People & Leadership

Remote working: What might the future of work look like for businesses?

Coronavirus has accelerated the shift towards remote working. With that in mind, here's what the future of work may look like for businesses.

In January 2020, if someone had told you that 40% of Ireland’s workforce would be remote working 12 months later, you’d probably wouldn’t have believed them.

But it has happened.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has turbo charged the shift to working remotely and permanently changed the future world of work.

In this article, we cover details on the National Remote Work Strategy and its implications for businesses both now and in the future. Here’s what is covered:

National Remote Work Strategy

The future of work

Benefits of remote working for employers

The challenges of remote working

Working remotely in a pandemic is not how remote working will be

How to do remote working in the right way

Right to disconnect

Remote working is here to stay

In recognition of this, the government recently published Ireland’s first National Remote Work Strategy. It proposes that the right of employees to request remote working will be underpinned by legislation.

And in order to set an example, as such, the Making Remote Work strategy proposes that up to 20% of civil service staff may work from home.

Also, in conjunction with the strategy are plans to accelerate the National Broadband Plan and to invest in remote hubs that are close to childcare facilities and suit commuters.

Other plans include improving the tax system so that those working from home can claim more expenses and in a more straightforward way.

Somebody who thinks about the future of work for a living is Peter Cosgrove, managing director of insights company, Futurewise, and formerly a director of recruitment agency CPL.

While Cosgrove thinks it’s very positive that the government is making such a move, he believes it will be a huge challenge.

He says: “The devil is very much in the detail and there are many ways in which this may go horribly wrong.”

As he points out, something similar was tried in the civil service before when former finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, announced in the 2003 budget that more than 10,000 Dublin-based civil servants and their departments would be moved outside the capital.

The plan didn’t work out.

While that was before the age of videoconferencing, it wasn’t just technology that scuppered decentralisation, it was that was there no understanding of what people wanted.

Of course, working remotely has potential benefits for employers, not least the reduced cost of real estate and all the other miscellaneous costs that go with it such as utilities and insurance. And it goes beyond this.

Cosgrove says: “Having people working from anywhere essentially grows your talent supply massively.

“And if an employee can work remotely five days a week in Longford as opposed to Dublin, then an employee can also potentially work remotely in Vietnam or Poland, somewhere that might be a little cheaper than Ireland.

“So, there’s extra benefits, not just that you might get a better workforce, but also a cheaper workforce.”

In addition, you could have a much more committed workforce.

Cosgrove adds: “If it’s done right, you will get a better engaged workforce. Once you start offering remote work, you’re really also offering your trust in flexible work.

“The idea that employees don’t have to always be there at 9am and still there at 5.30pm leads to a culture that is much more than about the hours worked. It is saying we trust you as an employee.

“If you can build that culture within the organisation, you’re going to have better retention of staff and people that are much more engaged.

“So, there’s a huge benefit if you do it the right way.”

But along with the benefits, there are trade-offs, particularly for younger people who are starting off in their careers.

“Working remotely in the first five years of my career would have been the worst thing ever,” says Cosgrove.

“Most of the knowledge I gained was not the knowledge of the job I did but the knowledge of understanding how an organisation worked, how to behave within an organisation, how meetings work, how politics work and how the different power structures work.

“These are all things you can read about in books but until you actually experience them, you don’t really work very effectively.”

There are numerous other drawbacks that need to be considered.

For instance, relationship building is easier face-to-face and the informal meetings by the watercooler can bring unity to an organisation and spark creativity and idea sharing.

Cosgrove feels we have only reached stage one in terms of how to manage remote working.

He says: “What I mean by that is people are working exactly the same way remotely as they did in the office, still generally starting at 9am, working until 5.30pm.”

But what happens when society opens up again and half the team are back in the office and the other half is working remotely? Things will feel different.

Cosgrove gives an example of a company meeting. He says: “When we are all working remotely and we have a Zoom call, it actually works quite well.

“However, when half the team are back in the office and they’re sitting in a boardroom and the other half are on Zoom, that’s when things go wrong.

“Because the people in the room often converse between themselves and nobody on Zoom hears it and then the people on Zoom become mere listeners and everyone in the room has a more engaged chat.

“So, the company is going to have to work out how to do this well. There’s probably going need to be better technology in order to overcome such challenges.”

But working remotely is about much more than how meetings will work, it’s about culture.

Cosgrove says: “My biggest worry around working remotely is really the culture, the feel of the organisation.

“If when we go back to the office, employees begin to feel that things are better if they’re in the office, that they get access to more projects, that they’re seen by the boss more, that they feel they’re at the centre of things – well then working remotely is not working very well.

“Because then you as the employer are saying that employees are allowed to work remotely, but there is an unwritten rule that those employees are not as committed and may miss out on opportunities.”

Like it or not, working remotely is going to be a much larger part of working life in the future, even when coronavirus (COVID-19) is just a distant memory.

So how can it be done right?

Cosgrove says: “The first thing I would say is experiment. There is no perfect solution because it very much depends on the organisation.

“This idea that decisions are being made that everyone is going to work at home three days a week doesn’t work very well for me.

“I think what you need to focus on is the type of work that is being done and not blanket rules around the organisation.

“There are certain jobs where you do not need to be in the office. For instance, it’s better to do deep work on your own – such as writing articles or maybe coding.

“There are other jobs that you need to interact with your colleagues, such as coordinating something or planning an event, and for those activities, it won’t work very well if someone says they’re working from home and are off the grid for six hours.

“Rather than saying you will definitely do this one specific model, try to see what works.”

In addition, the government’s strategy proposes that a code of conduct should be introduced on the right to disconnect and switch off from engaging with emails or other messages during non-work hours. France was the first European Union (EU) country to introduce such legislation in 2017.

And countries such as Belgium, Italy and Spain have now followed.

Cosgrove, however, is not in favour. He says: “I am completely against legislation around the right to disconnect. I believe that should be worked out between the employer and employee.

“The last thing that Ireland needs is rules that will deter companies from setting up here. Though people think that companies set up in Ireland because of our low corporate tax rate, you can get low tax rates elsewhere.

“In fact, our English-speaking and flexible workforce are the two other key reasons why companies come here.”

Cosgrove believes websites such as Glassdoor, which rates employers, can keep companies in check if they overstep the mark.

He says it is ourselves, rather than employers, who don’t disconnect.

Many of us are checking our apps, be they work or social apps, from the moment we get up in the morning to when we go to bed at night and he feels it is ourselves that must take responsibility and learn how to disconnect.

Remote working is here to stay in some format or other. The challenge is to do it well.

While the impact of coronavirus has accelerated the move to working remotely, the government clearly recognises the need to provide a framework to ensure both employers and employees can utilise remote working in a structured and coherent way.

It’s worth following announcements on the next steps of the National Remote Work Strategy and putting plans in place to embrace working remotely both to the benefit of your business and your employees.

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