in education and retraining, is timely and very welcome. It offers the higher and further education sector a key role in rebooting our economy and society.

We await the outcomes of the Irish government’s 2020 public consultation on remote working, with the employees’ right to disconnect expected to be a central theme. But the one thing we can be sure of is that the hybrid model will become much more mainstream.

As such, now is the time for business leaders, planners, community groups and government officials to sit down and develop strategies that reimagine our city centres as we fully expect that office workers’ footfall to be permanently altered.  

By the same token, it is also an opportunity for some provincial towns to reclaim their high streets from boarded-up shop fronts. However, none of this will happen without a coherent investment strategy that we can all feed into. 

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Painting a big picture will help businesses make a sustainable transition to remote working, where we can offer people at different stages of their career options that work for them.

In our organisation, for example, we have millennials who are chomping at the bit to get into the office, we have people with young families who appreciate not having to commute every day, as well as staff members who welcome the in-person collaboration opportunities of the office while being offered the space to think at home.

We have all demonstrated that remote working can be done. Now we need to make it sustainable in the longer term by providing solutions that don’t just benefit businesses or individuals, but our wider society as a whole.  

Arlene Vithaldas is CEO of UCC Academy.

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Arlene Vithaldas

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