Many love it and some hate it, but working from home in some form looks set to be one of the legacies of the Covid-19 pandemic. What looks likely is that most companies will opt for some sort of hybrid model, with “blended working” becoming the norm, with part of the week spent in the office, and the remainder in the home office (or at the kitchen table).
There are pros and cons to this approach, and there are many pitfalls for both employer and employee, according to Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland.
“Future blended working patterns needs to be based on customer, team, and organisational needs, not just an individual’s preference. Balancing these in a fair way will be key to long-term success,” she says. CIPD research showed clear gains in productivity from remote working during the pandemic, but it also highlighted “big gaps” emerging around team working, collaboration, and innovation. “A gap has already emerged between remote and essential workers in some companies so getting everyone to re-engage on a common agenda will be critical.”
As a system of blended working is new from so many angles, workplaces will not necessarily get it right the first time; a trial period should be used, says Connaughton, which will give the flexibility to change work patterns when individuals change their minds and business needs emerge.
Karen Killalea, head of the employment practice at Maples and Calder, echoes these points, saying any remote or hybrid working arrangement over the next 12 months is simply “an experiment”.
“We have little experience of a sustained hybrid model so there are inevitably going to be frustrations and complications. Any workable remote working policy will require employees to be on-site where the business needs necessitate that. So how will that work if childcare has to be organised at short notice? What if someone is living a long distance from the office? What about the dress code? In short, we need to build in provision for review and variation into any arrangements we now agree,” she says.
Her one piece of advice for employers planning their hybrid working patterns is to incorporate flexibility. “Add flexibility to the flexibility.” She also advocates for employers to cultivate and protect their culture. “In a hybrid working world, we need to work even harder to identify ourselves as belonging to the culture of our employer. A culture of innovation can only thrive where its people are given the tools and freedom to imagine better ways of working and serving their clients and customers, the ability to speak up with those ideas, and the means to deliver on that.”
“A company culture is much easier to manage when in an office-based workplace and so companies are now having to adjust their culture to reflect the blended model,” agrees Niamh O’Brien, director of BDO talent management at BDO Ireland.
By having a combination of onsite working and remote working, there are added complexities that do not exist when a company just offers one or the other and this requires a structured framework to ensure success, she says. “One of the biggest challenges for employers will be ensuring there is a consistency in how work is distributed as there can be a very real fear of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ with employees who are physically in the office having the advantage over those who are working from home.” Having visibility around career progression and opportunity can be easier when in an office environment and this is something that employees need to factor into their work structure – connectivity will be key, she advises.
“By ensuring there are clear guidelines from the outset, companies can see the full benefits of a blended or remote working model but it will take work.”
And while necessity is the mother of invention, the spike in innovation seen during the beginning of the pandemic will become difficult to sustain over the long term. “Companies are looking to ensure that time in the office is focused on areas such as innovation and collaboration,” says O’Brien.
“We are seeing a heavy emphasis on the physical working space and how it can be best utilised for innovation, collaboration, and creativity. I think we will see fewer open-plan offices, with more innovation hubs – designated spaces where teams can come together to innovate and collaborate and less fixed desks,” she explains, adding that BDO has a dedicated innovation team that works closely with the various business units to drive innovation in a “meaningful and measurable way” across the firm.
Hybrid working will provide new challenges for KPMG as they seek to find the right balance, admits Seamus Hand, managing partner KPMG. He also notes that innovation is key to the continuing success of their business. “To support hybrid working, KPMG already made significant incremental investments in new digital infrastructure and technology solutions to facilitate learning, collaboration, and management in a hybrid world,” he says.
Hand also says, however, that innovation isn’t simply driven by technology; “it’s also a product of our culture and people’s willingness and permission to adapt and innovate in challenging circumstances… this is something we will be focused on nurturing further in our hybrid working model.”
And while Colm Gorman, head of people and operations KPMG, agrees “there is no one-size-fits-all solution”, the KPMG hybrid working model is based on trust and flexibility which will allow their employees at different stages of their lives to adapt their working arrangements to better suit their circumstances. “We believe this flexibility will allow us to attract and retain from a wider and more diverse talent pool.”
BDO’s O’Brien echoes this, saying the blended model clearly wins out over fully office-based or fully remote working. “Blended working facilitates social interaction and a sense of connectivity while also allowing employees to have reduced commute times, fewer distractions at times that work for them, and generally a more balanced lifestyle. Similarly for employers, we are seeing increased employee engagement, more productivity, and a happier workforce when a well-structured blended or hybrid model is implemented.”