The Irish Times view on remote working: codifying the revolution

Workplace changes that were considered utopian just a few years ago occurred overnight, and in most cases they occurred rather smoothly

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar  published details of a new draft law that would give workers the right to request remote working. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar published details of a new draft law that would give workers the right to request remote working. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

It’s too early to know which of the many changes wrought by the pandemic will endure beyond it. Debates stirred by the crisis, far from altering people’s view of the world, have often seemed merely to entrench existing positions. There is a danger that the lifting of restrictions could simply cause people to snap back into old modes of thinking and behaving. Given all we have learned about our world’s fragility, the weaknesses of our health services, the role of the State and the power of intergenerational solidarity, among other things, that would be a shame.

But one area where a return to the status quo ante is unlikely is the world of work. The pandemic has caused a revolution in how we work, and where. Changes that were considered utopian just a few years ago occurred overnight, and in most cases they occurred rather smoothly. Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that 80 per cent of workers in the State did their job remotely at some point in the pandemic, compared with 23 per cent before it. That is higher than the international average, perhaps because of the length of the strict lockdowns here, but the trend is consistent across the developed world.

For many people, remote working was life-changing. The elimination of the daily commute and the benefits of greater flexibility improved their quality of life and their sense of wellbeing. For others, including those who did not have space to work at home or who lacked adequate broadband, it was tougher. That variety of experience will be reflected in future work patterns; indeed, surveys consistently show that the largest cohort of people would like to blend home working with office work. Employers’ experience of the experiment also varied by sector and by circumstances. They too benefitted from having happier staff, and many companies see opportunities for savings through smaller office spaces, and for attracting the best people regardless of where they live. But there have also been costs. It has been harder to train new staff and to build an organisational culture. The evidence on productivity is mixed.

For the State and for employers, all of this raises complex legal and procedural questions in areas ranging from health and safety to data protection and insurance to employment law. The Government’s draft law on remote working, published this week, enshrines an employee’s right to seek to work remotely while giving employers 13 grounds for refusing. Some trade unions argue that this is too restrictive, and the proposals are likely to evolve as they progress through the legislative process. But while that new law may be important, in a very real sense the argument about remote working has already been won. No employer who wishes to attract the best people and to keep them fulfilled in their work can afford not to recognise that.

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