Cliff Taylor: Post-pandemic decisions needed on working from home

Government policy must look beyond short term and kill commutes to ease working lives

The Government has made some welcome moves – on the right to disconnect and request remote working. But if it wants to put in place policies to push this in certain directions, now is the time.

An awful lot hangs on whether working from home lasts beyond the end of the pandemic. Of course, now that everyone has seen how remote working can operate, some form of work flexibility is here to stay. But beyond that we really haven’t a clue how this is going to work out. As one senior executive observed to me this week – where will your place of work be in future? Is it defined by your desk in work or by where you set up your laptop?

So far, many companies are plumping for “hybrid” working – a mix of in and out of the office – as a kind of half-way house when employees start to return in the autumn. It is a reasonable starting point. But everyone is just feeling their way into this new world. And where this lands is vital – not only for how many of us live, but also for city centres, for urban planning, for transport, for fairness, for productivity and for much more.

When Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar started hinting this week about people returning to the office as early as August, they were responding to the fears about the future of city centres, which remain quieter than normal, notwithstanding the crowding seen on some evenings. Jobs postings in city centre markets worldwide are lagging other areas .

You can see the evidence. City centre coffee shops are quiet and some remain closed; out in the suburbs, you can’t go more than a mile or two without seeing another coffee truck on the side of the road. Consumer demand has moved.


Remote success

We know after the pandemic that remote working can be successful – and the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US estimates that this means a long-term change, with one in five full-time hours worked remotely in the years ahead, versus one in 20 hours before the pandemic. And it says less time commuting means more productivity.

In Ireland, the initial hybrid working model typically involves people working three days in the office and two remotely, though it is the other way around in some companies trying to save office space. Among multinationals, the approach varies. Facebook is favouring a remote strategy, even letting some staff work from overseas. Others like Google and Apple want staff back in the office more regularly.There is no one "winning" pattern emerging and nobody is sure how best to manage group activities, training, meetings and innovation.

Everyone likes the option of working from home, but it is not perfect. Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella recently observed that "it sometimes feels like you are sleeping at work". Do you "do" your two or three days in the office each week or go in for specific reasons? Or do we drift back to spending more time in the office, with flexibility to work remotely for a day or two a week, or at specific times?

And are we seeing remote working policies set by an older, settled generation – who tend to benefit most as more can work from home – to suit themselves? Some younger people, living in small, shared accommodation, may well prefer the office full-time. Others who may have moved down the country to their homes might prefer to stay there. What about a national policy which encourages employers where possible to allow younger employees to work remotely in the longer term, allowing them to buy or rent much more cheaply, developing rural towns and taking the pressure off city centre rents?

Broadband and competitiveness

National planning is based on having more people living in smaller accommodation in city centres, to save commuting time and cut carbon emissions. But this vision rests crucially on people going out to work. Many still will, of course, but remote working and “denser” living – as is it is called – may not go hand in hand.

There is a host of other big policy implications. The Irish National Competitiveness and Productivity Council has pointed to the importance of having broadband and working hubs in rural areas to allow remote working – and the wider imperative of competitiveness in an era when people can work from anywhere.

If the Facebook trend of allowing at least some employees to work overseas is going to become common – and I am not sure on this one – then making Ireland as attractive a place as possible to live will be vital. Otherwise these employees will pay their taxes and spend their euro elsewhere. It shows the power of the big multinationals and what they decide. There are legal and tax complications here, but this is one to watch.

And policy towards city centres hangs in the balance. If a lot of office work is going to be conducted remotely, then many consumer-facing, city-centre businesses will not make it , but the suburban coffee trucks – and shopping centres, beauty businesses, hairdressers and so on – will thrive. A study by Ibec chief economist Gerard Brady showed that the big winners if people do work from home permanently will be suburban and commuter areas. Rural towns, on the other hand, have smaller populations who have jobs which can be done remotely. Policy needs to address this via specific incentives.

The pandemic has given us a vision of a new, remote working future. The Government has made some welcome moves – on the right to disconnect and the option to request remote working. But if it wants to change the dial and put in place policies to push this in certain directions, now is the time. You can see the short-term reason to tell people to “get back to the office”. But there are other opportunities here to make people’s lives easier, develop rural towns and save on the ghastly commutes which have blighted so many lives.