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Government says working 'will never be the same again' - here's its plan for what it will look like

The government’s National Remote Work Strategy says that remote working will be a “permanent feature” after Covid-19.

As part of The Good Information Project we are posing the question this month ‘What is the future of work after Covid-19?’. 

AS GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCEMENTS go, it wasn’t the type we’ve gotten accustomed to over the past year. 

Since March 2020, these announcements have usually carried grim news with serious implications for every citizen in Ireland. 

The one to launch the government’s National Remote Work Strategy in January 2021, however, was more in keeping with the kind of pre-pandemic announcements we were used to – low-key, accompanied by a press release and not likely to lead the front pages the following day.

But, in a time now where so many people have switched to remote working because of Covid-19, the government’s plan for how the population will work in future takes on a greater significance than it otherwise might have. 

While the strategy includes a number of actions the government plans to take, the opposition have been quick to seize on them for not going far enough and say Ireland could lag behind other EU countries as a result. 

In the foreword of the strategy, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar acknowledges that while many people will return to the office “when the pandemic is over”, working as we knew it before “will never be the same again”.

The plan is at times both ambitious and vague: the government is making clear that this is something that is going to happen, but as of now it is also being somewhat cautious about potentially treading on employers’ toes. This is influencing how it plans to legislate in certain areas. 

Here, we’ll break down the government’s plan to encourage remote working and what it says it will do to make this happen. 

Positives and negatives

In its strategy, the government breaks down the benefits and challenges that have come with a mass shift towards remote working.

The benefits are broad, and include attracting and retaining talent, improving work/life balance, improving child and family wellbeing and reducing the amount of time spent commuting. 

“The impacts of increased remote work can be substantial and remote working has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of where, how, when and why people work,” the strategy says. 

On the other hand, the challenges include impacts on employees’ mental health such as experiencing feelings of isolation, loneliness and stress. They also have difficulty switching off and keeping regular hours.

For employers, the strategy says remote working “does not easily support creativity” and group dynamics. If these issues aren’t overcome, it could result in “long-term impacts on firms’ productivity”. 

Furthermore, while it may help revitalise towns and villages across Ireland, “it could result in challenges for cities as increasingly workers may choose to work from other locations”. 

On productivity, it says that the effect of remote working is unclear. In any case, remote working during more normal times cannot be compared remote working during the sudden, sharp shock of a global pandemic, it says.

To reap the benefits while mitigating the potential downsides, the government said it will take action to remove barriers and develop infrastructure to support remote working into the future. 

‘A permanent feature’

The overall objective of the strategy is to “ensure remote work is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace” in the future. 

It puts forward a number of measures which the government says it wants to have done by the end of the year to help make that a reality. One is a right for employees to request remote work

It says: “Currently in Ireland, all employees can request the right to remote work from their employers but there is no legal framework around which a request can be framed.

“Introducing legislation on this topic will provide employees a framework around which such a request could be based.”

Such legislation is expected in the third quarter of this year.

One area where action has already been undertaken is in the right to disconnect

“The sudden onset of remote working, as a result of Covid-19, has blurred the boundaries between people’s professional and private lives,” the strategy says.

To that effect, it proposes the right to disconnect which gives employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal working hours, including the right to not respond immediately to emails, telephone calls or other messages.

The government opted not to draft legislation in this area, saying that there was a balance to be struck, and opted for the creation of a code of conduct instead. If an employee feels their workplace is not adhering to the code, they can take a case to the Workplace Relations Commission. 

Labour and Sinn Féin, however, are among those saying that the right to disconnect should be enshrined in law to be effective. 

Sinn Féin’s workers’ rights spokesperson Louise O’Reilly said that the code of conduct “does not confer a single additional legal right on workers”. 

“Workers not only deserve a legal right to disconnect which is protected in law, but they absolutely need it, for their physical and mental health, for their wellbeing, and for their productivity,” she said. 

Another area the government is looking at, which could be included in the Budget later this year, are tax or financial incentives.

