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Irish employees now have upper hand in the debate over working from home

There are interesting trends as employees seek to use new legislation and official guidelines to their advantage as remote working beds in across the office workforce

Working from home graphic 2024
Smart Money, June 21, 2024
Graphic: Kevin O'Hare.

Hybrid working is here to stay. That is the clear message from the recent official figures from the Central Statistics Office, in the labour force detailed employment series, which show that having fallen back from its pandemic high, more than one in three of the workforce are now working at least some of the week from home, or another remote location, compared to less than one in five before the pandemic.

The figures for those who “usually work at home” are even more dramatic, increasing from 7 per cent pre-pandemic to around 20 per cent now.

The idea of spending some of the week working from home is bedding in. A survey published this week by the Stepstone Group, a recruitment company, found that more than half of Irish employees would refuse a new job that did not offer hybrid or remote working, compared to an international average of 29 per cent.

Ireland – along with Finland – is now right at the top of the European league in terms of working from home – in part reflecting the high level of office-based employment here compared to other countries, but also the “stickiness” of hybrid and remote working after the pandemic.


Labour shortages in many sectors – meaning employers have had to work to attract employees – has also been a factor. And now new legislation, backed up by guidelines from the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has created a fresh route for employees to seek flexible or remote working, leading to some interesting trends.

1. The data

Each quarter, as part of the labour force figures, the Central Statistics Office publishes details on three groups: the number of employees who work from home most of the time (meaning the person worked at home on at least half of days worked in the previous four weeks); the number who do so some of the time; and those who never work from home.

Clearly, the third group includes many people who simply cannot work from home, such as those employed in retail and tourism, hospitals and healthcare and other sectors.

Separate surveys have confirmed that the bulk of hybrid arrangements involve people working in the office either two or three days a week, and this broadly explains the more recent shifts.

Ireland has a relatively high proportion of people who can work remotely, however, and who did so during the pandemic. As well as the traditional office-based professions – accountancy, legal services and so on – there has been a whole new wave of technology investment in recent years led by US multinationals such as Google, LinkedIn and Facebook, as well as a big international financial services sector.

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This was reflected in the pandemic when, at the lockdown peak during early 2021, a total of 37.5 per cent of the workforce were working from home most of the time and a further 6.5 per cent were doing so some of the time. As the Covid restrictions lifted the numbers working from home most of the time have fallen back, but remain well above pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, there has been an increase in the numbers working from home for some of the time. Separate surveys have confirmed that the bulk of hybrid arrangements involve people working in the office either two or three days a week, and this broadly explains the more recent shifts.

Most of those working from home during the pandemic are now hybrid on one of these arrangements.

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2. What the experts say

Employment experts say that the introduction of hybrid working – and employees rights to ask for it – now underpinned by legislation and WRC guidelines – has led to this bedding down of what looks like a permanent arrangement across much of the civil service and private sector office workers.

Employees are in a strong position to seek to maintain these arrangements. The new WRC guidelines require companies to have formal processes to consider and respond to requests both for remote working and for flexible working, which relates to those with caring duties at home, according to Jennifer Cashman, employment partner with RDJ solicitors.

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The right to request remote or flexible working does not oblige companies to say “yes”, she points out, but they must have a formal consideration process, meet certain timelines and give reasons for refusing a request.

Typically, companies who do not want to grant a request might say, for example, that they believe employees need to be in the office to collaborate with colleagues, or for training purposes. Where initial requests are turned down, the guidelines also suggest other options should be considered – for example an employee might seek a full-time remote working arrangement while the company may seek to have them in the office two or three days a week.

With managers asked to return to the office full time, staff may feel under pressure to do likewise. The culture may change.

Companies are also becoming more formal in obliging hybrid employees to attend on particular days of the week – when team meetings might typically take place – or at particular times.

Several employers have pushed back. Some have asked staff, particularly managers, to come back full time in line with their international parent – as is the case in some international banks, where many US parents are pulling back on remote working.

With managers asked to return to the office full time, staff may feel under pressure to do likewise. The culture may change.

Cashman warns, however, that Irish legislation and guidelines differ from those internationally and notably from the UK and so companies cannot just import international policy here.

The broad trend across Europe is for hybrid working to be the new norm in office work. Ireland is at the forefront here according to the numbers, with almost twice as many employees normally working from home as the EU average (though up to date comparable figures are scarce).

While this in part reflects the structure of the economy, the long Irish lockdowns here may also have been a factor, bedding in the working from home habit.

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Many employers may not like it – the chief executive of UK digital bank Atom said this week that he preferred his company’s four-day week where employees had no obligations to come into the office at all, than trying to manage an " in and out” hybrid structure.

But there is no going back to the pre-pandemic norm; studies on the impact of working from home on productivity are mixed and the challenge for employers is to mitigate the disadvantages in areas such as collaboration.

One key thing to watch in the months ahead is how the WRC deals with complaints from employees whose request has been turned down. While these rulings are only meant to refer to the process used by the company, the employees concerned are clearly objecting because of the outcome. To date, the WRC has received 10 complaints under the Work Life Balance Act in relation to remote working, seeking adjudication by an Adjudication Office.

How the WRC deals with this and how it reflects on the reasons for refusal will be vital in developing a case “law” in the area.

3. A new trend

Have the WRC guidelines, implementing the 2023 Work Life Balance legislation, led to new trends, beyond the need for companies and employees to follow a specific process? One notable aspect, according to Cashman, is anecdotal evidence of an increased number of people seeking fully remote arrangements using the framework of the new rules.

This often relates, she believes, to people who relocated during the pandemic who may wish to stay where they are, rather than being priced out of the main urban markets.

Rather than facing the long commute, many, it seems, are now seeking to work remotely, while others use caring duties to underpin similar requests

Recent figures from Banking and Payments Federation Ireland have also shown that many people are applying for loans outside their own county – one in four of applicants nationally fall into this category. In the commuter counties of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, borrowers from Dublin accounted for 40 per cent of loans for new properties.

Rather than facing the long commute, many, it seems, are now seeking to work remotely, while others use caring duties to underpin similar requests.

As with requests for hybrid working, companies have to be careful to follow the rules as they respond and employees also need to follow the process as outlined in the guidelines.

While there are no detailed figures, fully remote arrangements are much less common than hybrid working – companies, who have decided to embrace the hybrid model, may feel fully remote is a step too far. The WRC guidelines seem to give them some scope to refuse such requests, but again how complainants are dealt with by the WRC will be closely watched.