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'We are not at that point yet' - but when is a return to the office likely to happen?

Whether or not you’ll be asked to return to the office – and how often – will likely vary from company to company.

Updated Apr 19th 2021, 6:45 AM

AS ENGLAND MOVES through its roadmap out of lockdown, we saw the jubilant scenes of a return to outdoor pubs as part of its latest easing last week. 

While he has frequently stressed a “cautious” exit from restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had bolder words on getting people back to offices. 

“The general view is people have had quite a few days off,” he said during the virtual Conservative spring forum last month, referencing calls for an extra bank holiday. “And it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.”

This was echoed by his Chancellor Rishi Sunak who told The Sun that the benefits of going back to the office “can’t be beaten” and said being in an office was “important for your career development”. 

The government here is not close to that level of cheerleading for offices. But how close is a return to offices in Ireland?

The public health advice on this has been consistent for over a year now – work from home, if you can.

Now, we know that hundreds of thousands of workers aren’t office based. Many continued working right through the pandemic, while others lost their jobs because of Covid-19. Statistics from the CSO tell us that around 47% of people had their work situation changed by the pandemic some way, either through switching to remote work or some other factor. 

Last week, as construction workers went back to work and pupils returned to school, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was clear that now is not the time for staff to go back to the office

He said: “My message to everyone is that working from home has played a huge part in containing Covid-19. It will be one of the most effective tools as we enter the next stage.

“I know a lot of people are tired of working from home and are keen to see colleagues again, but we have to stick with this for a few more months.

When we go back to the office, we want it to be in a safe and sustainable way. We are just not at that point yet.

Varadkar also told the Irish Mirror last week that it’s “unlikely” workers would return to their offices until they get at least one dose of a Covid-19 jab.

With the vaccines rollout facing further difficulties due to the suspension of the use of the AstraZeneca jab in people aged under 60, it will be likely be well into the summer before all adults have received their first dose.

And, if as hoped, mass vaccination can significantly suppress the virus to the required degree, then people may be advised that they can return to office-based work in the late summer or early autumn. 

If the government sticks to its National Remote Work Strategy Plan, then it may have legislated for a right to request remote work by that stage

But, for now, it very much varies by company on what their plans are for a return to office-based working.

Firms are making their decisions based on a number of factors – business needs, office space requirements (and the associated costs), and the wishes of employees – but without clear guidance on when and how to go back, others will wait it out before setting a final policy in stone. 

Some companies have already set out their stalls when it comes to what their working week will look like in the future. 

Recruiters Indeed has told its 1,000+ staff in Ireland that they will be allowed to work from home in the future. Staff at Microsoft Ireland – which employs around 2,000 people – that they’ll have the option of a mixture between remote and in-office working. 

Liberty Insurance said last month that it will require its 400 staff to work “primarily remotely in future”, with the option of up to two days per week in the office. Revolut is allowing its 50 or so employees here to choose how and when they’d like to work from home or visit the workplace.

All manner of surveys carried out in the past year suggest that remote working – which arrived basically overnight for large swathes of people last March – is here to stay in some form. While it is the clear wish for many employees to have at least some form of remote working in future, businesses are also signalling their willingness to adapt and accommodate these wishes.  

A survey from CIPD Ireland last month found that one in two businesses in Ireland plan to adopt remote working in some form on a permanent basis.

Another survey last month from Sigmar/Aon found that 34% of workers plan to return to the office full time when restrictions lift. Nine in ten companies (91%) indicated that they expect work practices to permanently change due to the pandemic fallout. 

A sentiment survey of senior leaders by the Institute of Directors from late last year found that most business leaders (37%) thought it would be October-December 2021 when the majority of staff would see some return to the office. A further 33% felt it would be between July and September. 

Professor Alma McCarthy, who heads the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics at NUI Galway, told The Journal that it’s now a huge challenge for HR departments and business leaders to draft plans for the kind of hybrid models staff want to have post-Covid.

“There’s so much uncertainty at the minute,” she said. “In companies operating with employees working from home who’ve proven they worked effectively and managed to perform to a proper standard, it’ll be difficult to say to them you can’t have any form of remote working.”

According to studies led by Professor McCarthy and others at NUIG and the Western Development Commission, 94% of workers were in favour of continuing to work remotely in some form into the future. 

“In a lot of workplaces, workers are making clear their preferences and it depends on how employers will respond,” she added. “In the government’s remote work strategy, it outlined plans to legislate for a right to request remote work. That could be a game changer.”

Neil McDonnell, CEO of the Irish SME Association (ISME), told The Journal that there will be a “considerable” move back towards some office-based working but that the extent to which firms will want to return to pre-pandemic working will vary by industry.

“It’s all very sectoral,” he said. “When it comes to white-collar services, there’s very much a split. 

In the likes of small solicitors or small accounting offices, there may be more of a pressure there to get back to an office setting. You can’t have a client meeting in your bedroom. 

McDonnell said that employers are hearing from their staff that they’d rather work from home some or most of the time going forward, and this was informing how they’re planning for the coming months.

“The problem with all of this is advisory,” he said. “We’re having businesses say to us ‘can we ask staff if they’ve been vaccinated?’. So much of what’s coming from the government is advisory, it’s not from a legal standpoint. So you can’t tell customers and staff the way it has to be, which makes it difficult.”

As outlined here, even in European countries that have legislation around the right to disconnect and remote working, it relies heavily on agreements between companies and workers to set their specific policies. 

In Ireland, it is likely to be similar going forward with any return to the office varying by the specific sector and employer in question.

In the public service, for example, trade union Fórsa is calling for an agreement on comprehensive guidelines on remote working. 

Last month, it wrote to Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath asking for such guidelines to be drafted and applied across the civil service. 

Its general secretary Kevin Callinan said the union’s claim was designed “to reach agreement on a clear and consistent public service approach to remote working, based on principles of fair access, adequate employee protections, and robust measures to underpin continued public service quality and productivity.”

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Fórsa cited the government’s pledge to make remote working the norm for 20% of staff in the public sector and said it shares this “ambition” to position the public service as a driver of home working practices into the future. 

Anecdotally, a large number of civil servants did make the switch to remote working during the pandemic across various departments and agencies. Varadkar’s Department of Business has said it’s clear remote working “in some format will be a permanent feature” of how it operates in the future. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform told The Journal that civil servants continue to work from home “where feasible” during the current period of restrictions. 

The spokesperson added that the department was committed to working with unions on a draft of the framework for blended working. 

However, before such policies are enacted, the advice still remains to work from home if you can.

At Thursday’s NPHET briefing, deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn made clear it would be some time before this position is changed.

He said: “We’re asking employers, as we have done for many months now, to facilitate employees in not attending unless it really is essential. 

I’ve said previously, I think this is one of the measures that should continue at least for the months to come. The impact of a significant return to work of employees would have a very significant impact on the disease. 
I think at this point, we would be envisaging that we would be asking people to work from home, and so far as possible, for at least the next number of months [until] we have much, much higher levels of vaccination. And until we are very confident that we have avoided any further further spread or wave.

When asked by The Journal if going back to offices would be the “last thing” in terms of easing restrictions, Dr Glynn said that “I don’t want to say that either”. 

He added: “I think let’s just see how we go again… And let’s see where we are at the end of June going into July with a substantial proportion of the population with at least one dose of vaccine.”

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

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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