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Removed thinking about remote working

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa is on a class tour of the offices of The Springfield Gazette. As the group walks past the roaring printing presses spewing off neatly folded copies of the paper, the tour guide remarks: “And each paper contains a certain percentage of recycled paper.” The ever tenaciously curious Lisa probes: “What percentage is that?” to which the guide replies: “Zero. Zero is a percent, isn’t it?”

Hold that thought.

In January last year, during our second major lockdown, the Government published Making Remote Work, a national remote work strategy under the direct sponsorship of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Leo Varadkar. The declared “vision” for the strategy was to ensure remote working is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits because doing so would help implement numerous public policies.

These benefits include increasing participation in the labour market, attracting and retaining talent, enabling balanced regional development, alleviating accommodation pressures, improving work/life balance, improving child and family wellbeing, reducing commuting times and reducing transport-related carbon emissions and air pollution.

Nothing not to like about that.

The strategy included a commitment to introduce legislation to provide a legal framework within which employees could request the right to remote work from their employers. This commitment was deemed important enough to headline The Irish Times report on the launch of the strategy:

Employees will have a legal right to ask to work from home, says Varadkar

The newspaper reported Mr. Varadkar as saying:

If an employer refuses such a request there would be the right for an employee to a hearing and determination on their situation

The commitment was welcomed by trade unions. Patricia King, general secretary of ICTU, claimed her union “was first to call for legislation to oblige employers to give requests for flexible working arrangements serious consideration”.

Last August, Mr. Varadkar published the views of members of the public and stakeholder groups on the proposal and commented:

Introducing a right to request remote working will set out a clear framework to facilitate remote and blended work options, in so far as possible. It will ensure that when an employer declines a request, there are stated reasons for doing so and conversations with workers are taking place in a structured way. We recognise that remote working won’t work for everyone or for every organisation, so the government will take a balanced approach with the new legislation.

Then, last month, the Minister published the outline terms of the actual legislation accompanied by comments in similar vein:

Up until now, remote and home working has been imposed on a lot of people due to the public health restrictions. Now that they have been lifted, I want it to be a choice. I want workers to be able to work from home or remotely or hybrid if they want to. So long as the business gets done and services are provided, employers should facilitate it…

This new law will give every employee the right to request remote working from their employer. Employers will be required to provide reasonable grounds for refusing to facilitate an employees’[i] request…

We have a real opportunity now to change the norm and learn what we can from the pandemic…

Unfortunately, there is a good less “beef” to the proposed legislation than is implied by those comments.

The lesser criticism is that the application process is “clunky” in the extreme and seems designed to cater for long-term or indefinite remote working rather than more fluid temporary possibilities.

For example, the process requires the employee to submit:

A self-assessment of the suitability of the proposed remote working locations regarding specific requirements for carrying out the job such as data protection and confidentiality, minimum levels of internet connectivity, ergonomic suitability of proposed workspace and any equipment or furniture requirements.

And the employee must furnish “such further particulars and evidence relating to the request” as the employer “may reasonably require”, following which the employer has up to 12 weeks to make a decision.

But the much more important criticism is that the proposed legislation imposes no meaningful obligation whatsoever on the employer to give the request “serious consideration”. The employer must give the request “due consideration” and may only decline it “on business grounds”, but what count as business grounds supporting a thumbs down is a matter solely for the employer’s subjective assessment.

The relevant “explanatory note” states:

This wholly subjective assessment has been chosen to ensure that Employers retain the ability to determine working conditions based upon their own subjective assessment of their business needs.

That sentence is followed by a kind of qualification of the above that is, in fact, an emphatic reinforcement of it:

However, while the provision requires that the Employer has full discretion to decline, it is still required that this decision is grounded in an assessment of business needs rather than on other spurious or arbitrary grounds.

An employee can appeal the decision to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) but only for a breach by the employer of their procedural obligations under the legislation, for example, if the employer fails to respond within the deadline or to cite reasons for their decision. The explanatory notes pull no punches.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is noted that the right to make a complaint to the WRC under this Head is not intended to extend to a right to complain in respect of the substance or merits of an Employer’s decision to decline a request.

Zero may be a percent but “nul points” is always nul points — and that’s exactly the marks this proposed legislation gets! Employers need neither talk the talk, let alone walk it, if they just don’t want to. Employees are simply “cogs” in a process which is run solely by their employers guided by the light of their own judgement.

Meanwhile, back in the real world.,.

Last November, the Central Statistics Office conducted a so-called Pulse survey about remote working. Participation on-line was open to anyone over 18 living in the Republic. There were 10,979 responses so, while it cannot be presumed to represent a forensically accurate snapshot of “national” opinion, it is hard to dismiss as a distraction.

23% of respondents in employment had worked remotely at some point before COVID, but 80% had done so at some point since its arrival. At the time of the survey, 65% were working remotely some or all of the time. 88% would like to work remotely once restrictions are removed entirely — 60% some of the time, 28% all of the time. These results are broadly consistent with similar surveys taken during other more intensive phases of the pandemic. There is a strong constituency behind the notion of retaining the option for at least some remote working.

Remote working is not all sweetness and light for either employees or employers. Some trade-offs are inevitable between individuals’ personal and professional priorities and between both of these and organisational requirements and objectives. But employers who allow employees maximum room to resolve the balance between the first two of those three for themselves are, I suspect, likely to get the best out of their employees in relation to the third.

The better balance for employers will surely lie in embracing remote working as something more likely to enable their staff to blossom and the organisation flourish than grudgingly tolerating it as more likely to make employees shrivel and the organisation suffer. Trust and accommodation always generate more energy than suspicion and restriction. Work is an important part of life but no more as well as no less than that.

Certainly, herding everybody back, however genially, to the bosom of the mother ship is not the right long-term answer. The pandemic was not just a blip on the screen of our lives. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. There is a new normal, even if it is one to which Mr. Varadkar and his proposed legislation in its present form at least, are something of an irrelevance. Staff won’t need law books to help them vote with their feet.

[i] “an employees’” is not a typo, but a faithful reproduction of the text from the gov.ie website.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.