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Remote working: just what will it look like after the pandemic?

Smart Money: The sector you work in will be a vital determinant of what is on offer

The sudden lifting of Covid restrictions has put the focus on the return to office work – and the issue of remote or flexible working. A lot of tension lies ahead between employers and employees – but there is much we can learn from the trends so far. Some of the key issues are already taking shape. So what will this look like?

1. Remote working is not going away

The pandemic accelerated a gradual move to remote or flexible working that was already evident. The initial signs are that while the percentage of hours worked at home will fall back from levels at the peal of the Covid emergency, we are looking at a fundamental change from the pre-pandemic picture. Data compiled internationally by jobs website Indeed and the OECD show that both employers and employees are changing their perspective. Last December, searches for jobs allowing remote working were six times higher than before the pandemic. Meanwhile employers were responding, with 12.9 per cent of job adverts on the Indeed site specifically mentioning remote working , versus 2.9 per cent in 2019.

Will this fall off now that restrictions are being lifted? It may a bit, but the Indeed/OECD analysis suggests that even as restrictions eased during the pandemic, there was not a commensurate reduction in the level of job ads for remote roles, suggesting that remote working will stick. And while many employers may baulk at totally remote roles, large numbers appear willing to consider forms of flexible working, typically hybrid formats where employees work two or three days a week in the office.

Recent CSO data has confirmed that employees want to hold on to flexibility, with nearly nine out of 10 of those who worked remotely during the pandemic wanting to continue to do so, though most wanted to work in the office some of the time.

2. International experience

The OECD/Indeed report –"Will it stay or will it go? Analysing developments in telework during Covid-19 using online job posting data" – draws on data from 20 countries and shows that what it calls " telework", or remote working, grew rapidly during the pandemic. Nearly 7.5 per cent of job ads last autumn specifically mentioned remote working – three times higher than pre-pandemic. We can see the increase in Ireland was greater and the study finds this is generally the case in countries which had heavier levels of restrictions, such as Italy, Spain, the UK and and the Republic. The Irish increase is the second highest of the countries studied.

The authors say the figures suggest that “telework is likely to be here to stay and may grow even further in highly digitally prepared countries and sectors.” Governments should encourage the spread of remote working as this can improve productivity and reduce emissions caused by commuting, it says. It may also help firms to attract the best talent.

That said, the data suggests that internationally the amount of work done at home by office workers will of course fall significantly from its pandemic high of 40 - 50 per cent in developed economies at the height of lockdowns. The percentage of jobs specifically mentioning remote or flexible working in ads is also likely to be a floor for the number which operate this way – in many cases the option of flexible work is now assumed to apply, though not fully remote working.

3. Sectoral trends

One of the key messages for employees is in the significant sectoral variations. Some sectors are particularly suited for remote working, notably skill-intensive and or digital-intensive service companies – software developers, international digital services, data analysts and so on – and the growth in advertised remote working is highest here.

According to Indeed, this may be one reason why the increase in postings for remote and flexible jobs is highest in Dublin, where it has grown nearly five times from pre-pandemic levels , twice the growth rate for the rest of the country.

“Dublin has a high density of of large technology companies and accommodating changing worker preferences is one way companies can appeal to new hires,” Indeed says.

The huge labour shortage in many of these sectors is also a key issue – skilled employees have the power right now to look for flexible or remote working as part of their package. And by their nature, these sectors tend to have the most up-to-date tools and practices for remote working.

While some sectors offer few opportunities for remote working, internationally a significant difference is opening up between the high level of employers seeking, or willing to facilitate, remote workers. Software design, marketing, media and design score highly, with lower, though still significant scores in IT operations roles, HR and insurance. Remote working may stick in particular , it says, in sectors and countries with the best digital infrastructure and preparedness.

4. The productivity puzzle

Generally studies on remote working have shown some improvement in productivity – attributed generally to a saving on commuting time, some of which benefits employers, as well as improved employee lifestyles. A major US study by the National Bureau of Economic Research felt this could be economically significant, adding 5 per cent or more to productivity. However the evidence on the productivity impact of home working is mixed, with questions about the cost of losing face-to-face collaboration. A number of studies have also highlighted that the employee benefits generally accrue to better paid people, who are more likely to be able to work from home. And the productivity implications vary from sector to sector and job to job.

A separate Indeed survey in Ireland showed that around half of employees felt their productivity had not altered when working from home, with the rest roughly split between those who felt their productivity had improved and those who felt that it had suffered. There were similar results in terms of the impact on work/life balance. Adding this to the CSO results, suggests that the vast majority still want to retain some flexibility.

The CSO survey showed that the 35- to 44-year-old age group was the most likely to want to work remotely when the pandemic ended, while those aged over 55 were most likely to want to return to the office. Those in the mid-east commuter counties of Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow were most likely to want to continue to work remotely – and this includes many with commutes of more than one hour, a group in which some 97 per cent wanted to continue to work remotely at least some of the time. The bulk of those asked by the CSO said a hybrid model of being in and out of the office was their preferred option.

5. Policy issues

Proposed Government legislation on remote working has hit the headlines – and the precise legal position will take time to evolve. However in the meantime employers and employees have contracts and will have to try to work things out in what could be a fractious period. Huge labour shortages across the economy are likely to push many employers to offer forms of flexible working , as will the evidence from the pandemic that many jobs can be done remotely.

But the gap between being flexible and allowing people to work remotely most or all of the time may prove contentious. The OECD study speculates that some roles may even be done internationally in future, though this does create some legal and tax implications.

For policymakers, broadband provision is a key issue and remote working offers opportunities both for rural development and cutting carbon emissions. And a significant number of remote workers are interested in availing of regional work hubs. A revolution is coming in the way many of us work and it will be fascinating to watch as a shape is put on this over the next few years.