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The way we work has changed dramatically in the last year - but what will it look like after Covid?

The next part of The Good Information Project from The Journal will look at the working week after Covid-19.

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GETTING UP FOR work in the spring of 2019 was a world away from what it’s like for many today. 

The early morning commute is gone. The traffic. The podcast or radio on the way in. Saying hello to your colleagues. Throwing your lunch in the office fridge. Small talk when you make a cup of tea.

“How was your weekend? Was the gig any good? Where did you go for dinner?”

For office workers, it’s been around 400 days since Leo Varadkar told the nation that everyone who could work from home should do so. For the many others who don’t work in offices, little if anything immediately changed.

It was an overnight change that affected huge numbers of people. 

According to CSO figures, almost half (47%) of people had their employment situation affected by Covid-19, either through loss of employment, temporary layoff, a change in work hours, a move to remote working or a change to the model of the business.

Public health advice has changed a lot since March 2020. But that piece of advice has never changed. The advice was, and remains, to work from home if you can. 

It forced people to set up their laptops and screens in their sitting rooms. In their spare rooms. In their kitchens. In their bedrooms. 

Zoom calls and Google hangouts are how you see your colleagues now. There’s no manager looking over your shoulder. You do your work and close the laptop. But when you pick up the phone to check Twitter or WhatsApp, that temptation to check the work emails can creep in. To check in on Slack.

See what’s going on. Make sure you’re not missing anything. 

And if we’re to fast forward a year to spring 2022, what’ll the working week look like? Will it have changed at all for frontline workers, gig economy workers and people whose jobs don’t allow them to work remotely?

Will it be a wholesale return to the commuting and the small talk by the water cooler for all of us?

Will it be more of what it’s like now with zoom meetings and working from home as the norm?

Or will it be a mixture of the two or something completely different?

After the first topic examined what a shared island of Ireland could be in future, The Journal’s Good Information Project has opted for the “and now for something completely different approach” for its second topic to take a deep dive into what the working week will look like after Covid-19. 

Beginning this project, the one thing that’s clear is the sheer lack of clarity on what the working week will look like post-Covid.

No matter your opinion on working from home at present, working at home in more – to use a hackneyed phrase - normal times will be far different to the way it is now. 

In the future, we’ll hopefully be able to meet others freely and not risk spreading a deadly virus. There’ll be cultural, social, sporting amenities we can avail of after work. You may even be able to work in an office surrounded by others.

If you picked 10 people and gave them the option of working from home full time, back to the office full time, or some mixture, you could get 10 different answers.

This writer would personally more than welcome a return to the office for that social aspect of seeing colleagues, bouncing ideas off them and just the feeling that comes from being around other people rather than on your own in a room at home for 13 months.

But maybe not every day. An early start on a weekend or Monday morning sounds a lot more appealing from home than through a commute. 

For people with childcare needs or longer commutes, their priorities when it comes to remote working will be different again. 

A study published in October by the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway – which featured over 5,000 responses – found that 94% of people wanted to work remotely after the pandemic.

But, within that, there was a big divergence. Just over one quarter (27%) said they want to work remotely on a daily basis.

Just over half then (54%) said they wanted to work remotely “several times” a week while 13% said they wanted to work remotely several times a month.

Even within the 54% who want to work remotely several times a week, there will be divergence there too. 

We also know that many companies are offering their staff the option of working remotely for the foreseeable future. They include big multinationals like Indeed and Microsoft. 

The push for remote working can come from both sides. For some employers, it will mean lower overheads in terms of renting office space and the costs that go with that. That may, in turn, add to costs for their employees who have to pay for light and heat in their own homes and the associated costs with remote working.

What is clear is that both employers and employees expect remote working to continue in some form, even when it’s safe to return to office work. 

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The government has tried to set its stall out in this regard, publishing its National Remote Work Strategy.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s foreword sums up the positives, but also the challenges, that comes with a long-term switch to remote working: “On balance, these will be changes for the better. Less commuting, more time for family & leisure, and fewer transport greenhouse gas emissions will be among the benefits.

“New job opportunities will be created for people who want to live in Rural Ireland, people with disabilities and people with caring responsibilities. Small towns and villages will see new investment, greater footfall and spend.

But there are risks as well. We do not want to turn our homes into workplaces where we are always on.
We want to spread jobs more evenly across the country, but we do not want to lose them to abroad. We want to retain the creativity and innovation that flourishes from people meeting each other and do not want people to become isolated. We want our city centres to remain vibrant places.

How all that is achieved remains to be seen. One thing the government has done so far is implement a new code of conduct on the “right to disconnect” for workers outside of hours. 

The right to disconnect 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.

However, it’s not enshrined in law and critics say this new code will do little to help workers.

And, all of this talk of remote working for office-based jobs ignores the realities for so many people living and working in Ireland today. 

Some – supermarket workers, delivery drivers, meat plant workers to name a few – have been doing the same job right the way through this pandemic. Others have been out of work for a year because of the pandemic.

In this new flexible world of work, where do they fit in? Will things say the same for them, or will they be afforded the greater flexibility and opportunities given to other classes of workers?

What’ll remote working mean for our cities, and the economic eco-systems that rely on office workers packed into our urban areas?

All of this creates tricky waters to navigate as we plot a path to what the working week will look like after Covid.

Over the coming weeks, we’re going to take a look at all of these angles as we try to find out how we’ll work once we get beyond the pandemic. 

And we also want to hear your ideas: the topics you want to know more about and how we should cover them.

In the mean time, you can follow The Journal on social media to stay part of the conversation.

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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