The return to the office is underway, but everything is still a bit in limbo. Labor shortages in some sectors remain a major factor, meaning managers are treading cautiously for fear of losing key personnel. Employees, accustomed to the flexibility offered by remote working during Covid-19, are often loath to return to the office routine. The five-day, nine-to-five office routine will never return, but big questions remain.
1. Preparing for the future
What if you want to continue working remotely, but your employer wants you back in the office? The legal position depends on your employment contract, but this normally specifies the office as your workplace. So if your employer wants to insist that you show up, they can. For now, many are taking what Jennifer Cashman, employment law partner at RDJ Solicitors, describes as a “soft-soft” approach. This is largely due to labor shortages in many industries and the fear that if employees don’t get what they want, they will simply leave. So far, according to recruiters, shortages remain in many sectors, although the hiring market has slowed in some areas and there have been layoffs in some areas, including technology. For now, despite this, retaining and attracting staff is a major challenge and this leads to flexibility for employers in work organisation.
Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is finalizing legislation that will give employees the right to request remote work. The consultation on the outlines – or the so-called heads of the bill – met with objections, in part because it gave employers 13 reasons to refuse such a request. In pre-legislative scrutiny, the Oireachtas committee on business recommended that the proposals be recast, giving employers less reason to refuse. This would tip the balance more towards employees who seek such flexible arrangements and incorporate a code of conduct developed by the Workplace Relations Committee. Varadkar told the committee earlier this month that the proposed final bill, due to be introduced shortly, “deviates quite a bit” from its original plan. Waiting to see what those rules contain is another reason why some employers are slow to finalize their plans, while others will worry that what they already have in place will need to be adjusted in light of the new rules.
2. Hybrid versus remote
A key message from many employers, says Cashman, is that the future is hybrid working – a mix of in-office and out-of-office work – and that this is different from remote working during Covid, when most staff were working home all the time for downtime. Numerous surveys both in Ireland and abroad show that hybrid working is the route favored by a majority of employers. A key question in Ireland’s new legislation will be whether it expands beyond remote working to also encompass hybrid working and other flexible working practices, codifying employees’ rights in these areas – the Oireachtas Committee recommended that this happen.
Finding a happy medium is not easy. A recent survey of 700 European companies by labor law firm Littler found that almost four in ten companies offered hybrid working, but three in ten required employees to be in the office full-time. Interestingly, nearly 80% of those not currently requiring people to be in the office full-time said they were considering increasing the requirement to show up to the office. However, illustrating the dilemmas, most also recognized the importance of flexibility and even remote working in attracting and retaining staff. According to the Littler survey, companies are walking a fine line here.
In general, companies believe that employees have been productive working remotely thanks to Covid – and are therefore open to hybrid working. Common reasons for wanting staff in the office at least part of the time relate to teamwork, collaboration, and company culture. Finding the balance is the challenge.
3. What do employees really want?
Cashman points out that in many cases, the main issue for employees is flexibility in their working day – for example, picking up the kids from school, planning exercises, running errands or taking on other household chores. The assumption is that the employee always works the allocated hours — just over a longer period of time — such as working early in the morning or in the evening. This kind of flexibility, Cashman points out, is a separate issue of the workplace, though obviously related to it given the accumulated practices on Covid. Communication and discussion between managers and employees is key to agreeing parameters as part of a larger hybrid working strategy.
This concept of a flexible work model has been given a name by employment experts: the non-linear workday, which is when employees don’t work, say, eight hours straight with breaks, but spread their work over a longer period to allow time to do other things, Flexibility is a key employee request – 64% of 390 employees surveyed by software company HRLocker rated it a key consideration when a job change, with most looking for the ability to work at least two days a week from home. In a post on irishtechnews.iethe company’s chief executive, Adam Coleman, wrote that people want to “keep picking up their kids from school, taking yoga classes, and having lunch with friends.”
In a blog post as part of RTÉ’s Brainstorm programme, Professor Kevin Murphy of the University of Limerick said people are likely to be just as productive and happier organizing their own working day and although this posed challenges in terms of organizing interactions with colleagues, there was no reason why these could not be overcome. He argued that while companies wanted teams to come together to build collaboration, hard evidence of the benefits of this was scarce.
4. A new world of work
The Tánaiste recently said that drafting remote work legislation was much more complicated than expected. And business leaders say that at the corporate level, the same complexities emerge – from requiring employees to return to the office, to what they do when they’re there, to managing “wandering workers” who have changed counties or even countries in some cases. The uncertainty of the Covid situation over the winter is a lingering worry. Everyone agrees there’s no going back to the old 9 to 5, but no one yet knows what the new world of work will look like.