Firms like KPMG and Capita say they’ll allow people to work from home while keeping a city centre presence
Larger businesses with substantial office-based staff are re-evaluating their policies and plans on employees working from home after the pandemic.
Many are keen to retain the office at the core and as the hub of their businesses, but with some flexibility that will allow employees to operate from home part of the time.
Flexibility will allow one company “to attract and retain from a wider and more diverse talent pool”.
“We know that having a diverse, engaged workforce leads to better decision-making and more creativity and innovation,” said Johnny Hanna, partner-in-charge of KPMG in Northern Ireland.
“The pandemic accelerated a move in the firm toward a more flexible working model which was already in motion.
“We’ve been discussing the future of work with our people and it’s clear that there’s no one size fits all solution.
“Our hybrid working model is based on trust and flexibility will allow people at different stages of their life to adapt their working arrangements to better suit their circumstances.”
According to one recent survey, 41% of employers here expect staff to combine working from home and the office in the post-pandemic future.
Further, real estate firms are reporting that ex-pats are returning home as they will be allowed to operate remotely, particularly those with head offices in GB.
Capita, which employs more than 1,400 people at one of its six UK-wide hubs in Belfast, said approximately 85% of the workforce moved to working from home a few weeks after the first lockdown.
“And of these 86% reported a positive experience, citing benefits of reduced travelling time and costs — as well as an improvement in work-life balance,” a company spokesperson said.
“As restrictions ease, we plan to move permanently to a more flexible, hybrid model that maintains a strong presence in towns and cities across the UK, whilst enabling those able and with a preference to working from home the option to do so,” the company added.
In various UK and Irish surveys over the last year, companies say they are keen to retain head and satellite offices as hubs, believing there are positives to face-to-face brain-storming and to the social side of a workplace.
Information technology specialists Kainos, which has more than 700 staff working in Belfast, is planning to move its head office to the site of the demolished Moviehouse cinema on the Dublin Road.
The demolition of the building is due to be completed by the end of the summer, but the company has not yet decided on the size and nature of the office, in part due to the pandemic, lockdown and changed working habits.
While the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment, chief executive Brendan Mooney said they are studying hybrid-working before deciding on the requirements for the new offices.
In-person client meetings, training and marketing events need to be face-to-face, he had said, when the company announced its annual results in May.
Business travel will not return to pre-pandemic patterns as staff at Kainos, and many other companies, have become more comfortable with digital meetings, the company said.
There is also more awareness of the carbon footprint left by travel.
Beyond business, one of the region’s largest employers, Queen’s University, is planning for the future of work, both for its staff, faculty and students.
The university believes face-to-face teaching is hugely important and wants to deliver as much as possible by September.
But a spokesperson added: “We will continue to build on the learnings from the last two academic years to offer the best mix of in-person on-campus teaching complemented by flexible digital solutions which enhance student learning opportunities.”
The university said it will build on the already established “formal flexible working policy in place for a number of years” for its staff.
Danske Bank is also one of the largest employers here, with 1,400 staff.
“Danske has no comment to make at this time,” a spokesperson said.
The Belfast Telegraph examined the issue of a return to the office in-depth at the weekend.
While employees have no legal right to work from home, Downing Street is considering plans to introduce new legislation, meaning that people could continue to work outside the office once restrictions are lifted if they wish, while employers would be legally required to prove it was essential for staff to attend the workplace.
Tori Fitzgerald-Gunn, associate partner at Worthingtons Solicitors, said the pandemic has changed working life “beyond recognition”. She said: “Determining whether working from home can be facilitated will require an assessment of both suitability for the business and the individual employee.”
Stuart Anderson, senior policy advisor at CBI NI, explained that working from home is not practicable across the board.
He said employers should work with staff “to identify mutually beneficial ways of working” as we emerge from the pandemic — but stressed the office is here to stay.