Death of the office has been greatly exaggerated

As Covid restrictions continue, especially the advice to work from home, many fear that chats at the water cooler and exchanging ideas in the canteen are a thing of the past. Employers have had to be creative to try to keep their company’s core values and culture alive, in some cases by trying to turn all the usual office activities into virtual events in an effort to ensure all staff can take part, be they in the office or working from their kitchen tables.


Among these companies using online activities is Deloitte, the global services network with offices in Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Galway. Sinead Gogan, its chief human resources officer, said: “We’ve put together this app where you can put in your Eircode and find out who lives near you. Obviously people do this voluntarily, but it means they can connect, and maybe go to their local park or for a coffee.”


Ger McDonough, a partner at PwC, said the company had set up “coffee roulette”, a system that randomly matches employees across the organisation for virtual coffee meetings. “We’re trying to recreate some of those serendipitous moments, because if your week is very structured, you’re missing some of that spark, some of that creativity,” McDonough said. “So it’s trying to be inclusive and connected. Leveraging technology is really important.”


Twitter’s Dublin office on Fenian Street has turned all its programmes into virtual events. Anne Kiely, its HR director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said: “A good example is our global #OneTeam all-hands meetings, which pivoted from being broadcast from San Francisco to becoming completely virtual, with presenters from all over the world and an accompanying Slack [communication platform] channel where employees can ask questions. We found this to be more engaging for employees than it being in-person.”


Declan Black, managing partner at Mason Hayes & Curran, a law firm in south Dublin, said: “There are some meetings when face-to-face contact is difficult to beat, where particularly sensitive issues are discussed, or where you’re looking to build a relationship or make assessments of people. I don’t think you can do everything through a screen.”


Bernard Harbor, a spokesman for the public service trade union Forsa, said that for some staff remote working had led to a feeling of detachment and a fear of missing out or not being able to stay up to speed with new developments in their organisations. “They’re not seeing their colleagues and their friends and sometimes people feel they may be out of the loop,” Harbor said.


“People may want to maintain a connection with colleagues, and with what’s going on at work — things that are picked up as a matter of course because you’re chatting to your boss, or to colleagues in the workplace. I think that is a big issue.”


Shane Timmons, a research officer with the behavioural research unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), said studies looking at the effects of remote working on collaboration have found that synchronous or real-time communication has declined. “You get an increase in asynchronous [intermittent] communications such as emails being sent one day and replies taking another few days,” Timmons said.


“People find it harder to convey and to converge on the meaning of complex information when communication is done asynchronously. Even if it’s done through instant messaging rather than face to face, it’s hard to convey complex information and you are less likely to come away from the discussion with the same understanding of that information.”


Audrey O’Mahony, head of talent and organisation at the consultancy Accenture, said that early evidence suggests elements of remote working have led to an increase in mental health problems. “We are also seeing worrying trends in how remote working is adversely affecting the D&I [diversity and inclusion] agenda — namely for women, who continue to shoulder a greater burden of care and have thus become less ‘seen’,” O’Mahony said.


“When it comes to redesigning the future of work in a hybrid setting, leaders need to be mindful of three things: employee experience; organisation and workplace readiness; and leadership practices that are inclusive. We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to completely reimagine and rebuild the future of the workplace.”


At the end of the summer some companies announced they were adopting a flexible working model of 3:2 (three days in the office) or 2:3 (two days in the office). LinkedIn, which has a Dublin office at Wilton Plaza, said its long-term policy was to offer both remote and hybrid options.


Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland, said: “Right now, everyone is deciding on a team-by-team basis what works for them, and we think it will take a few months for people to individually decide whether remote or hybrid is the best option for them. That said, 87 per cent of our team told us they’d like to be in the office sometimes, so we’re continuing to invest in our Dublin workplaces.”


Declan O’Reilly, director of the office agency at the property firm Knight Frank, said some companies had rented out their offices in the pandemic, but few were selling them. “The narrative of a year ago — that we’ll never work in an office again — has stopped and I think people are starting to see and appreciate the value of having staff in an office.”


The Times (Julieanne Corr) -

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