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Remote working 'It has the potential to end the commute, which is getting worse'

Grow Remote’s Joanne Mangan examines the good, bad and ugly when it comes to the conversation around remote working.

IT’S BEEN ANOTHER rollercoaster year in the world of remote work. High profile companies announced a return to office mandates, while Ireland recorded the fastest growth in remote working in the EU.

The average commute time is on the rise, remote work has led to more women in the workforce and employees would still rather take a pay cut than give up working remotely.

To mark the end of another year of remote working, let’s take a look at how the conversation has evolved in 2023 — from the good to the bad, to the downright ugly.

The Good: Carbon emissions, women in the workplace and the staying power of remote work

One of the biggest good news stories to come out this year is that remote working is good for the planet. People who work remotely every day produce less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of office workers, which is great news at a time when Irish emissions from transport are on the rise. We had more good news in the Government’s Summer Economic Statement which found that more women are joining or returning to the workforce, driven in part by the availability of remote work.

The ‘Return to Office’ dominated the conversation about remote work during 2023. In August, Zoom — which recorded massive profits during the pandemic by enabling people to connect online — caused a tsunami of headlines about the ‘death of remote work’ when it announced that it wanted staff to come back to work in person. But overall, levels of remote work have remained stable in 2023 — good news for employees who say they would rather leave their jobs, even if it means taking a pay cut — if they can no longer work remotely.

The Bad: conflicting information and unconvinced CEOs

If 2023 has taught us anything about remote work, it’s that it’s all still pretty complicated. A few short years ago working on site was the only option available for most employees and very few people questioned out loud whether this was a good or a bad thing.

In just over three short years we have gone from everyone together in person to a mish-mash of fully remote, hybrid, flexible hours, three days a week at home, one day a month in the office, working from co-working spaces, hybrid meetings and virtual team events. It’s no wonder employers are struggling to figure things out. And it’s not helped by all the conflicting information that has come out this year.

Take the study from Stanford University for example, which found big differences in perceptions between employees who thought productivity was higher when working remotely and managers who thought it was lower. CEOs are still not convinced, with 63 per cent predicting a full return to in-office work by the end of 2026, according to research by KPMG. Many high-profile CEOs have expressed major doubts publicly this year, with one calling remote work ‘a bunch of bullshit’.

The Ugly: commuting, stress and social isolation

Possibly the most disappointing news to come out this year is that more people are commuting to work and the average commute time has increased, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The potential for remote work to stop the commute, give people more time to spend at home rather than in their cars, and reduce carbon emissions at the same time is huge and should be a major priority as we head into the new year.

Working remotely has long been touted as being great for work-life balance. But this year we saw stories about remote workers getting fatter, becoming more lonely and isolated, and even developing a hunched back and gnarled fingers from too much time sitting at their home desks. Social isolation, burnout, difficulties disconnecting and pressure to be always available online are all challenges facing remote workers and their employers as we look ahead to 2024.

There is still a long way to go before a consensus is reached on the benefits of remote work. At Grow Remote we know from our work with employers that the business benefits of remote work are not automatic nor will they just happen organically. However, we have seen first-hand the positive impacts when businesses invest time and resources into developing intentional remote working policies.

If remote employees sit at their desks all day long and have no social interaction, then they may well end up like ‘Anna’, the hunchback of working from home. But across Ireland, communities of remote workers are addressing social isolation and maintaining healthy lifestyles by getting together for park runs, walking groups, kayaking, table tennis and lots of other social activities.

In 2023, we have seen the good side of remote work, but also the downsides and challenges. If we have learned one thing about remote work this year, it’s that there is still a lot we have to learn. We need to face the challenges with new energy and positivity as we head into a new year of working remotely.

Joanne Mangan is the Communications Manager with Grow Remote, a social enterprise that offers fully-funded training and support for employers on the transition to remote, and facilitate social events for remote workers in their local communities.

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