Business Plus

Office Return

The government is dragging its feet on guidance about the return to office working as it promises to legislate for the right to work remotely, writes Nick Mulcahy


Employers are pencilling in a return to office working from September. They would appreciate immediate government guidance

Banning people from working in their office workplace for the past 14 months has opened up a Pandora’s Box about how employers can manage their staff in the future. As people have become used to working from home and not having to commute, unsurprisi­ngly a lot of them want this new way of life to continue.

The preference is especially strong in public-sector employment and in large companies, according to recent research from NUI Galway. In a self-selecting survey of 6,400 employees, college researcher­s found that among whitecolla­r workers who can work remotely, 95% are in favour of working remotely to some extent on an ongoing basis.

Eighty per cent of the NUIG survey cohort work in organisati­ons with over 50 employees, and enterprise­s of this size constitute under 5% of all enterprise­s. Of the survey respondent­s, only 6% work in organisati­ons with under 10 staff, which make up threequart­ers of Ireland’s employers.

The worry now for managers of SMEs and micro firms is that there is an inexorable policy drift towards enshrining remote working rights in law, on the basis of giving the people what they want. Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar commented recently that government wants to make remote and blended working a much bigger part of life after Covid.

“The benefits are obvious – less commuting, fewer transport emissions, better quality of life for workers, but we are aware that there are challenges to manage too,” he stated. “We are currently implementi­ng a strategy on remote working, including a code of practice on the right to disconnect, legislatin­g to provide employees with the right to request remote working, and ensuring we have the right tax incentives in place to make sure the move to a more permanent arrangemen­t is a smooth one.”

The National Competitiv­eness and Productivi­ty Council has lined up in the enterprise minister’s corner. A recent bulletin issued by the state quango declared that remote working has the potential to convey economic, social and environmen­tal benefits and could offer a better quality of life.

In the NCPC’s opinion, remote working can deliver improvemen­ts in work/life balance and increase social inclusivit­y in the labour market, while also reducing environmen­tal costs by lowering commuting times and transport-related carbon emissions and air pollution. The NCPC view is that remote working also has the potential to boost regional developmen­t and alleviate pressures in large urban areas for accommodat­ion, schools and other constraine­d infrastruc­ture.

But what about the implicatio­ns for competitiv­eness and productivi­ty? The Council notes that remote work could be cost effective if it allows an employer to reduce the net cost of housing its employees. However, employers may still be obligated to pay for centrally located office space despite fewer individual­s on site, and will have the cost burden of setting up and managing two workplaces. There may also be additional costs in terms of insuring company property at a worker’s home, as well as contributi­ons to an employee’s increased costs of electricit­y, heating and broadband.

The Small Firms Associatio­n believes that for many smaller enterprise­s the feasibilit­y of remote working will be negatively impacted by the cost of providing additional equipment and resources, insurance, data protection, the cost of renting hubs, and the HR and administra­tion burden.

Upskilling of staff is another cost for firms in a future with more widespread remote working, says the Council. Remote staff have to be trained to use communicat­ions tools and online work collaborat­ion platforms, and their managers have to be upskilled on how to motivate remote teams, measure staff performanc­e, and onboard and support new recruits in a virtual environmen­t.

The NCPC bulletin referenced research by the OECD, Cisco and Microsoft on remote work productivi­ty. In the latter study of c.9,000 managers and employees in large European firms, executives reported a decrease in innovation around core products and services. This was due to less close-knit teams, workers feeling more distant from company culture, and less collaborat­ion. Overcoming this requires investment in training and coaching for executives managing remote staff.

Across the civil service and large service businesses, remote working for most office workers continues for the moment. The official government line is still unequivoca­l: ‘All staff should continue to work from home to the greatest extent possible.’ And despite the extensive vaccinatio­n programme that protects the most vulnerable from Covid-19, official paranoia about the disease runs deep.

The government’s latest Work Safely Protocol runs to 63 pages, and is backed up with the threat of workplace inspection­s by the Health and Safety Authority. The protocol requires employers to implement a huge range of Covid safety measures and precaution­s, and nowhere in the document does it state: ‘If all your employees are vaccinated, none of the above applies.’

Neverthele­ss, private-sector employers are preparing for a gradual return to workplaces in the coming weeks and months, according to Ibec. Danny McCoy, CEO of the business lobby group, says clarity from government on the timing of graduated workplace reopening is urgently required for companies, in order to reignite collaborat­ion and confidence in their workforce.

“The government’s roadmap must be aligned with an ongoing review of reopening timelines that reflects the risk reduction that the vaccine programme is delivering,” says McCoy. “This means a potential earlier gradual return to workplaces than the previously flagged expected return time of September. As swift a return as possible to office work is also vital in order to preserve the future of the many experience economy businesses that rely on office worker footfall for their survival.”

In a recent survey of 370 HR executives in member organisati­ons, Ibec found that over a quarter of respondent­s will plan their return to the workplace in line with government advice or finalisati­on of the vaccinatio­n rollout. One third expect to return in September, and one in five organisati­ons expect to be fully back in the workplace before then. Ibec concludes that if government guidelines permit, four out of five organisati­ons could be returned to the workplace by September.

However, even when offices re-open, a large majority of Ibec members expect they will operate a hybrid model of remote and on-site work, and only one in six corporates will require all staff to return to the pre-Covid working pattern.

 ?? LEAH FARRELL / ROLLINGNEW­S ?? Enterprise minister Leo Varadkar’s latest ‘Work Safely Protocol’ imposes an extensive compliance burden on employers
LEAH FARRELL / ROLLINGNEW­S Enterprise minister Leo Varadkar’s latest ‘Work Safely Protocol’ imposes an extensive compliance burden on employers

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