The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) has published new research analysing the adoption of remote and hybrid working, pre and post-pandemic in Northern Ireland. It analyses how businesses now strike the balance between organisational needs and employee desires and has researched both employer and employee attitudes to remote working.
UUEPC's analysis shows that despite a move back to the office, levels of homeworking across the UK in 2023 have more than doubled compared to pre-pandemic, 31.3% compared to 14.4% in 2019. Yet, the uptake of remote working in NI is the lowest of all 12 UK regions at 17.3%.
Pre-pandemic, remote working in NI was relatively low only applying to under 10% of the workforce. In April 2020, during the most aggressive lockdown restrictions, remote working increased dramatically to 41%. Global trends illustrate a similar picture of reduced remote working levels since the pandemic, although nearly 30% of employees still work remotely in 2023.
The current situation
Across the business landscape, it is clear remote working is more suited to certain occupations depending on the nature of the work. Research findings have estimated that 40% of NI jobs can be efficiently completed remotely compared to 43% in the UK - due to a higher concentration within sectors such as Professional & Scientific, Finance, and ICT in other parts of the UK.
However, the difference in current uptake of remote working between NI and the UK is not completely down to sectoral structure, implying that other factors such as management practices influence the number of days that employees work remotely.
Comparing how many days employees work remotely per week, NI businesses also have a lower proportion in contrast to other UK regions;
- 1-2 days – UK (28%) vs NI (21%)
- 3-4 days - UK (15%) vs NI (12%)
- 5+ days - UK (5%) vs NI (6%)
Demographically, 35% of employees aged 35-44 operate a hybrid working structure, and 65% of younger employees aged 16-24 years are least likely to be working remotely due to their job type.
Working fully remotely appeared more prevalent in older and more experienced employees as 25% of 65+ age groups, compared to 15% across all other age categories.
Researchers observed that increased remote working in NI also correlates with a higher salary and degree-level qualifications. It is less likely that lower-income thresholds will work under hybrid or fully remote patterns.
Vacancies – NI employers could attract more talent via remote working opportunities
The labour market in NI has become increasingly tight with a high number of vacancies compared to historic trends. Initially, fully remote working was seen as a tool to widen recruitment on global nature if no fixed workplace was required however the uptake of this in NI was relatively low. With hybrid working conditions this is less possible, however, positions may appeal to a wider national pool of applicants if they only have to commute on certain days.
The UK has the highest proportion of vacancies offering remote or hybrid work versus countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA. Compared to NI, the number of fully remote jobs advertised is much lower with more hybrid opportunities available.
In the first quarter of 2023, UUEPC conducted consultations with 45 employers. Findings show that employers felt productivity remained the same as in 2019 or improved slightly. While participants agreed that staff had increased their working hours, an increase in efficiency or higher output was not evident, indicating that there may be productivity losses. However, 44% reported an increase in the quality of work produced by employees.
Employers emphasised how well management teams adapted to remote working environments but noted that managers struggled in some aspects, this may be expected because staff in NI typically receive less management training than those in similar positions in the UK.
Downsides of remote working
Employers found it more difficult to facilitate innovative brainstorming sessions and felt that opportunities to collaborate had been reduced in a remote/hybrid environment. Including noticing a negative impact on company culture and ethos especially when integrating new staff remotely. They expressed concern that experienced employees are spending less time providing on-the-job training for junior staff impacting staff development.
In 2023 UUPEC conducted an online survey for employees in NI with a total 865 responses; 17% stated they would prefer to work fully remotely and 80% are satisfied with their current working arrangements.
- 87% worked at least one day per week outside of the office.
- 55% worked hybrid 2-3 days per week.
- 9% working fully remotely.
27% report struggling to switch off at home with difficulty separating home and work life, however, consistently respondents believed their productivity is higher working remotely, finding it harder to be productive in the office.
Due to the cost-of-living crisis, costs associated with remote working can be a challenge such as heating, electricity, and broadband usage, but many employees are grateful for the flexibility working at home, saving expenses on fuel and car parking, helping to alleviate personal financial pressure.
When voluntarily asked about any further challenges or benefits, 6 in 10 employees reported better mental health due to a better work/life balance working remotely, reduced commuting meant more personal time, and they thrive on the benefits of flexibility. For this reason, employees are keen to maintain or increase remote working days, with many voicing that they would seek alternative employment if remote working was no longer permitted.
Aligning with business views, employees felt that building relationships (62%) and collaborating (45%) are more effective in person and unexpectantly, they find office days more useful when coordinated alongside other team members.
Some had experienced issues around management style, poor communication, and lack of training and are worried they may be overlooked when promotion opportunities arise if they are not present in the workplace.
Ana Desmond, Economist at UUEPC said:
“It is clear the landscape of remote and home working has shifted significantly over the past 3 years in Northern Ireland. Our results highlight the wider adoption of remote working has positively changed how employees and employers view their working week structure compared to results from a previous 2021 survey.
“As a modern workforce, it is recognised that the value of offering remote working, prioritising employees’ flexibility and wellbeing has become as important as salary offers, which is reinforced by employees stating they would seek alternative employment if they could no longer work remotely.
“Where remote working is possible, it appears from this research the best way to strike a balance between management and employees at present is a hybrid environment where workplace days are coordinated bringing teams together to facilitate innovation and creativity, alongside fostering corporate culture, whilst at home days allows specific tasks to be completed with more focus and attention.
“Businesses may need to adapt management and mentoring practices to ensure employees feel visible, integrated, and appropriately trained for the job within the workplace. Those with management responsibilities may now be responsible for creating a sense of place within the workspace alongside coordinating employees.”
The wider report is available to read here: UUEPC Publications (ulster.ac.uk)