Developments in technology and its widespread availability have made it possible for many jobs to be performed outside of the employer’s premises. However, it took a pandemic to fully awaken us to the potential for remote working. Laura Bambrick, Head of Social Policy and Employment Affairs at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) writes.
Before Covid-19 struck, just under one-in-20 (4.9 per cent) workers worked mainly from home. In policy circles, home working was viewed as one in a suite of flexible working arrangements for attracting and retaining mothers, carers and people with a disability in the workforce.
With the arrival of Covid-19, remote working went mainstream. Over a matter of days, tens of thousands of employers moved their staff to work remotely from home to help slow the spread of the virus. Almost 40 per cent of paid hours worked in the economy were performed from homes across the country during the first lockdown as the number of remote workers skyrocketed to more than one-in-four (27.6 per cent) of those in employment.
The future of work is now
For some workers, the experience of working from home has been fraught. Unsuitable accommodation, poor broadband, longer hours and isolation are among the top issues raised with trade union reps. But, for the vast majority it has been a positive experience and they want to continue remote working after the Covid-19 restrictions end.
In June 2020, in the Programme for Government, the biggest employer in the economy commited to move to 20 per cent home and remote working for public servants by the end of 2021.
Unsurprisingly, working from home became a hot topic for radio and TV programmes and newspaper think pieces, with many predicting the death of the office. This conclusion is not supported by opinion poll findings and what we are hearing from our members. The overwhelming preference is for a mix of office-based and remote working post pandemic.
So, while unions view the reports of the death of the office to be greatly exaggerated, we do recognise the potential for remote working to be one of the great disruptors to the workplace, similar to the arrival of the assembly line on to the factory floor and the personal computer into the office.
To be clear, unions are not looking to hold back the tide of progress. There is a huge appetite for remote working among our members. Working from home or remotely from another location, such as a digital hub or co-working space, can really improve workers’ work-life balance, make them happier and more productive. Our concern is only with ensuring workers’ hard-won rights are preserved when working remotely and that protections keep pace with changes in ways of working.
However, as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has been to the fore in highlighting, under Irish law workers have no rights to remote working. The employer alone decides the place of work.
The power imbalance
In Britain, Northern Ireland and across the EU, workers who have completed their probation period have a right to request remote working and their employer is required to give the request serious consideration.
There is no obligation on the employer to agree to the request. Not all jobs can be completed remotely and the need for flexibility must be balanced with the needs of the business.
Here in Ireland, remote working and other flexible working arrangements such as flexitime, part-time hours, job-share, etc. are wholly at the employer’s discretion.
Without a requirement to treat requests in a reasonable manner, Irish employers have shown themselves to be too quick to out of hand refuse to negotiate a company policy on remote working with trade union reps.
The remote working genie is out of the bottle
A new EU Directive on Work-Life Balance requires government to give carers and parents of young children the right to request remote working by 2022, in line with European workers’ rights. ICTU has called on government to go beyond the minimum requirements of the directive and extend this right to all workers.
The past nine months have been a mass experiment in remote working. Granted, the experiment conditions have been far from textbook. No one would have designed it to be implemented overnight, without time to set-up, and for it to run in parallel with a public health emergency.
Even so, workers and policymakers are now very much alive to its potential. Government will publish its National Strategy on Remote Working in the coming weeks. Introducing rights to work remotely and stronger protections for remote workers will be key to facilitating a smooth transition in this seismic shift in work practices.