Analysis: Most organisations will hit a wall trying to find a compromise solution between office presence and working from home, and the truth is very few will be able to if left to cope with the new reality on their own.

If your occupation allows you to work from home, you are probably waiting for your employer to get hybrid working right in the next year or so. The truth is that very few organisations will be able to do so, if left to cope with the new reality on their own.

Yes, there are things that organisations can and should do:

  • They should ask their employees about their preferred balance of office and remote work going forward. For example, the survey conducted by the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway and Western Development Commission found that a vast majority of respondents would like to work remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic.
  • They should train employees at all levels to manage blended teams which include on-site and remote participants. When people no longer work in the office, additional effort and skill is needed to make team work productive.
  • They should consider where employees (and the organisation) would suffer most if people are not located in the same space at the same time. A good start is to think about these three dimensions of business:

1) Innovation: Innovation is often driven by serendipitous conversations that employees have outside of scheduled meetings or Zoom calls, where every minute is supposed to have a clear business purpose.

Innovation also benefits from people bouncing ideas of each other. While this can be done by email, it takes much longer than face-to-face conversation and delivers more "filtered" version of one's thoughts, because some half-formed ideas get discarded in the process of writing an email.

This breaks the fundamental rule of brainstorming – no censorship of initial ideas is supposed to happen to avoid losing most creative and radical ideas. It is hard enough for managers to go ahead with radically creative ideas when they have them but if radical ideas are nipped in the bud, an organisation will only ever be able to make relatively unexciting changes to its products.

2) Employee development: A vital part of career development in any industry is building professional relationships. These relationships become the source of support and mentorship, which is particularly important for female employees and employees from minority groups.

Relationships can deliver information about new opportunities within an organisation and help make things happen, whether you want to launch a new project or get resources for existing ones. However, building new relationships and maintaining existing ones is challenging when we do not have the human moments of stopping by someone’s desk to chat about work.

3) Culture: As social beings, we try to fit in with the group that we associate ourselves with, including one’s colleagues. Usually, we look at our co-workers to figure out the internal rules of the game, one that is much harder to grasp when employees are working from home.For workers, that might mean fewer opportunities for promotion.

For organisations, that might mean additional challenges in making everyday decisions align with strategy because employees do not have a good understanding of what the company is about.

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On RTÉ Radio One Drivetime, Ian Robertson, author of How Confidence Works, on the return to the office

Where I expect most organisations to hit the wall is in trying to find a compromise solution between office presence and working from home.

In a survey by Whitaker Institute, 16% respondents preferred to work at least some time in hubs. Hubs are serviced offices which are distributed across the country - allowing employees to live further from the company's headquarters and reduce their commute time - and might be managed by the company itself or by organisations providing co-working services.

This third option combines some benefits of office work and some benefits of fully remote work as seen from the example of Fujitsu which created a network of company hubs all over Japan.

In Ireland, few companies can afford such a solution. Companies are stuck owning or renting large office spaces so the easiest strategy for them is to bring everyone back to the office. The other option is to get rid of the office (or a large part of it) and leave employees to sort out their own working from home.

This is what happened since March 2020, and we have already seen how this exposed the inequality of opportunities. For those who do not have a quiet and well-equipped work space at home, the loss of access to serviced office space leads to poorer working conditions and poorer wellbeing.

This is where the government has to play a stronger part. To help the organisations get hybrid working right, the government has to focus on creating work hubs across the country.

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From RTÉ One's Nine News, Old buildings in rural communities to be transformed into remote working hubs

The first step has already been made with the recent launch of the Connected Hubs platform. While the network of hubs looks impressive on the map, in reality it can offer only 162 desks and 144 meeting rooms – not even close to satisfying the potential demand.

More can be done by supporting the repurposing of traditional offices into hubs in a similar way the government supports retrofitting of houses to improve their energy rating.

Some parts of hospitality sector might also benefit by changing their business model from pure catering to a combination of a café and a workspace, if such a pivot was supported by a special purpose grant.

As any costly infrastructure, hubs create benefits for the entire society, helping to revitalise rural areas and increasing people’s quality of life.

As with any costly infrastructure, relying on private sector to make it happen will result, at best, in a patchy coverage across the country. If you are not lucky to work for an organisation with deep pockets, prepare to return to your old office desk fairly soon.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