The rapid and largely successful shift to remote working for a huge proportion of Ireland’s working population was little short of remarkable. Technical challenges were overcome at a pace which many would have thought unimaginable prior to the pandemic.
But home-working in the long term is about much more than having a good PC and a fast broadband connection – the mental health and wellbeing of employees must also be looked after.
Multinational firms have led the way in terms of putting wellbeing policies in place to support their home-working employees, but Irish SMEs are also addressing the issue.
“There has been a huge cultural shift in recognising the interdependence between work, human beings, health and economy – and that we can’t have thriving businesses without human wellbeing at an individual and social level,” says Dr Maeve Houlihan, associate dean of the UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business.
“This shift at government and policy and business level has been accelerated by the pandemic and is extremely welcome. Irish employers and SMEs have been a strong voice in all of this, not only the multinationals.”
The involvement of SMEs is not unexpected.
“This is no surprise – smaller organisations are closest to their employees and the real impact on lives of work and wellbeing,” she says. “Like Vance Packard said, small is beautiful. It’s inspiring to see companies doing everything they can to keep the show on the road and adapting to online trading.
“At the same time they don’t have the deep pockets of multinationals, and the pandemic tide has been very tough on many SMEs and sectors. The backdrop of PUP has been so important here in alleviating some of the challenges and as businesses open up this mutuality continues to play out.”
Flexible working is becoming the expected norm for companies of all sizes, according to Niamh O’Brien, who heads up talent management at BDO Eaton Square.
“Every company is looking at remote and flexible working. If not they’re in trouble. The tide has definitely turned. Among the top three questions, candidates ask about any new job is if the organisation offers flexible working. Before it was a case of getting in first and then asking about it. It is on the agenda for any SMEs we are speaking to.”
But they are taking it slowly. “They are talking about a phased approach. They are starting small and seeing how it goes for both sides. They are not long-term commitments at the early stages.”
She agrees that SMEs are in quite a good position when it comes to caring for their remote working employees. “It’s all about people and empowerment and staying in touch and that can actually be easier for SMEs. Multinationals can have all these shiny benefits policies and offices with pool tables and so on, but that doesn’t matter anymore. The size of SMEs can level the playing field because they are closer to their staff.”
While multinationals were certainly leading the conversation initially when it came to staff wellbeing in the remote working environment, Eir director of SME Mark Higgins believes Irish companies of all sizes are now approaching digital transformation with greater clarity. “For example, the recent EY Global CEO Report showed that 81 percent of Irish CEOs say their organisation will start a new and comprehensive transformation initiative this year,” he says.
“Many businesses have begun to give more thought to their people strategies including their approach to flexible and hybrid working. It’s not just a functional issue. There is an impact on employees as well.
“SMEs are also looking at the impact on the wellbeing of their staff. Since March 2020 we have seen many of our customers introduce supports for their staff and implementing wellbeing policies. We have seen lots of innovative approaches in that area. The right to disconnect which was introduced in April 2021 also gives employees working at-home support for their work-life balance. It will help underpin the hybrid working strategy for SMEs.”
There are concerns as well, he adds, pointing to the Hybrid Working: Future Proofing Irish Business, report from Eir Business and Evros published in May. “When implementing a hybrid-working model, technology, coupled with people strategies, will need to ensure that remote workers are granted equal access to opportunity and information.”
The report reveals that the top concerns for ICT leaders in organisations moving to a hybrid working environment include digital exhaustion and mental health issues for 42 percent of respondents, loss of corporate or workplace culture (40 percent), followed by ensuring all team members have equal access to meetings, networking, opportunities, promotions, input and engagement at 36 percent.
“The most important thing is to make sure employees feel included,” Higgins adds. “If you’re working at home you don’t want to feel someone in the office has a better chance of promotion than you.
“As a country, we seem to have cracked diversity. It will now be all about inclusion in the hybrid working world. We have to make sure everyone has access to the same opportunities. And we have to think about the things people might miss out on – the connections and engagement with colleagues. Going for coffee or a bite to eat. They are all affected by the hybrid model.
“But SMEs do have advantages. Hybrid is more scalable for them once they have the right focus on connectivity, security, and inclusion.
And cost needn’t be an issue for the first two. We can roll out and provide the connectivity and security piece at a very cost-effective rate for organisations of all sizes.”
Responding to employee needs will be critically important as new models are implemented.
“SMEs need to engage and listen to employees,” says O’Brien. “No one size fits all and there is no book to follow. Businesses need to listen to their employees and look at what works for the business. They have to work through it and find out what works best for them.”