Analysis: Reinventing the Northern Ireland workplace – blended working in action
Lisa Bryson, partner and head of employment at Eversheds Sutherland in Belfast, considers where employers in Northern Ireland stand in relation to the “return to the office”.
As we approach the autumn, minds will inevitably turn to the final quarter of 2021 and many will begin thinking about next year. For businesses, planning a return to the office will be front and centre of their considerations.
With over 85 per cent of the population vaccinated in Northern Ireland and fewer restrictions than at any other time during the pandemic, life is moving towards some semblance of normality.
Covid has changed the face of the workplace, thrusting home and remote working on millions of us. While not perfect for every employee, home working has been a blessing for many, offering a more equal work/life balance, helping with responsibilities like childcare, and saving money on petrol or commuting costs.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that over half of workers want to be able to retain the right to work from home after the pandemic, according to a recent YouGov poll.
However, this comes with challenges for employers to navigate. Hybrid or blended working is one popular approach which seeks to balance employee desire to retain home working with the employer’s need to have workers in the office, even part-time.
Our firm has recently announced a trial of blended working across our UK offices, while other large Belfast-based companies like FinTrU and PwC have announced they will not be mandating a return to the office for all staff.
While still very much a moving picture, employers should consider some key aspects before they make any firm decisions. On the HR side, issues like productivity, learning and development, diversity and inclusion, and colleague collaboration and networking will naturally drive employers to want to bring staff back to the office.
These are issues which can be affected by employees being at home full-time or not in the office as frequently and which can hold back both employees and employers. They must be carefully considered to keep your team motivated, productive, and delivering.
On the other hand, legal issues are much more delicate and must be handled expertly to avoid problems in the longer term for your organisation. Many employees have reported increased working hours at home, finding it difficult to switch off and manage an adequate work/life balance.
Measuring working time and potentially unpaid overtime may present challenges for employers and they should take steps to address this. There are also issues like monitoring mental and physical health of your employees, wellbeing, and domestic abuse which may make home working an unsuitable environment for some employees and thus should be accommodated accordingly.
A one-size-fits-all approach is not the ideal and employees and their representatives should be part of the conversation about what the return to the workplace looks like for historically office-based staff.
Working with your staff and coming to an agreed solution, like hybrid or blended working, may be the best way forward for many companies and it seems likely to be an important factor in attracting and retaining talent as we start to put the last 18 months behind us.