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New law will give employees the right to request remote working

This year a legally admissible code of practice on the right to disconnect from work – covering phone calls, emails and switch-off time – will be introduced.

Image: Shutterstock/Vera Petrunina

EMPLOYEES WILL HAVE the legal right to request remote working under new legislation the government plans to introduce this year.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar today published Ireland’s first National Remote Work Strategy to make remote working a permanent option for life after the pandemic.

Under the new plans, this year a legally admissible code of practice on the right to disconnect from work – covering phone calls, emails and switch-off time – will be introduced.

The government will also promote blended working – allowing people more flexibility to choose when they work and where they work.

Remote work hubs will also be invested in to ensure they are in locations that suit commuters and are close to childcare facilities. 

With greater numbers set to choose to stay home and work, the government will also explore the possibility of accelerating the roll out of the National Broadband Plan.

Speaking today, Varadkar said that as things stand, employees “in theory” have the right to request working from home already, but said it is not the same  as a legal right to request.

“If somebody has the right to request remote working, the onus is on the employer to either say yes or explain why not and they would have to give reasons,” he said, adding that these reasons could be challenged in the Workplace Relations Commission.

Tax review

Government also commits to reviewing the treatment of remote working for the purposes of tax and expenditure in time for the next Budget in October.

Under current tax rules, an employee can receive €3.20 per day from their employer while working at home – which is meant to help cover the cost of electricity, internet and other utilities used. 

“But it’s intended to that as part of the budget package in October, there’ll be a new package of tax incentives and expenses to encourage people to work from home,” he said.

“So you’ll see improvements there in what’s currently in place,” he added. 

In a bid to lead by example, the Tánaiste plans to mandate that home and remote working should be the norm for 20% of public sector employees.

All these actions will be completed over the course of 2021, with an implementation group soon to be set up that will meet every four months to monitor the progress of the plan.

Varadkar said the pandemic has exacted a terrible toll on life and livelihoods in Ireland.

Speaking to reporters at Government Buildings today, he said he believes it is achievable to roll out these changes this year.

“We all hope and pray for the day when it will be over, not so we can go back to the old normal but rather so we can have a new and better normal incorporating all that we have learned from living our lives and doing business in a very different way.

“The requirement to work from home where possible, for reasons of public health, has demonstrated how viable home, remote and blended working can be. Post-pandemic, I want remote working to be part of a whole new world of work and this new Government strategy sets out how we will enable it.”

While working from home has become the norm for many in 2020, Varadkar says he wants remote, blended and flexible working arrangements to be a much bigger part of life after Covid.

“We’ve seen that there can be huge benefits – more flexibility, less commuting, more time for family and friends. It’s better for the transport emissions, and for quality of life, but it has to be done right,” he said. 

However, if working at home is to continue, Varadkar says employment rights will need to be updated. 

“We need to give guidance, and in many cases, we need to provide actual physical working space. It also requires a cultural shift in favour of facilitating it as an option. This plan shows how we will bring all those parts together. I think it will make a real difference to people’s working lives,” he said.

Speaking about the issue last year, the Tánaiste referred to surveys that indicated that about 10% or 20% of employees were keen to get back to the office as soon as possible.

Another 10% to 20% would like to work from home permanently, he said, while the majority of employees want blended working, working some days in the office and some days at home or some days in a remote hub.

Switching off 

Varadkar said many people will want to continue on to do at least some remote working after the pandemic, saying that it’s really important that government protect the rights and entitlements of those workers so that they can still ‘switch off’ from work.

“We would like employers and employees to sit down to consider the issues around the right to disconnect and develop a practice set of rules and procedures that work for their workplace, because every workplace is different,” he said.

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“That is why we have included the right to disconnect piece. We want to put in place the structures which ensure we take advantage of the benefits of remote working and protect against the downsides,” he said.

The initiative was introduced in France in 2017, mandating companies with more than 50 employees to develop a charter defining employees’ right to switch off and setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

Italy, Spain and Belgium have also implemented such legislation.

“I do think remote working is going to change our cities,” he said.

Varadkar said big tech companies like Tick Tock, do still want to have headquarters here.

“But I do think things are going to be different… it’s going to require us to maybe re-imagine our cities. It’s happening already, and it’s something that I think is going to be accelerated by the pandemic, policies like this… where we see cities as a creative space that people want to live in,” he said.

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