Already, employees are entitled to up to €3.20 a day from their employer which is exempt from tax for expenses like light, heat and broadband. However, that’s up to the employer to give to a worker. If an employer doesn’t pay that allowance, you can make a claim for tax relief at the end of the year.

Some countries go further. In Belgium, employees can be reimbursed up to €144 a month for costs incurred while working from home. That’s expected to cover the likes of office supplies, utilities, insurance, maintenance and even coffee and snacks. 

When it comes to the incentives here, the government’s plans are a bit vague.

It says: “In the context of Budget 2022, the Department of Finance will review tax arrangements for remote working for employers and employees and assess the merits of further enhancements.”

Infrastructure

Alongside these, the government hopes that new infrastructure – particularly in rural Ireland – will help to create a better environment for remote working. 

One of those bits of infrastructure, which were referenced heavily in the government’s Our Rural Future plan announced late last month, are remote working hubs.

From how they’re talked about the National Remote Work Strategy, it’s clear the government is pinning a lot of its hopes on these hubs.

It says: “A national network of remote working hubs provides a solution for those who are often required to travel across the country for work and aids the transition of employees moving from a fixed workplace model.

“Remote working hubs also provide the opportunity for potential dynamism between employees from different firms working in the same environment.

In particular, the use of remote working hubs can have a transformative impact on local economies and communities and can facilitate a more equal geographical distribution of high-value knowledge economy roles. The presence of remote working hubs with high speed broadband could facilitate many to work locally and result in increased regional employment and lower carbon emissions.

The government plans to invest in remote work hubs and infrastructure, extend the coverage across the country along with developing metrics to track the impact of remote work in both hubs and homes. Another element will investigate how the hubs can align with the transition to a low carbon economy.

All of this is due for completion this year. 

Another part of this programme is the National Broadband Plan and hopes to accelerate its progress in the near term. 

While it’s not expected for most of the country to have access to high-speed broadband until 2024 at the earliest, the government wants to “explore how [this] can be accelerated”. 

The strategy adds that broadband connectivity across rural Ireland will be a “central part of remote work infrastructure”. 

Big data

The last element of the plan involves creating future policy and guidelines in the area. 

To do this, the government wants to develop national data on the incidence and frequency of remote work in this country

A number of government departments and the CSO are expected to deliver on this by the end of the year. 

Furthermore, a number of government departments have been tasked with gaining a full understanding of the impact of remote work on areas such as employment, transport, carbon emissions, broadband and equality by the end of the year. 

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The strategy also identifies the potential for remote work to address issues around gender balance in the workplace. 

“A lack of flexible working opportunities is often cited as one of the reasons behind the scarcity of women in senior jobs” it says.

“Increased remote and flexible working has the potential to improve women’s representation at senior level. Policy on remote working can support this by ensuring that remote working does not limit career development.”

To underpin all of these aims in remote working, the public service must “lead by example in all of this”, the strategy says. 

In the Programme for Government, a commitment was made on 20% home working in the public sector this year. Work on that remains ongoing, according to the strategy, with an update due in Q4. 

Another area is encouraging businesses to adopt remote working policies, and giving them the skills to do so. Agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, the Western Development Commission and Skillnet Ireland were given this task to complete this year.

Closing off the strategy, it says that each of the actions suggest this plan has an agreed delivery date sometime this year. 

The strategy itself was broadly welcomed by business groups, who advised caution in terms of the plans for legislation in the area of the right to disconnect and the right to request home working. 

While it has a number of deliverable actions, however, it will be in the enacting of these measures that the government will be judged.

For example, its decision to create a code of conduct around the right to disconnect rather than provide for it within legislation has faced criticism and accusations it won’t actually benefit employees.

This will make how they legislate for the right to request remote work closely watched when it is due in the third quarter of this year.

So too will its commitment for 20% of the public service to be working remotely by the end of the year. 

The government has said it wants to “lead” in the area of remote working going forward.

With hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland still working from home for the foreseeable future, a great many are relying on the government to get it right. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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