Una Mullally: Office culture is dead – quality of life has killed it

Varadkar’s out-of-touch ‘back to the grind’ mentality belongs in the 20th century

Surveys show most workers are dead against a return to being stuck in an office full time. Photograph: iStock

We’ve all honed new skills during the pandemic, but can anything surpass the Tánaiste’s mastery of kite-flying? Leo Varadkar has spent the latter half of the past 15 months talking about the things that “could”, “may”, “should”, “probably” and “are likely” to happen. That the media continues to package his vagueness as news is silly, and causes a lot of uncertainty. The former “straight-talker” is now a master of confusion, fuelling an atmosphere of uncertainty. What’s it all about? Keeping himself in the headlines? Pretending to be in charge? Getting one up on his Fianna Fáil colleagues? Leading the media on a merry dance? Probably all of the above.

But two recent statements don’t just seem speculative, they actually appear completely out of touch with, if not the new normal, then the new reality. First up is his thought that personal tax rates are apparently a “major disincentive” if we want to scoop up remote workers from outside Ireland. Varadkar’s solution? Cut tax for high earners! Varadkar has his eye on the new homeless. Not people who actually need housing right now – no, it’s the 50,000 remote jobs currently floating around Europe.

In this instance, Varadkar is not so much dog-whistling as wolf-whistling to an increasingly imagined base, rather than a real one. The idea that thousands of remote workers, now officeless and footloose across Europe, would choose Ireland as a base to work from is genuinely laughable. It’s a fantasy. Luring high-earning workers who aren’t anchored to a geographic “base” is not just about tax, although that is one factor. It’s about cost of living and quality of life. If Varadkar really does want to “attract” such mythical “professionals”, he’d be better off bolstering the quality of life and reducing the cost of living for those who actually live here right now. Perhaps after that the landscape might look more hospitable to those he wants to tweet about landing in the self-congratulatory manner ministers of his ilk tend to do when they’re announcing smatterings of new jobs, as if they won them on a sports day.

August return

The other kite is his desire to see people back in offices in August. In fact, he’s urging it. The Tánaiste does recognise that work will change, but again, this infantilising back-to-work drive does not match reality. It’s very obvious, when you examine internal workplace surveys and public ones, that most workers may return to the office two to three days a week. The five-day-week, 9-to-5 culture is over.


There are outliers. One of the reasons many people in their 20s, for example, want to get back to the office is because of the housing crisis. The perspective of “working from home” has been warped through the lens of the seemingly very high number of journalists and commentators who have the space for a home office. Despite all the feature articles about building design-led home offices in the back garden, converting the spare room into a “work space”, buying bespoke desks and ergonomic chairs, and having access to high-speed broadband, this is completely unattainable for tens of thousands of people. How many twentysomethings renting in any Irish city have a spare room? Or a back garden, for that matter? No wonder people in their 20s want to get back to having an actual workspace, not perched on their bed with a laptop, or scrabbling for room on the kitchen table. But that’s a symptom of the housing crisis, not some kind of desire for a five-day-a-week commute to a building.

Back to the grind?

An EY survey of 16,000 employees across 16 countries found that 44 per cent of job candidates now say they would refuse a role if the employer did not offer remote working; 70 per cent say a better work-life balance is their top priority when considering interviewing for a role. Just 10 per cent say they want to return to their office site full-time. The surveys keep coming. A recent US survey of “technologists” showed just 17 per cent thought a full-time return to the office was very desirable. In France, a survey of nearly 3,000 private and public sector workers showed 92 per cent want to work remotely for one to three days a week.

There is no doubt that when it comes to the collaboration, training, culture-building and socialising part of work, a stint in the office can be a positive thing. But it will not be full-time for the majority. Even if most office jobs shaved off just a day or two of the in-house working week, that’s a huge change. Ignoring this massive cultural shift is delusional. Add to that the number of screen-jobbers who are packing things in for something more meaningful following the prolonged periods of reflection the pandemic instigated, and office culture (and screen-job culture) is in for a rocky ride. And that’s great. Allow people to live and balance their lives, and our society will be better for it. But it’s time for government to meet this change, by lowering the cost of living, freezing rent and creating a better quality of life on the island. The dressed-up “back to the grind” mentality of Fine Gael, in this context, like so many of their policies, belongs in the 20th century.