Tesla chief executive Elon Musk is not a man afraid of courting controversy. On top of his reputation as a maverick player in the business world, he has caused many a stir through his frequent postings on Twitter. Seemingly it is not just his public communications that grab headlines, though. Recently, leaked internal emails demanding that staff return to the office ricocheted around the world.
“Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week,” Musk wrote in an email with the striking subject line of “To be super clear”.
“Moreover, the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office. If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned,” he wrote.
Musk went on to make at least one fair point: production line workers don’t get to work from home. His tone, however, which could charitably be described as heavy-handed irked many and seemed ironic given that Musk and the rest of the Silicon Valley crew have built their reputations on promising the delivery, real soon now, of some kind of digital utopia.
There are of course suspicions that Musk himself leaked the emails, in an attempt to obtain more free publicity, though had that been the objective he could just have repeated his P45 threat on Twitter. Either way, the episode does illustrate a great divide that is now cleaving the world of work – the world of middle class work, at least: do we really have to drag ourselves into the office?
With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, working from home has become the norm for millions of workers, both in the EU and worldwide. Few in Ireland are likely to forget March 2020, when the government told most businesses they must send staff home to work remotely.
The picture was the same across Europe. Early on, estimates from the EU’s Dublin-based labour research agency Eurofound, reported that close to 40 per cent of those working in the European Union began to work remotely on a full-time basis as a result of the pandemic. What the future was to hold was unclear however, and arguably it still is.
A 2021 European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) study provided a rough estimate of around 25 per cent of employment in the EU being in easily ‘teleworkable’ sectors. The JRC noted, however, that because prior to the pandemic just 15 per cent of workers in the EU had ever worked remotely, “large numbers of workers and employers alike are, in all probability, facing challenges in dealing with the sudden shift to telework”.
Whatever those problems might be, remote work is here to stay. Any desire to do away with it entirely has hit the buffers for two reasons. First, staff are demanding it, and are willing to walk away if it is not offered. Second, the rise in fuel costs sparked by Russia’s invasion on Ukraine and the general spike in inflation is making commuting unaffordable for many.
Recent reports suggest that the government knows this: emergency contingency measures reportedly discussed at high-level meetings included all non-essential workers being ordered to work from home. Alongside the stick, there is also the carrot: earlier this month it was announced that the government was to launch a series of incentives to encourage more remote working, including a voucher scheme to pay for access to co-working spaces.
The question remains, though: in practical terms, what will the future of work look like? Hugh Dawson, Eir Evo’s managed services, cloud and data centre director, said norms had not yet been established. “I don’t think anyone has found that balance, the optimal situation.”
What is already clear is that technology is only a small part of the picture and that it is in place, at least for those businesses which want to use it.
“My belief is that technology exists to facilitate that idea of hybrid work. It is there and it is available to invest in if they see fit, but they also need to remember they are investing in technology to allow users to communicate, to allow them to collaborate and allow them to feel they are part of a team,” Dawson said.
Tech companies around the world have been pointing out this capability for some time, and continue to do so. For instance, Ericsson, which manufactures a significant amount of telecoms backend equipment, has said that a world without commuting might be a possibility, and that it need not come at the cost of interpersonal connections.
Jasmeet Sethi, head of ConsumerLab at Ericsson Research, wrote last year in Wired magazine that the kind of collaborations that could occur went far beyond what we do now, quoting his colleague, strategic marketing director Peter Marshall as saying “You could have a virtual CAD [computer-aided design] drawing on a central server cascaded to many people around the world, where they could collectively collaborate on something which kind of exists but doesn’t exist — and it’s not a PowerPoint presentation”.
Ciara Dempsey, regional sales senior manager for Dell Technologies Ireland, told Connected the technology was in place to enable remote working. “The way we would look at it, there are pillars to look at,” she said
The first of these pillars is technology modernisation, such as PC as a service (PaaS) or virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). The second pillar is security, but the third involves a wider social question: can technologies, including but not limited to artificial intelligence (AI), enable us to do more than just keep the show on the road?
