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Opinion: We must now accept that office work will never be the same again

Joanne Mangan of Grow Remote says there will be no ‘great return to the office’ and we now have a chance to make Ireland a world leader in remote practices.

Joanne Mangan

ONCE AGAIN THE ‘Great Return’ has become the ‘Great Stay Where you Are’. In response to surging Covid numbers, the NPHET and the government have advised a widespread return to work from home.

This is quite a change, given that since September we’ve seen a return to the office on a phased and cautious basis. Meanwhile, the ESRI had recently reported that 50% of workers were back in their workplaces and roads were once again congested with commuter traffic heading to the office.

Employers are now in the all-too-familiar position of having to redesign their plans while also trying to maintain business continuity, take care of employees who are looking for clarity and security, and all the while the ‘Great Resignation’ is looming.

Rapid changes for all

Employers and employees alike are feeling the strain. Over the past 20 months, employers across Ireland have been putting temporary remote working measures in place, reviewing and adjusting them every couple of months as the guidance and language shifts and changes. Many are embracing remote and flexible ways of working but have been unable to fully implement their plans.

In this ever-shifting landscape employers are spending too much of their time and energy making temporary adjustments, while still trying to maintain momentum and continually reassure their staff in the face of uncertainty about the future.

As many other employers insist on staff returning to the office, employees are feeling frustrated and disengaged, and many are leaving their jobs to find more meaningful work and more flexible options.

The time has come to stop kicking the can down the road. We need to shift the conversation away from ‘when can we return to the office?’ and accept the reality that offices will never be the same again. The days of thousands of staff travelling on crowded trains or sitting in lines of traffic for hours making their way to busy offices are gone, at least for the foreseeable future.

But it is not just a response to the realities of Covid that should drive Ireland’s shift to new ways of working. The trend towards remote and flexible working was evident long before the pandemic. In Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the UK, approximately 25% of the workforce worked remotely some or all of the time. In Ireland, this figure was 14%, just below the EU average. This is the direction the market has been moving, especially within the knowledge economy – Covid has just accelerated the inevitable.

Time look ahead

What is needed more than anything now is a proactive approach – not informed by the number of Covid cases but instead driven by a desire to make Ireland a world leader in remote and flexible working practices.

The potential for remote work to benefit Ireland economically and socially is huge and we need to stop dithering and grasp the opportunity with both hands.

Remote work will lead to increased competitiveness abroad and reinvigorate rural and regional communities at home. It will also help to build a sustainable, engaged and productive pool of talent for employers, while simultaneously contributing to employee wellbeing and work/life balance.

Since the 1990s the IDA has been hugely successful in attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), particularly from companies operating in the knowledge economy. Nine of the top 10 global software companies have a strong presence in Ireland, including Google, Microsoft, Intel, Apple and Facebook. We have been successful in attracting investment as a result of our low taxes, our business-friendly policies, our position as a gateway to the EU and our access to an educated and English-speaking workforce.

The value proposition for investment in Ireland remains strong, but we face strong competition from other countries in the post-Covid economy. Building a robust remote working ecosystem has the potential to strengthen our value proposition for both new and expanded FDI investment.

This is already recognised in the IDA 2021-2024 strategy document which highlights the potential for remote working to widen the available talent pool for client companies, lessen capacity pressures in cities, promote better work-life balance and support the green transition.

Integrated policies

We already have strong government backing for sustainable remote working practices with the National Remote Working Strategy which outlines several key measures aimed at making remote working a permanent way of working in Ireland.

Policies such as a mandate for 20% of the public sector to remotely, investment in a network of over 400 remote working hubs across the country, and the development of legislation and guidelines around the right to request remote work and the right to disconnect are all planned to support the development of Ireland as a leader in remote working best practices.

Another key building block already in place in Ireland is the prevalence of jobs that are most suited for remote working, such as those in the finance, management, professional services and information sectors which has facilitated an easier transition to remote working for many organisations and employees.

However, research from 2020 shows that Ireland still lags behind many other developed economies in terms of our readiness and ability to adapt to remote working, mainly driven by our lower ‘internet resilience’, meaning the capability of our internet infrastructure to support the increased demand.

In another study of 30 countries by MIT, Ireland ranked behind many of our European neighbours when it came to readiness to shift to remote work, including the UK, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, France, Croatia and Hungary.

Luxembourg, which holds the top position in the rankings, has the highest internet penetration of the countries measured, and Sweden finished in second place, driven by the prevalence of remote work before the pandemic and also by Sweden’s strong labour unions, pro-worker laws and social policies which give employees a higher degree of labour flexibility.

If you build it…

If we are to retain our competitive edge we need to act now to build a strong and robust remote working ecosystem, built upon three key pillars – people, policy and infrastructure. We need to invest in training and upskilling to build a remote-ready pipeline of talent. Housing, childcare and broadband are all issues that need to be addressed.

Government should lead by example by publishing their plans to make 20% of public sector jobs fully remote, as committed to earlier this year. This should not mean 20% of the employees’ time is spent at home and 80% in the office, but rather there should be the availability of full-time, location-agnostic public sector roles – jobs that can be done from anywhere in Ireland. There should also be plans to increase this number beyond 20% over the next five years.

Private-sector employers should be encouraged to put similar targets in place for fully location-agnostic roles, unlocking jobs from urban centres and making them available to people living in rural and regional Ireland, thereby contributing to regional economic development.

From a policy and legal perspective, the upcoming legislation on the right to request remote work should compel employers to respond positively to reasonable requests, as long as there are no compelling operational reasons to say no. Employees should also have the right to request other flexible working arrangements, not only remote work but also flexible working hours.

A similar model has been in place in Finland since 1996, and in 2020 the new Working Hours Act gave the majority of full-time employees in Finland the right to decide when and where they work for at least half of their working hours.

The treatment of remote working from a tax perspective needs to be reviewed in 2022. While the recent announcement that employees can claim higher tax relief on expenses such as broadband, heating and lighting is a welcome development, it is important that the costs of home office setup and the expenses this incurs are not passed on to the employee. In the traditional office-based model the employee would not be expected to purchase their own chair or desk, nor would they provide their own laptop, or contribute towards the cost of electricity or heat and this should also hold true in a remote working environment.

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Many employers and employer representative bodies will have concerns about embedding remote work as a permanent feature of working in Ireland and will baulk at the idea of making this option available to anyone who wants it. It is critical that these concerns are taken into account and that policies are built around the business case for remote.

A nationwide awareness and information campaign for employers to help address concerns and hesitancy around offering remote work as a permanent option should be rolled out.

We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make Ireland a world leader in flexible and remote working. We need to stop thinking in terms of Covid numbers and putting temporary measures in place, hoping that the situation will change and we can go back to business as usual.

Now is the time to act – not only to keep pace with the changes that are happening abroad and to retain our position as an attractive location for investment – but to permanently transform how we live and work, to the betterment of businesses, employees, and the wider society.

Joanne Mangan is the Employers Lead with Grow Remote, a non-profit organisation offering fully funded training programmes, in partnership with the Laois-Offaly Education and Training Board.

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