Hybrid approach favoured as the return to the office begins.

A recent survey of chartered accountants in Northern Ireland found that over half would like to adopt a hybrid approach to office work.
Zara Duffy

THE work from home rules, implemented across the world at the start of the pandemic, have set us on a trajectory impossible to imagine a little over two years ago.

Office based businesses were forced to implement changes fast as Governments around the world communicated stay at home orders, bringing a sudden halt to life – or at least office work life – as we knew it.

While Northern Ireland has not gone as far in terms of relaxing the work from home orders as its neighbours in Britain or Ireland, it is inevitable that in the months ahead, we will see a steadier flow of people back to the office. And with that will come challenges.

A range of benefits have emerged from working from home, not least eliminating the time and cost of commuting, adding a new flexibility to the working day, and the removal of formal dress codes.

Now as we emerge from the pandemic, change is upon us again. As we embark on the journey back to the office, many employers will have the challenging task of finding a balance that pleases everyone.

The most common approach we are seeing business leaders likely to take is a hybrid model, with some combination of home and office work. Though some workers will struggle to adjust, this new potential reality adds significantly more flexibility than would have been dreamt of pre-pandemic.

A recent survey of chartered accountants in Northern Ireland found that over half would like to adopt a hybrid approach to office work going forward. Pre-pandemic only 9 percent of respondents had this kind of working arrangement.

A further study carried out by Ulster University Economic Policy Centre revealed that just under a third of 18 to 25-year-olds want to return to the office full time, with other age cohorts showing as little as 10 percent interest in returning full time.

Businesses however recognise the need for people to interact with other people ‘in real life’. Many see a return to the office as vital for the transfer of skills and information between staff, particularly in relation to upskilling new or more junior team members, an opportunity lost during the pandemic.

Yahoo’s former CEO, Marissa Mayer said “people are more collaborative when they are together”, which is not easy to replicate while working remotely. Corporate culture, an important driver for business growth, is tricky to translate over a virtual space. Alongside this, everyone’s home life is not equal. While some have the perfect office set up, others found themselves hiding away in the bedroom, trying to juggle children’s demands along with their workload.

With recent Covid-19 reinfection reports, some people continue to be acutely conscious, due to their own health or that of their dependents and may be reluctant to return to the office. These individuals will need to be listened to and considered carefully.

Employers will need to ensure those who come to the office are involved and engaged with, so that the collaboration that might have been absent from the virtual world is encouraged to happen. Employees may grow resentful if they are unable to identify any differences in their workday on the days working from the office, apart from the commute.

A recent survey by the job site Jobbio found that 45 per cent of respondents would accept being paid £5,000 less if it included the ability to work remotely every day. Current skills and labour shortages in Northern Ireland may well force employers to offer more flexible arrangements to attract talent.

In fact, 3 in 4 or our members surveyed report increasing difficulties in finding the right people for roles in Northern Ireland.

With technological advances, the workplace of today looks dramatically different to the workplace of 50 years ago. It is hard to imagine what the place of work will look like for the future generation and whether the hybrid model will stick.

In the meantime, a thoughtful approach will be required from business leaders as we navigate the current new reality of hybrid working.

Zara Duffy is head of Northern Ireland at Chartered Accountants Ireland

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