Remote working in Northern Ireland has experienced a significant decline since its peak during the pandemic, according to recent analysis conducted by economists from Ulster University.

The study indicates that just over 17 percent of the Northern Ireland workforce currently engages in some form of remote work, as reported in a recent BBC article.

This figure is in stark contrast to the 41 percent recorded in April 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and the pre-pandemic rate of under 10 percent in 2019. In comparison to the UK average of 31 percent, Northern Ireland has the lowest rate of remote working among all UK regions.

The analysis was based on a combination of official data, an employee survey, and interviews with employers in Northern Ireland. The survey, which included responses from 865 employees, revealed that 87 percent of them worked at least one day a week away from their workplace.

This online survey was conducted in early 2023. Additionally, the researchers consulted with 14 private sector firms, five public sector organisations, and three focus groups representing other businesses. All these organisations had adopted remote working during the pandemic and continued to implement it.

It’s likely to continue

The results of the employer consultation indicated that current remote working patterns are likely to persist, as they have proven successful for staff, and there is no evidence of a desire to bring employees back to the office. However, some concerns were raised by employers, particularly regarding collaboration, team culture, and the impact on younger individuals and new recruits as they integrate into the workforce and build networks.

Addressing these concerns may require support and development for line managers in adapting to a hybrid working environment, as many felt they were left to figure out these new approaches independently.

The impact of remote working on productivity remains uncertain, and employers are uncertain whether more hours worked translate to increased output or improved quality. According to the employee survey, the majority of respondents (55%) reported working from home two to three days per week, indicating that hybrid arrangements are prevalent. Those working in organisations with established hybrid or remote working policies expressed high levels of satisfaction (80%), especially when the arrangements were clear and certain.

What about productivity?

The survey respondents generally perceived higher productivity while working remotely, aligning with self-reported surveys from the UK, Canada, the US, and other countries.

Economist Ana Desmond from the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre emphasised that a hybrid work environment, which coordinates workplace days to foster innovation, collaboration, and corporate culture, while allowing specific tasks to be completed with greater focus and attention on at-home days, appears to strike the best balance between management and employees.

She suggested that businesses may need to adapt management and mentoring practices to ensure employees feel integrated, visible, and adequately trained for their roles within the workplace. Managers may also play a role in creating a sense of belonging within the workspace while effectively coordinating employees.

 

 

 

 

Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.