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Is remote working here to stay after the Covid-19 crisis is over ?

Smart Money: More flexible working is likely, but what will it mean for your life?

Working from home: Companies have found that the work gets done, but what happens when the Covid-19 crisis is over?

Vaccines are coming. So what will this mean for the life of the office worker? A more flexible future looks certain. But there is a big unanswered question: will you be back in the office most of the time, say three or more days a week, or will you be working from home most of the time and attending the office for specific things, like training, key meetings and so on ?

The future will look different. Some call it blended working, some a hybrid model, but we are not yet sure what it will look like. So what are the experts saying?

1. The data: There has been a massive rise in the numbers of people working from home during the pandemic – it has been a key factor protecting people's incomes and allowing businesses to continue to function

Some things are better done face to face.
Around one in six want to go back to the office full time, while around one in four want to work exclusively from home.

The latest CSO labour force survey said the numbers reporting their home as the primary place of work had risen from less than 5 per cent before the pandemic to almost 28 per cent by November. Subtracting those who had been working from home before Covid-19 hit suggests that around one in five of the workforce have moved to primarily working from home during Covid-19, an extraordinary transformation.


Those who do work primarily from home report that they do an average of three-quarters of their work at home – this figure was less than half for the much smaller numbers working from home before the pandemic. For most people, this looks set to continue into the start of 2021. But when the vaccine arrives, what then?

2. What people want : A recent Central Statistics Office survey is clear: in future most people who can work from home want to continue to do so, though not all the time. More than six out of 10 say they would like a mix in future of working from home and from the office – what is now called a "hybrid" model. Around one in six want to go back to the office full time, while around one in four want to work exclusively from home.

Interestingly more than four out of 10 people in rural areas want to continue working from home full time, more than twice the number in urban areas . We might speculate that this reflects first a desire to avoid long commutes and also a group that moved to rural Ireland during the pandemic – for example back to family homes – and would like to stay there.

Comparing data collected just after the pandemic hit in April to November, it shows people are getting more used to working from home and are increasingly favouring it as part of the future. More time with family and avoiding long commutes are big attractions.

3. What might happen: For now, most employers whose staff are working from home are telling them to continue to do so, due to Government advice. And this is likely to continue in the first quarter of 2021.

Beyond that, companies will seek clearer guidance from Government on what advice will apply if, as vaccines come on stream, the State moves to Level 1 or 2. The availability of public transport, now operating on a restricted basis, will also be a key issue. Holding on to and attracting key staff, many of whom will seek flexible work, will also be a key consideration.

Practice will vary from company to company. A lot will also depend on the view taken by senior management, including in the public sector and on job specifics. Some legal jobs, for example, may have data security and GDPR issues in terms of remote working. But, in general, big companies feel that the future will look different.

"Flexible working on a wide scale is now a proven case," according to Feargal O'Rourke, managing partner at one of Ireland's largest office employers, PwC. Digital technology had meant the last few months "worked even better than our best expectations", he said. While the office will always be important, "the idea of someone being in all day, every day is gone."

AIB, another major employer, in an update to investors this week also said that it intended to continue to provide flexibility to staff in terms of working location. It aims to cut its Dublin office locations by 50 per cent and its space in the capital by 40 per cent by 2023.You can't run a bank branch from your living room, but you can work, for example, in a call centre role, and deal with data, online customers and so on.

"More and more, employers are looking to the more longer term and this idea of a blended approach, with employees working some of the week from home and some from the office," says Jennifer Cashman, head of the HR practice at legal firm RDJ.

“I doubt we will ever see people back in offices five days a week,” she says. “The Government guidelines on remote working are due before the end of the year or early next year, so most employers are anxiously awaiting those guidelines also.”

A Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) code of practice on the right to disconnect is also due and Ireland is obliged to introduce legislation in relation the wider subject of flexible working by August 2022.

According to Cashman: “We are expecting that Ireland will introduce legislation similar to the UK, with the right for employees to request flexible working and a set of criteria set out in legislation as to how an employer considers such a request.”

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) has called on Government to go beyond the minimum requirements of the EU directive and extend the right to seek flexible working to all employees, not just those with younger children, It also recommends that employees seek revised contracts in the case of a shift to working from home – specifying things like agreed hours and how expenses are dealt with.

Employers are allowed to pay up to €3.20 per day tax free to cover expenses of working from home, though are not obliged to do so. Employees may also be able to claim expenses back against tax, though on a lesser scale.

Germany is planning legislation giving employees a legal right to ask to work from home. It also plans a tax allowance of €5 per day, or up to €600 a year, for those working from home.

Other key issues in terms of working from home include data security, GDPR, the employer’s responsibilities under health and safety legislation and the “right to disconnect”. Monitoring employees is also a delicate issue.

4. The blended future: The key issue companies and employees must address is the mix. Is it a case of most work being done from home and employees attending for specific purposes? Or will most people work in the office most of the time, with more flexible arrangements on a more limited basis?

A major studyby McKinsey Consultants says that work practices during the pandemic had "broken through cultural and technological barriers" that prevented remote work in the past. Remote work will persist, it says, but to the advantage of higher skilled and higher paid people in generally service based sectors.

Breaking down 2,000 activities in 800 occupations, it estimates that 20 per cent of people could work from home long-term between three and five days a week in a range of economies studied – or over one quarter in more developed, more service-based economies, such as Ireland.

McKinsey says that companies have found from their Covid-19 experience that some activities which can be done remotely work much better in person.These include training, bringing in new staff, and certain aspects of building relationships with colleagues and customers, planning and innovating. Speaking to senior executives in Irish firms, this view is mirrored – your employer will certainly want you in the office for these kind of functions.

McKinsey estimates that finance and insurance are the industries most suited to remote working, followed by management, business service providers like accountants and law firms and IT.

Interestingly, a significant number of senior executives surveyed by McKinsey were supportive of employees working two days a week at home, but a lot fewer favoured three days or more at home. Perhaps this is where the debate will be.Or perhaps it will be more based on attendance for specific parts of the job – to attend training, planning meetings, helping new staff, planing new projects and so on.

5. The wider issues: How the working from home debate plays out has major policy implications. Among the key issues are

– the future of city centres: fewer people in offices and more at home will move economic activity out of centres and in to suburbs.

– commercial property: AIB is reducing its property footprint for example. Many others will too. Some companies continue to expand their space however.TikTok is looking for more office space in Dublin, The Irish Times reported this week.

– regional hubs: the Government is examining locations for 400 regional hubs from which people could work remotely. This would offer broadband and proper officer facilities near people’s homes. It might be one answer to the main difficulty people find with remote work – isolation.

– the green agenda: car emissions are a key cause of household emissions. Lowering long commutes reduces these.

– urban planning: huge issues are raised for urban planning. There are host of planning and development issues for city centres,housing, public transport,retail, and so on which will be hugely influenced by how many return to work.