By Dave Hickey

Around 1998/99 when the tech company I worked with was running out of office space for all the people needed in Galway and in other global locations, it launched a campaign to encourage home working – ‘Work@Anywhere’.

There were mugs, pens and nice rugby shirts with the logo and tag line ‘Work’s a thing you do, not a place you go’. It was launched globally internally and across national and local media. We were a communications company, so it was felt we had the technology in place to allow this happen. It was to herald a new age of working.

It failed miserably.

We still recruited more staff but spent money on re-designing space or adding pre-fabs to fit them all in. No one seemed to want to work from home, so the programme was quietly shelved – although I had the rugby shirt for years afterwards!

There were three main reasons for this failure, each of which influenced the other:

1.    Technology

The technology wasn’t as good as it needed to be mainly due to poor connectivity especially outside urban areas which is where the majority of suitable candidates lived. For example, video calls were almost impossible outside well-equipped offices.

2.    Vision

There was no clear vision what ‘home working’ meant. Was it fulltime at home and never coming to the office? Was it hybrid? How would induction and training be handled? Little thought was put into the supports needed for the individual, HR, IT and management to make this work.

3.    Control

Almost all managers didn’t want their staff working remotely. The lack of visibility and loss of sense of control were too much for most to handle, myself included. Even where they had teams spread across different offices, in different countries and time zones – with rare exceptions – managers wanted their colleagues in an office where they could contact them.

20 years on…

Comparing the situation today to that over 20 years ago the main change has been the improvement in technology and communications. Wireless communications, improved hardware, cloud computing and the availability of software tools or apps to allow instant messaging/calling/team meetings, including by video, has made enforced home working easier.

For much of the last year hundreds of thousands of people across Ireland have adapted well to working remotely because they have had no choice. Businesses too, adjusted relatively quickly, deploying the necessary tools and infrastructure, and sometimes office furniture, to keep their shows on the road.

In some sectors this appears to have been so successful that organisations have already reduced their office footprints and have announced that remote working will be their new normal. (I’m a Recovering Accountant, so there’s a part of me that sees this purely as a cost reduction opportunity identified by some of these businesses.)

Making it work

Many organisations and individuals are now grappling with the structures and tools required to make this new way of working…work.

For a distributed workplace to function effectively it not only needs reliable, up-to-date technology it must also have all the support structures, and more, that are found in excellent centralised workplaces.

That means there must be clarity about whether staff can work from home or from a shared office space nearby. Will they rotate in and out of the office (if there is one)? Will it be full time-or part-time? What hours are they expected to be available? How will problem-solving and creativity be encouraged in a distributed environment? What new HR procedures are needed? What extra processes are needed to safeguard mental health?

To my mind, even the term ‘remote’ working has negative connotations aligned with isolation which is why I prefer ‘distributed workplaces’.

These and many similar issues must be, and are being, addressed by most organisations now as this way of working becomes our next normal.

And the greatest of these is Trust

Despite having technological tools at their disposal, many managers are uncomfortable with having employees work from home. Since home has also become the office in the case of employees who work remotely during the pandemic, complaints abound that managers often try to control and monitor workers more closely than they did in the past. The sudden transition from having employees physically work in the office to distributed working has signalled an inconvenient truth: Most companies fail in building trusting work relationships.

Organisations that are able to develop strategies to build trust between managers and employees will see stronger work relationships as well as performance.

The controlling behaviour that many managers have displayed during the COVID-19 crisis makes clear that companies have problems in establishing and communicating trust to their employees. It’s not managers’ fault, exclusively, if the organisation has not developed a culture of trust.

The benefits of high-trust workplaces include promoting cooperation within and loyalty to the group employees belong to, sharing information, and increasing individual and in turn organisational performance.

As these positive consequences are valuable for organisations to weather any crisis, COVID-19 can be considered a reminder for many business leaders that one of their main priorities should always be to build trust.

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