The CIPD’s HR practices in Ireland 2020 survey, gathered in pre-COVID-19 days, found that 73% of respondents had experienced an increase in requests for remote working in 2019, and the key driver of demand for remote working was commute times (77%).

The number of organisations where remote working had been incorporated into an attraction and retention strategy was much lower, 38%. And the actual incidence of remote working late last year was low with 71% indicating that less than 10% of their workforce work remotely, despite the positive benefits in terms of work-life balance, wellbeing and productivity.

But this has changed shape and been turned on its head by COVID-19. In line with government health guidance, the majority of employees were working from home in Spring 2020. The CIPD’s COVID-19 survey (June 2020) found that just over half of organisations, 52%, had more than 75% of employees working remotely, and two thirds of organisations had over 50% of employees working remotely during the COVID-19 shutdown. This pattern across not only Ireland but most developed countries, fundamentally changed the exposure and expectations around remote working. This had a positive impact as by June 2020, 70% of organisations were willing to facilitate more employees to work remotely after COVID-19 than before the crisis. The case for remote working had been proven.

The CIPD’s HR practices in Ireland 2020 survey examined the barriers to remote working, and identified a number of areas to be improved, with attitudinal barriers posing more of a problem for organisations than infrastructural factors. Over two thirds of those surveyed reported both a lack of buy in from line managers and a lack of visible support by senior management. The main factors that were seen to support remote working were technology (75%), and support for managers and guidance from HR to support both managers and employees were there to a lesser extent. However, it was evident that these supporting factors were not being sufficiently practiced in enough organisations to embed remote working, and increased attention on these was necessary during COVID-19.

Changing employee expectations?

Has COVID-19 experience really changed employees’ longing for remote working? The demand was already there, the organisational resistance was high. CIPD Ireland’s HR practices surveys in recent years captured its emergence as a priority and the intention to use flexible working to support a more inclusive culture and reduce the gender pay gap. However ongoing remote working needs to be supported by appropriate infrastructure, employee supports and serious support from senior management to be implemented successfully. In the past, when organisations set remote working as a strategic priority, in some cases they had to remove the managers’ veto whereby managers could say no to their team’s requests, but the process resulted in real benefits in terms of retention, employee engagement and financial savings.

Yet employees’ expectations have been driven up significantly, with increasing numbers now expecting to have a voice in their preference in how and where they work, though not all seeking to work remotely 100% of the time. National research by NUI Galway Whitaker Institute & Western Development Commission, Remote working during COVID-19: Ireland’s national survey initial report, (May 2020) found a strong preference among employees for blended working options, where individuals benefit from a mix of working remotely some days and working with colleagues onsite other days. Among many/large employers, this is already leading to fundamental review of how and where work is done, what are the work activities that achieve most from face to face interaction, and how to best develop talent in a more virtual environment.

The COVID-19 experience of remote working has also democratised leadership – every face on that zoom call has a voice, and the CEO and senior leadership team members became just one among the many. Information flowed more seamlessly up, down across the organisation, all a necessary response to a national crisis. And all the indicators are that productivity either increased or was maintained during COVID-19 remote working, while new product/services and more agile ways of working were implemented.

The challenge of embedding remote working

2020 provides organisations, and HR teams, with a real change opportunity to embed flexible working and agility into how and where people work and create a new future of work. Refusing to slip back into a ‘new’ normal (an adapted workplace environment with certain roles/individuals permitted to work from home) is the first step, to be replaced by brave leadership to set out a path to re-envision how and where the organisation can achieve its future objectives in a sustainable and compassionate way.

From the CIPD’s engagement with members and organisations, the following must be considered:

  1. Enabling and influencing senior leaders to invest in reshaping the organisation for the future, putting people-centric decisions at its heart.

  2. Recognising that future success depends on not just an examination of workplace and where work gets done, but must reframe the culture, talent management and development, the sense of community and social support, delivered within a highly inclusive framework and approach.

  3. Assessment of what activities need to be done face to face. It is no longer about roles, but about types of activities within roles. Is brainstorming and creativity done most effectively in a face to face environment, what stages of projects need face to face collaboration, what scale of collaboration works best virtually when every voice can be equal?

  4. The way people-centric decisions recognise and support the personalisation of the employment relationship, giving flexibility on individual preferences, while agreeing guidance on the boundaries of ways of working in a sensitive and compassionate.

  5. How to make all processes operate virtually – starting with HR processes and extending to supporting process change across the organisation.

  6. Identifying the technologies and ergonomic supports that employees need to work productively and safely from home, preventing future health risks.

  7. Training and supporting managers to lead virtual teams, incorporating how to assess productivity, manage performance and create development opportunities.

  8. Embedding wellbeing into decision making, so guidance is available for employees and managers about defining what is to be expected and strong feedback loops are used to improve this. Supporting and monitoring positive mental health will be critical, as more flexible and agile working change the social supports that many depended on.

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