Business columnists

Gareth Hetherington: The evolution of hybrid working

Approximately 17 per cent of people here are still remote working at least some of the week. That’s much lower than across the rest of the UK where almost one third of people still work remotely some of the time.
Gareth Hetherington

DURING the pandemic, working from home became mandatory for many people across the world.

Then as restrictions were lifted, most headed back to the office again, but for many, a new normal emerged which included continuing to work from home, at least part of the week.

This has many implications for staff, employers and wider society and these issues have been explored by my colleagues in the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre.

Prior to the pandemic, just under 10 per cent of the workforce worked from home and then as restrictions were implemented, this jumped to 41 per cent at its peak in April 2020.

The latest data suggests that approximately 17 per cent of people are still remote working at least some of the week.

This is a significant increase on pre-pandemic levels but much lower than across the rest of the UK, where almost one third of people still work remotely some of the time.

The current experience of ‘remote workers' is very different from its peak during the pandemic.

Initially people talked of feelings of isolation from colleagues and the need to juggle work responsibilities with caring responsibilities alongside home schooling.

Fast forward to 2023 and staff talk of improved well-being, better work-life balance without the commute and higher levels of productivity.

There are several reasons for this, remote working is no longer mandatory, nor is it full-time.

People are back in the office part of the week reducing the potential for isolation and children are back at school removing many distractions.

Employers are also satisfied with current levels of remote working, although they are less convinced that productivity has improved.

They believe it is more likely to have stayed the same, but if it is good for their workforce, then it is good for them.

So far so good, but increased levels of remote working also creates significant issues for employers, their staff and the wider economy.

Staff still talk of the ‘always on' culture, rather than ‘working from home', they are ‘living in work' and there is an expectation they can respond to queries any time.

There is also the need to ensure equality is maintained in the workplace, for example in an organisation where some job roles can be completed remotely, such as finance or HR, and other roles which cannot, such as those on the shop floor.

In addition, employees want flexible, common-sense policies but implementing that consistently across different management teams in larger organisations can be difficult.

Separately, senior leaders now recognise the need to develop new management practices to manage performance, deliver effective training & development, in particular for mentoring junior staff and encouraging a more collaborative working environment generally.

Therefore, creating reasons to bring staff into the office regularly and at the same time is increasingly important.

You may remember in the early days of home working that the world of recruitment was also going to change.

Firms could recruit from across the world and people could live in Northern Ireland whilst working for organisations in London or further afield.

However, as organisations returned to the workplace, the geographic area from which they recruited started to narrow as the importance of integration and collaboration became increasingly recognised.

International recruitment is still a feature but only on a very limited scale.

Taking a wider societal view, remote working was identified as a way to re-engage those with caring responsibilities, you could work from home and keep childcare costs down.

The data initally suggested significant progress had been made, but more recently we have returned to pre-pandemic trends, indicating this may have been a short-term phenomenon.

In any event, broader research would indicate that many of those economically inactive would also benefit from return to work skills programmes in addition to support with childcare – a potential policy area for a returning Executive.

The last big impact is on the High Street. Survey evidence would suggest that people are spending less money now than before the pandemic.

Also spending in urban centres, near the workplace, has fallen but there is only a limited increase in spending in local sub-urban areas, near where people live.

Therefore, the spending when in the office has not transferred to local shops nearer home.

The current economic climate with higher interest rates will be a factor in the change in spending patterns, but this is combined with an increase in on-line spending.

If we value our towns and city centres, then it is essential we give them our support.

It is only now that the longer-term implications of the pandemic are beginning to emerge and they extend well beyond health.

Gareth Hetherington is director at the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre