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We're to 'work from home unless it's absolutely necessary', so can the civil service set an example?

Several ministers have said their departments have been facilitating government advice.

Iveagh House in Dublin, which houses the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Iveagh House in Dublin, which houses the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

GOVERNMENT ADVICE THAT everyone should work from home “unless it is absolutely necessary” that they attend the workplace in person comes into effect from today. 

The guidance was outlined by Taoiseach Micheál Martin during an address to the nation on Tuesday during which he said the phased return to workplaces was being “paused”. 

That phased return was initiated from 20 September after the long-sanding advice to work from home if possible was relaxed. 

The measure is part of an effort to reduce social mixing and mobility in the context of an incidence of Covid-19 the HSE’s Paul Reid yesterday described as “rampant”. 

Unlike previous periods of the pandemic when capacity limits on public transport were linked to advice on remote working, no such capacity limits are to be in place from today. 

Business group Ibec has said that its members will “continue to support safe working protocols” while also calling for “clear guidance” for those who are in workplaces. 

Outside of the private sector, a number of ministers have said that management within their own departments should facilitate remote working. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that “where possible” staff in his department should work from home, noting that there are some “essential services” such as producing passports that require workers to be present in person.

“We need teams of people in the Passport Office because there is no way of working from home because of the way in which the networks work, the security systems and so on,” he said. 

Coveney said, however, that there are “many examples across the public sector” where remote working is possible and that he now expects “lots of lots of public sector workers to revert back to working from home” following the change in government advice. 

Minister of State at Department of Agriculture Martin Heydon told TheJournal.ie this week that “the vast majority” of people within his department have worked from home during the pandemic and that he expects them to revert to this from today. 

Minister of State in the Department of Transport Hildegarde Naughton said it was “up to everybody to look at their own workplaces” but she interacts with officials primarily via Zoom or WebEx meetings. 

The Association of Higher and Civil Public Servants (AHCPS) estimated in a survey during the summer that about 80% of staff within various departments were either working remotely or were engaged in blended working. 

The group represents some 3,500 members who are primarily senior managers within the civil and public service. 

As part of the phased return to workplaces, some public sector staff who had been working from home had been returning for a number of days per week but AHCPS general secretary Ciaran Rohan told The Journal that he expects this will now be reversed. 

“Most of them were sort of having a staggered return, one day or two days, they were going to go from one to two or three but that was postponed at the end of October. Then obviously with the government advice now a lot of places are reverting to the way they were,” he says. 

The Department of Health recently told staff that they are to work from home indefinitely unless directed otherwise, with Rohan saying that Revenue has not brought people back to the office because of anecdotal reports that productivity levels have  “gone up considerably” during the pandemic. 

Fórsa, the largest union within the public service, has also said that productivity has been “sustained or increased” during the pandemic. The union says that civil service management should therefore be “well placed” to implemented the new working-from-home advice. 

“In the context of the new advice, and the proven flexibility, efficiency and productivity of civil and public servants in adapting to remote working over the last 20 months, management should be in a position to confidently lead the way, thereby helping to ensure the safety of their staff at this particularly challenging juncture,” a spokesperson for the union said in a statement. 

Fórsa has also been in discussions with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform about long-term blended working plans and has said the civil service should “show a lead on remote working”. 

As part of the government’s own Remote Working Strategy it is targeted that home and remote working should be the norm for 20% of public sector employees. 

The AHCPS has also been involved in those long-term discussions about blended-working and Rohan says it is the responsibility of civil service managers to set an example. 

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“The discussions we’re engaged in centrally for the civil service will likely frame what it looks like for the wider public service and perhaps then for the wider workforce,” he says.

When asked if there has been any resistance to remote working among management in the civil service, Rohan says it has been rare:

“If there is we’d be there but we haven’t had to do much of that. We may have had to do it for individual people who have said they don’t need to be in and the employer decides they do, but to be fair there isn’t much of that and where it is it’s ironed out.”

“People have different views on the idea of remote working and there are some managers who probably aren’t hugely enthused with it because they like to have their people around them, but in the main we’ve been able to manage people like that.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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