Hybrid working could reach “a fracture point” in 2024, expert warns

While many companies have agreed to staff working two or three days a week from home, these arrangements remain casual until they are written into the work contracts of employees. Picture: iStock

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There are plenty of things that can creep in unnoticed over the space of a year.

We might sit down, for example, at the start of every January to compile yet another list of New Year’s Resolutions, only to realise we didn’t get around to quite a few of our plans for the previous 12 months – maybe the gym membership went unused, or perhaps the Duolingo app was neglected, that foreign language we vowed to learn now long forgotten.

In 2023 however, one major change happened so incrementally that few of us cottoned on to its severity – or to the impact it could have on our careers in 2024.

In short, as Sanderson Managing Director Donal O’Donoghue puts it, the past year saw employers “taking back some control.”

“The labour market, like any market, is based entirely on supply and demand – with supply in this case being the number of candidates available, while demand is the number of vacancies out there,” Donal explains. “We constantly hear people talking about whether it’s an employer-driven market or a candidate-driven one, but the reality is that demand has moderated significantly. There are less vacancies waiting to be filled now than there were straight after the pandemic, so the dial has shifted and control is going back to the employer.

“One of the ways we’re seeing employers taking back some of that control is when it comes to [hybrid] working patterns. At the moment, 47% of employees want to work from the office two days a week, while employers typically want a minimum of three days. It’s a particular point of inflection, because over the past year a lot of employers have implemented hybrid working policies, but we’re yet to see them introduce any contractual changes. Theoretically, those policies can still be changed at any time, nothing is set in stone.

“It’s going to be really interesting to watch how that plays out, because when we look at the research, salary is the number one thing that drives candidates to move or change jobs, but flexibility isn’t far behind at number two. We’re reaching a fracture point I think, where there’s this mismatch between what the job seeker is looking for when considering to move and what the employer wants from them, so I think 2024 and 2025 are going to see a moderation of that. It’s going to be very interesting in the labour market over the next 24 months!”

One of the most gripping aspects of it all, Donal remarks, is that the ongoing debate around hybrid working has seen compelling reasoning from both sides.

“Many employees believe the pandemic proved that remote working can and does work successfully, and to a certain extent that is true,” he points out. “Most organisations were able to pivot [back in 2020] and deliver services in a hybrid or remote environment with strong results, but the other thing we have to consider is that the pandemic caused so much pent up demand that businesses performed exceptionally well in the 18 months or so immediately afterwards as a direct result. Employers are having to reassess now that [post-pandemic demand] has faded somewhat.

“The other issue we’re seeing more and more, is that the younger generation who have always worked either remote or hybrid are now struggling with some areas of development. This is particularly the kind of development that in the past would have happened by osmosis, sitting with and learning from colleagues or being invited to spontaneous meetings.

“It’s another reason that a lot of companies are now looking to manage their productivity, so I think it’s very difficult to define how that will go just yet. We’re already seeing cities and towns across the country getting busier with office workers back in more days per week, and I see that trend continuing somewhat over the next 18 months.”

As to what other trends we can expect from 2024, Donal stresses that many are quite positive from a jobseeker’s point of view. The tech sector in particular is an area where he’s keen to dispel any sense of doom and gloom that’s recently threatened to emerge. While the last two years have seen an onslaught of job cuts in the likes of Meta, Google and X, Donal says these incidents have provided a silver lining.

“We currently have the lowest level of unemployment that we’ve ever had in Ireland, in any other labour market I think that same number of tech sector layoffs would have had a much more disastrous impact. However, because we have such high demand in the tech sector currently, those roles were able to be absorbed back into the market and those people largely were able to find new roles at a comparable level very quickly.

“I don’t think the layoffs have been a disincentive for people looking to enter the tech sector, but what it has done is it’s demonstrated how it’s not all about the large US tech firms. They’re fantastic, and it’s great to have them on a candidate’s CV, but what’s happened in the last two years just reminds us that Ireland and Europe have a very fast growing and thriving startup sector of their own.

“There are plenty of tech organisations and fintech organisations – and indeed organisations in many different sectors – that have significant demand for those same skills. I don’t think the recent layoffs will be any deterrent for people moving into the sector – in fact, technological transformation such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data are the sectors that are going to dominate in the next few years. I think we’re going to see huge demand for talent in that space.”

While on that topic of artificial intelligence, it’s hard not to question just how prominent it could become in 2024.

“All of the research suggests that AI is going to be a net positive, in that it’s going to create far more positions than it displaces,” Donal reassures. “I think going forward people will just need to embrace it as part of their skillset, whether that’s developers who are developing new software that needs to have AI integration, or it’s any other employee delivering their normal job and ethically using AI to improve their productivity.

“Of course, there are a number of considerations when you think about AI – there’s the transparency piece, which means that we as consumers need to be informed by companies if AI is getting involved. For example, if you’re applying for a bank loan and you’re being risk assessed, will that decision ultimately be made by a human or by AI? Decisions like that should be totally transparent.

“If you’re applying for a job and AI is involved in some of the assessment or the sifting through of your CV, you should be informed of that. Then there’s also the policy piece, because if AI is going to be involved in our day-to-day lives we need to make sure that privacy policies and other disclaimers are updated.

“The biggest piece is the ethical piece, where we really need to make sure that the use of AI is ethical and that the AI is properly programmed so that it removes bias rather than fostering it. It’s definitely an area that I think a lot of work will be done on in the coming months.”


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