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Opinion: Remote working is now part of our 'new normal' - let's get it right

Joanne Mangan of Grow Remote says as thousands are encouraged to return to offices today, we need a mature approach to new ways of working.

Joanne Mangan

Updated Sep 20th 2021, 3:15 PM

TODAY THE GOVERNMENT lifts restrictions on working from the office, and thousands of employees will be faced with the prospect of having to return to their desks, abandoned in a panic in March last year and probably remaining untouched in the 18 months since.

For some this is positive news, they have missed the interactions with their colleagues and are tired of working from their bedrooms. For others, it means back to hours sitting in their cars and an end to that lunchtime walk with the dog.

The reopening of offices will no doubt spark renewed debates – is remote work good or bad for employees? Will employers lose their staff if they force everyone back to the office? And can remote work really transform how we live in Ireland? But there is an uncomfortable truth that is not often acknowledged in these debates, which is that remote work is still a privilege that not everyone in Ireland has access to.

Who benefits from remote?

There is no doubt that remote work has the potential to positively impact life in Ireland. Remote work gives people the opportunity to focus on what is important in their lives, by offering them the flexibility to live and work as they choose.

For our communities, remote work means people no longer having to put proximity to jobs first when deciding where to live. This means we can build thriving rural and regional communities where people can engage locally, rather than spending their time on a long commute or paying exorbitant rent in city centre accommodation.

But let’s not forget that many workers in Ireland do not have access to remote work. A survey by labour market think tank Eurofound found that even during the height of the pandemic, 43% of employees in Ireland still worked exclusively from their employers’ premises or other locations outside of the home.

This is often because of the nature of the job – a nurse cannot take care of a patient remotely and a retail worker cannot stack shelves remotely. Often these workers are in jobs with lower job security and they are more likely to have suffered job losses or financial difficulties during the pandemic.

Those who were able to work from home were disproportionately urban-based, white-collar, and well-educated employees. Remote workers were less likely to have had difficulties making ends meet and were more likely to have financial buffers such as savings to protect them in case of a loss of income.

Research by McKinsey on the future of remote work found that the sectors with the highest potential for remote work were the finance, management, professional services and information sectors – all of which are characterised by a highly educated and well-paid workforce.

Real and consistent opportunities

Remote work has the potential to be a great leveller. It can unlock job opportunities for people living outside of urban centres and open up new possibilities for those who previously could not thrive in a traditional 9-5 office-based world, perhaps because they had caring responsibilities or invisible disabilities.

We are now in a world where there are more remote jobs, but there are still many barriers to accessing these opportunities. Even when the jobs can be done remotely, some employers will insist their staff go back to the office. There have already been examples of companies bringing their clerical and administrative staff back to their desks, while allowing other staff in the higher skilled and higher paid jobs to continue to work remotely.

If employers bring in hybrid working, but do not offer flexibility to their employees – both in terms of working hours and location – then those who have caring responsibilities, health issues or who simply want to live in a location that is not near the office will still not be able to access these opportunities.

Unlocking the jobs is only one part of the puzzle – we also need to equip people who want to work remotely with the education and skills they need to be successful. Research last year by Accenture found that 42% of Irish people rate their digital skills as ‘below average’, and warned of Ireland’s ‘two-speed economy’.

Digital skills

Despite being home to nine out of ten of the world’s leading ICT companies and having a thriving startup ecosystem, Ireland is still facing a digital skills gap and this has only worsened since the onset of Covid-19. When it comes to education, there is also a stark rural/urban divide with one-in-three people living in cities having a third-level degree or higher, compared to only 18.3% in rural areas.

To make remote work available and accessible to all, addressing the digital skills gap through education and training needs to be a top priority. But traditional digital skills training now also needs to incorporate remote working skills if we are to build a remote-ready workforce. This is more than basic digital skills, we also need to equip people with remote-ready skills if they are to be successful.

The pandemic has led to huge job losses and has further widened inequality between those who have access to secure, high paid remote jobs, and those who have not. Even before the pandemic hit, one in three jobs in Ireland were already at high risk from automation, as well as over half of employment sectors, including those least suitable for remote working such as retail, agriculture, construction and transportation.

Many companies who offer remote work are facing a significant talent shortage – we need more remote-ready workers. If we are to fully realise the potential of remote work to fundamentally change how we live and work, we need to have a national conversation involving all stakeholders, focused on the systemic change needed to build a highly skilled and remote-ready workforce in Ireland, one that is truly inclusive.

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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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