Remote working is starting to look like a busted flush

Employers are hesitant, workers are unsure and the Government is not doing much to help

Covid-19 precipitated the largest experiment in remote working in the history of the state. Over half of the Irish workforce worked at home for some period during the pandemic.

Such has been the enthusiasm for remote working that it is often claimed that the days of the office are numbered. We contend such claims are grossly exaggerated.

We do not foresee a widespread movement towards home-working or indeed remote working. This is for three reasons: it is not obvious to employers that this is the best way to proceed; it is not what all employees want; and even in those instances where employees wish to avail of this option, the state does not seem, to date at least, to be well disposed to helping them.

Before the pandemic, Ireland had one of the lowest levels of remote working in Europe. Apart from the Government’s report, Remote Work in Ireland, from the end of 2019, there had been little else by way of concrete initiative. Of note is that while employer and worker representative organisations came together across the EU in July 2002 to agree a framework agreement on remote working, or as they termed it teleworking, Ireland did not implement the resulting agreement.

Only 8 per cent of the workforce want to continue working at home full-time into the future. The majority want the best of both worlds

When Covid hit, Irish businesses quickly complied with state emergency regulations to move all work into people’s homes that did not involve the provision of critical services. Eurofound estimated that at the height of the pandemic in 2020, the proportion of people working exclusively at home in Ireland was over 40 per cent, second only to Belgium in the EU.

As restrictions were lifted, people began to return gradually to the office. In learning of their experiences of working at home we now know from the 2021 UCD Working in Ireland Survey that it was, by and large, a mixed blessing. Some enjoyed it, while others did not. Productivity certainly increased, with employees better able to concentrate at home and without having to commute.

However, there were costs. Effort levels escalated to the extent that many employees, particularly women, experienced increased stress levels, were unable to disconnect from work, and suffered a diminishment in their health and well-being. For many, too, relations with the people they live with deteriorated while they were engaged in homeworking.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, only 8 per cent of the workforce want to continue working at home full-time into the future. The majority want the best of both worlds; to have the flexibility to engage in some form of hybrid working where they work some days at home and other days in the workplace.

Those workers who are clear in their preference for returning to the workplace on a full-time basis are those for whom the office is now a sanctuary in the face of the travails of home working.

What do employers want? Many employers will want their employees back in the office on a full-time- or near full-time- basis, just as they were before the pandemic. The reasons vary but they include the requirements to induct and socialise new staff, to inculcate staff identity with and commitment to the organisation, to cast oversight over staff performance, and to capture the insights and performance improvements that emerge from spontaneous informal interactions between staff when they are present physically in the one place.

Some employers have moved to offer pay premia to those willing to return to the office. By corollary, an employee who chooses to remain working at home may be penalised financially.

Where does the State stand? Well, not on the fence that is for sure and it is certainly not in the employees’ corner.

The January 2022 Draft Scheme on the Right to Request Remote Working Bill is notable for how little it does to facilitate remote work. Two difficulties confront employees.

First, there is the daunting task of initiating the request to work remotely. It befalls employees to put forward the case to their employers that they be permitted to work remotely. This requires a written notice of the “full details of the proposal”, including a self-assessment of the suitability and security of the remote working location. In doing so, employees are confronted by the “non-exhaustive” list of thirteen business case reasons which employers can draw upon to deny their request.

Second, there is no effective appeal framework. The Bill merely provides for a procedural review of the reasons proffered by employers in refusing to permit remote working. It does not permit employees to challenge the “substance or merits” of employers’ refusal. It would be generous in the extreme to call this an appeal mechanism.

The Bill deploys a simple framework for a perceived simple matter. Ultimately, it expresses a narrow view: remote working is for workers’ benefit, but it is a matter over which the employer must have complete discretion.

The cumulative effect of the Bill’s provisions will be to discourage employees from requesting remote working. This represents a missed opportunity.

We noted the survey data on employees’ experiences of remote work and their preferences: it is seen to carry risks as well as gains. Its introduction, however, provides an ideal opportunity for the kind of workplace dialogue between employer and employee that the Bill seems too ready to disregard.

John Geary is at UCD’s School of Business and David Mangan is at Maynooth University’s School of Law & Criminology