“Then there’s the intelligence to make the user experience enjoyable or positive, employee experience management,” Dempsey said.
Dell itself has a long-standing policy of supporting remote work and, since the end of lockdown, has tended toward a hybrid model.
Dempsey’s team itself is working this way, with staff on site two days per week. The question now was, she said, to ask what that experience was like for staff, and what could be done to improve it, noting that in some workplaces, the surprising fact was that the connectivity could actually be inferior to what some people now had at home.
“A couple of months ago it wasn’t that great for some. While everyone has their own devices and neighbourhood setup the network wasn’t as fast as people had got used to,” she said.
Whether or not companies allow, support, tolerate or forbid remote working appears to be a question of company culture.
Crystel Rynne, chief operating officer of software company HRLocker, said that a chasm was opening between companies that supported remote working and those that, at best, tolerated it through gritted teeth.
“I have two senses. Firstly, I’ve been talking to a lot of the bigger companies, 200 plus, and they are mandating people coming back to the office with some form of hybrid,” she said.
This could have unintended consequences, however, causing employees to vote with their feet when presented with a return to the office as a fait accompli.
“My understanding, talking to HR people, is that it hasn’t been a consensus coming from the employees. It was being mandated by management. I do wonder if that is because they have offices that they are paying for,” she said.
Smaller companies, she said, were taking advantage of this in order to boost recruitment. “The progressive companies are supporting remote and the truth is there isn’t one size fits all.”
Dawson said the end result of this was obvious, and that the smart move was for companies to be flexible with their staff.
“People have options now that they’ve never had before. We’re going out to the market looking for good people, but what we were offering before is different to what we offer now. Money is a big incentive, but it has to be about a flexible work-life balance. The power is back with the individual,” he said.
This is already being borne out: businesses that will not, or in the cases of hospitality, travel and tourism often cannot, provide flexibility are seeing significant staff shortages.
“There are organisations out there looking to bring people back four to five days a week, but that will be short term because people have choice,” said Dawson.
Against that, there are reasons why some businesses, and even some workers, do not want to work remotely.
Dempsey said recent research had shown that as many as 86 per cent of companies were struggling to empower employees, which could leave them frustrated and less productive.
Obviously this is far from ideal for either management or staff, but there are clear signs that Irish businesses are at least taking the issue seriously.
“What we’re seeing now is they’re trying to figure it out. It’s not as easy as they thought. We had two events, one in Cork, one in Dublin, on how to navigate the hybrid world we’re in now. I’ve never seen so many people taking notes,” Dempsey said.
Dawson said that while remote work was now a reality, we should not be too Panglossian. Not everyone can work remotely, and those who do can run into problems.
“There are roles that don’t work remotely, and also when you see people in the office you know if something isn’t right, just from talking to them. Maybe their work life balance: that’s quite hard to pick up on remotely,” he said.
There are also people who just do not want to work remotely.
Younger employees in particular may miss out on mentoring or fear being passed over for promotion.
“Many large businesses also have grad programmes, and that doesn’t work online,” Rynne said. For those who can change how they work, she said, the next step was to develop the strategies to truly support it, from HR policy to technology.
“With Covid it wasn’t ‘real’ remote working; it was forced remote working and people were at the kitchen table, homeschooling their children at the same time,” she said.
Forced or voluntary, however, work did go on, and a consensus is settling in some organisations that the office could see a change of function. Instead of being a warehouse for workers, it might just come to be seen as a locus for creativity and collaboration.
Dempsey said that whatever the future might hold, Ireland had made giant steps. If remote working, whether hybrid or full time, is the wave of the future at the very least we have proved that it is possible.
“Two years ago, I think we would have been way behind on remote working, but we were forced into it and productivity didn’t collapse, and it built that trust,” she said.