John FitzGerald: Working from home may create as many problems as it solves
Move away from remote working will push up housing demand and carbon emissions
Employers will need to signal well in advance when a full return to “normal” working is expected, especially for those who need to return to within commuting distance of the office.
The huge disruption in our lives over the last year has had a major impact on the economy, but it is also likely to have a wider effect on society and our way of life in the years to come.
Despite the massive restrictions on our behaviour, it is surprising how well business and government have adapted to the changed circumstances. A decade ago, it would not have been possible for government and much of the world of work to have seamlessly moved online.
The very success in adapting to online working will have longer-term effects. It has shown that more flexible working arrangements can be deployed effectively in many businesses and in government: for many employers it is clearly not necessary for everyone to be at their office five days a week for the work to be undertaken efficiently.
However, the longer the current disruption has gone on, the more difficult these arrangements of dispersed working have become. Initially teams reacted to the crisis with dedication and commitment. However, a year on it is often difficult to maintain the same enthusiasm.
There is ample evidence that online learning in the education system is not nearly as effective as more traditional modes of teaching. This is especially true for weaker students. Third-level students are missing out on student life, a vital aspect of learning.
In the world of work, we are discovering why many businesses and government have traditionally organised themselves in offices. For example, it is very difficult to introduce new employees to each other and build up camaraderie on Zoom. In many areas of business and government, innovation depends on informal contacts over coffee or unplanned encounters among staff.
Fifteen years ago, when I was organising a network of researchers across the EU through teleconferences, a German colleague identified one of the major problems with online working. He said that in Germany when you have a row at work you go and have a beer afterwards – virtual beers don’t work the same way. In the end we found that meeting together twice a year over dinner was essential to maintain the necessary team spirit, and smooth out differences of opinion in the network.
While the world of the office is not dead, it will certainly be changed by the current experience. There will be much more use of flexible working and, in many cases, people may work from home for some of the week.
Because of the major shortage of accommodation, and its resulting high cost in Dublin and other cities, over the last year many of those working from home have moved outside the main population centres, living with family or in rented accommodation around the country. Some have moved abroad to work in sunnier climes or back to their home countries; conversely, some of the Irish working abroad have moved back here to work remotely.
However, when the time comes to unwind this dispersed working, and return to offices for at least some of the week, there will be significant problems. Employers will need to signal well in advance when a full return to “normal” working is expected, especially for those who need to return to within commuting distance of the office.
Any return to city living will push up demand for housing, as also will accumulated savings over lockdown. The disruption to the building industry over the last year has affected the supply of homes. There will be more cash chasing this tight supply, so house prices and rents are set to rise.
Many workplaces may opt to return to office working for just three or four days a week rather than full time. This could see employees wanting to continue to live outside Dublin, and to commute a long distance into the city for the days they need to be in the office, particularly if the cost of Dublin housing shoots up. However, this option is not environmentally sustainable on a long-term basis.
Long-distance commuting by car, albeit only a few days a week, would give rise to much higher greenhouse gas emissions. It would cause massive congestion on our roads.
Spending hours of leisure time commuting is unattractive for most people on a long-term basis, and is bad for the environment. This reinforces the urgent need to ramp up delivery of increased housing in our major cities to ensure a sustainable lifestyle.