Is there really a return to the office? - In conversation with HR leaders in Ireland

Mary Connaughton, Director, CIPD Ireland. 

As we continue to cope with the unpredictable path of COVID-19, organisations and employees remain adaptable in their responses. A growing number of companies are holding off plans for office re-opening and hybrid working until 2022, with clear company rules to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing rules until then.

At a recent CIPD Ireland discussion with HR leaders, we heard about the challenges of coping with the uncertainty, managing increased customer demand, issues over days employees want to return and questions from employees about who is not vaccinated.

And a reflection that it was less complex when people were either in the workplace or remote than now when it can be everything in-between.

Tackling the challenges – much work still in process

The conversation focussed on moving from the principle of employee choice around when to attend the workplace to meeting the business need, and having to align personal choice with business requirements. Strong communications from leadership laying out the principles for future ways of working were helpful. Managing employee expectations is key, with examples of rolling out leader-led conversations – putting the focus on the purpose of the organisation and business requirements.

Leaders are finding it necessary to articulate the ‘purpose’ of being in the office. Overall organisations have been successful over the past year, so we have to be able to answer the question of “Why am I needed in the office?”.  This is about linking attendance to collaboration and team working - what we need to do onsite together that we can’t do at home individually.  This can involve having a structure when in the office around teamworking, collaboration, and building social connections. Many new team members have joined and need to be integrated.

On vaccination questions, it has been made clear by the Irish government that vaccination status is not to be used as a differentiator in the workplace.  Workplace safety (as per the Work Safely Protocol) calls out physical distancing, mask-wearing, ventilation as workplace safety measures, not vaccinations. It was recognised that more education may be needed about the way the vaccine protects the person vaccinated from serious illness, but it does not stop the spread of the disease. In practice, over 90% of the adult population in Ireland is vaccinated.

There was consensus that education from employers is needed on the workplace protection measures, including the extended list of symptoms of the virus and what to do if a person onsite shows symptoms/tests positive, and the rules on close contact management. Examples of using a daily questionnaire on symptoms/risks have helped to reduce fears.

In relation to ways of working, for most leaders, we are in a period of experimentation of hybrid working, often part of a wider flexible future-fit smart working strategy. This path forward is similar for many large organisations, but it can be less structured in smaller organisations where leader preference can dominate.  HR Leaders were conscious of the resistance expressed by employees where companies have announced ‘all back to the office’, and see hybrid working as central to their talent strategy.

In general, a cautious approach was coming across, no rush back into the office. There were examples of rolling out principles to guide discussions for managers, looking at where individuals sit on a flexible working scale. Also examples of adopting liberal return approaches – safety first, no rush, come and see your team, putting the focus on teamworking/collaboration.  There was discussion on holding sessions on hybrid working and some companies setting a  maximum number of days at home eg, 2 or 3.  Companies were not focused on having contractual conversations – generally employment contracts will remain the same with no change to terms and conditions.  A strong point was that a lot of communications were needed and the emerging employee questions need to be addressed, to help reduce nervousness.

Overall this period is seen as a once in a generation opportunity, and people professionals are using it as a game-changer to shift the ways of working and culture. For the many businesses who had employees on-site throughout, the changes are less about a return to the workplace and more about future ways of working.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Hi Andy. Fully agree with your comments. Face to face time together is an important dimension of work, and its necessary for everyone to understand why they are on-site.  Our research shows that productivity went up in Irish business, not just in 2020, but also in 2021, but remote working presented challenges around team working, collaboration and mental heath.  It will be tough enough to get the balance right to meet individual, team, business and customer needs.

  • Its one view that it suits people to work from home who are already ingratiated in to the company and knows what's what. It is a selfish view that i don't need to attend the office. You might not but those around you and who depend upon you do. There is no job in the world that works in total isolation. We need to move away from the idea that working from home is the way forward. It has worked for a time but employers are finding that the once hard working employees are now realising no one is watching and are adapting to a more relaxed working attitude. The move back to the office is as a result of many aspects. Lack of control, productivity fluctuations, changes in the jobs market, changes to the business, Losing staff who are working hard to leave their employer at the employers cost, lack of development and ideas sharing, etc etc. We are not set up to operate in this way. A highbred method does suit more employer employee relationships as it restored come control, allows people to be available to others and ideas sharing, permits limited development etc. Is it ideal? Well no one thing fits all and its importsnt to remember this. There are an increasing number of people suffering with mental health conditions since lockdown began and isolation plays a significant part of that.