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'Harder to switch off' or 'a massive relief': Four months on, how is the daily grind going for those working from home?

There was a large and sudden move towards remote working from the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Image: Shutterstock/KornT

DESPITE THE RETURN of many sectors of the economy as Ireland goes through the phases of re-opening, one piece of advice from March remains the same: anyone who can work from home is still being advised to do so.

It means large swathes of workers are still working from home and, with no public health guidance yet provided on when people can return to offices, they may continue to be for some time. 

The large-scale move to home working during Covid-19 has seen the government launch a public consultation seeking input from businesses and workers on how it can improve guidelines on working from home. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said the government wants remote working and home working to become part “of the new normal” and “if done right, the benefits are huge”. 

The purported advantages of home working are said to include a better work-life balance, fewer emissions through the use of cars, less traffic on the roads and reduced costs for businesses.

Working from home, however, is not without its difficulties. The Dáil heard this week that many people in the rural Cork village of Gaggan were spending their day in a church car park so they could get access to WiFi. This problem of unsatisfactory broadband is one replicated across the country. 

And there are further issues that can crop up for people having to work from home. 

Personal experiences

TheJournal.ie has spoken to a number of people who’ve detailed their working from home experiences while also trying to juggle family life at the same time. 

Ellen is a communications manager and a mother-of-two in Galway. Having already worked remotely for the past decade, she does enjoy the benefits but acknowledges it can be tough at times.

“It was a game changer for me, after years of commuting into town, dropping the kids to the minder in the dark mornings and running frantically everywhere,” she said.

“The switch to remote was a massive relief for me and my family. My kids were happier to see me more and we had a better balance. That’s the good news.

The bad news was that over time, I made all the mistakes that you shouldn’t make when it comes to remote working. I didn’t have clear boundaries, I worked way more hours than I would have in the office and I was constantly checking my phone for messages. I found it hard to switch off. I felt burnt out and had to stop, reassess my whole life and I’m glad to say I have much improved my setup now and I do lots of self-care, exercise and have found the balance again. 

Ellen said that, overall, working from home can be a blessing for many and she was glad to see the government actively looking at developing guidelines around it.

‘Much more challenging’

David is a senior financial services manager and a father-of-two based in Dublin.

He told TheJournal.ie the demands of remote working during the pandemic were tougher to get to grips with. 

“I’m no stranger to working remotely and would often be working quite late at night and on the laptop at home out of my work hours,” he said. “However, through the Covid-19 changes I found the whole setup much more challenging.

“It was much more unstructured and I found it hard to get my day going. I really missed my routine and the ad hoc nature of interacting with colleagues in the office. I find that’s often where the business movement happens in an office, whereas when you’re at home you have to make structured arrangements to catch up on Zoom or whatever you’re using.

In relation to my team, I found that they struggled a bit. Many were internalising a lot of problems because they didn’t feel get that sense of cohesion, being part of a team. We identified that as at trend from early on and worked hard to help them with it.

David said he’s actually found he misses the work commute, because of the way it helps you to detox from the day as you go home. 

He said: “Because of this, I feel it’s harder to switch off from work when you’re based at home.

This was a big challenge for me in the past few months. I found I was quite ‘wired’ after my day and wasn’t really present for my wife and children as much as I normally would be after work.

‘The benefits outweigh the negatives’

Jen, a programme manager in Dublin and a mother-of-three, told TheJournal.ie that her workplace was quite progressive so workers were used to remote working before the arrival of Covid-19. 

“The majority of staff adjusted really well and we used Teams and Zoom to meet on a regular basis,” she said.

“This has meant that we are more connected than ever and multiple teams are working together in a much more productive way. However I know that many staff have struggled with childcare, living alone, house sharing and also the stress and strain of both parents working full time and minding children.”

Both Jen and her husband are working from home and, with children of school-going age, it’s proving difficult to manage work and childcare at the same time. 

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She said: “I find that I am losing the ability to set boundaries for myself and my concentration levels are much lower than normal. However I am proud of the way I have coped and continue to be productive even when I’ve three kids continuously interrupting me.

The benefits of working from home outweigh the negatives, especially the constant stress of getting the kids to school and then heading to the office. We have all now had the opportunity to work in a more flexible, family friendly way which has allowed us to reconnect with our community and step away from the daily grind of the commute.
Hopefully we can hold on to some of this freedom and ask our employers to give us some autonomy so that we can continue to work from home – although I for one really hope the schools open in September!

Employers’ obligations

There are also a number of health and safety requirements that employers are still subject to, even though their staff could be working from within their own homes.

For the purposes of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act (2005), employers still have a duty to employees regarding their health and safety while working from home. 

It’s incumbent on businesses to provide safe equipment to staff, assess risks and implement control measures and also provide training and supervision when regarding the health and safety of employees. 

And it’s not just health and safety. Employers must still ensure they adhere to issues around the likes of bullying and work-related stress, ensure staff get their proper breaks and holidays, provide equipment, protect their personal data, prove adequate training and ensure all employees are treated equally. 

According to guidance from the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), there are a number of “key duties” for businesses to make sure they comply with the legislation when it comes to the work activity and workspace of their staff.

It includes making staff aware of any specific risks regarding working from home, and ensuring that the work activity and temporary workspace are suitable to work from. 

Employers are also advised to provide suitable equipment to enable the work to be done – if the staff member doesn’t have this equipment already – and ensure there is a pre-arranged means of making contact. 

In the Department of Business’ guidance on the topic, it says: “The responsibility for health and safety at work rests with the employer regardless of whether an employee works remotely.

In the context of temporary homeworking during the outbreak of Covid-19, the HSA advises that where employees feel added stress from the location of their work, the employer should act reasonably. As such, where stress complaints do arise, these should be met with considered, systematic and appropriate control measures. 
Employers should ensure that [Employment Equality] legislation is being adhered to regardless of whether their employees are based remotely or not. 

With reporting from Laura Byrne

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Sean Murray

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