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National Remote Work Strategy: What it means for Irish employers

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The Irish government recently published a National Remote Work Strategy, with the objective being to “ensure that remote working is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits”.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to do to many things differently, including obliging most office staff to work remotely literally overnight.

With no time to prepare or to worry about broadband width, workers started working from home.

While it wasn’t an ideal way to accelerate the shift to remote working, it has happened and for the most part has worked out quite well, considering the circumstances.

And along the way, the attitude to remote working has changed.

The government recognises this and believes working remotely is going to continue to be an important element of how we work in the future and that there is a need for a clear framework about how it should be done.

In this article, we go into more detail into the National Remote Work Strategy and what it will mean for businesses.

It covers the following:

What is the National Remote Work Strategy?

Employers’ reaction to the strategy

Remote working challenges for employers

How expenses will work

Right to disconnect

Remote working and what to do now

What next for the National Remote Work Strategy?

Start preparing now for remote working

The key element of the strategy paper, Making Remote Work, is that it intends to legislate for the right of an employee to request remote working.

And to show its commitment, the government has set down a marker that 20% of the public sector will work remotely.

The paper acknowledges that the infrastructure has to be in place for remote working to be successful and proposes accelerating the provision of high-speed broadband to all parts of Ireland, under the National Broadband Plan, and investing in remote work hubs.

Other elements include reviewing the current system of claiming expenses for working from home. Also, in connection with the strategy, the government intends to introduce a code of practice on the ‘right to disconnect’.

The National Remote Work Strategy is built on three pillars:

  • Pillar 1: Creating a conducive environment for the adoption of remote working.
  • Pillar 2: Developing and leveraging a remote working infrastructure to support the adoption of working remotely.
  • Pillar 3: Building a remote working framework that can maximise the benefits of working remotely.

These three pillars are underpinned by a series of guiding principles, covering the promotion of remote working, showcasing best practice, and the development of new skills that can be used to participate in and embrace working remotely.

The government has said it will focus on rolling out the strategy throughout 2021 and beyond.

Both employer representative organisations – business employers’ group Ibec and the Small Firms Association (SFA) – are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Ibec says it’s a timely recognition of the accelerating changes in our workplaces and proposals to introduce legislation will require careful development to meet a balance for businesses and employees in order to ensure competitiveness, equality and flexibility considerations are addressed.

Allowing time for a full regulatory impact assessment, including the costs of administration of new employment legislation, will also be critical.

The SFA has also broadly welcomed the strategy but says more detailed guidance is needed and it believes smaller firms may find it more difficult to implement.

SFA senior executive Elizabeth Bowen said: “Regarding proposals to introduce legislation to provide employees with the right to request remote working, SFA would insist that an SME [small and medium-sized enterprise] test is applied to any such legislation to assess the potential financial and administration impact on Ireland’s small business community.

“In addition, when drafting this legislation, it must be considered that for some small firms, the benefits of remote working isn’t always an option.”

The paper acknowledges that employers face challenges.

Feedback has highlighted how remote working “doesn’t easily support creativity, group dynamics, shared ownership and collegiality” and can in turn lead to an innovation deficit.

If these obstacles can’t be overcome, it could result in long-term impacts on productivity for some businesses.

You, as an employer, will be the key to moving the remote working agenda forward. However, not all companies and not all specific roles are suitable for remote working, and this has to be acknowledged.

The government has pledged to review the system of claimable expenses for working from home.

At the moment, there are two possible ways for employees to claims expenses. You as an employer can agree to pay €3.20 a day to cover your employee’s expenses. However, you are not obliged to do so and many businesses can’t afford to.

The other option is for an employee to claim directly from Revenue for expenses incurred from working at home. But an employee can claim so little back, that they may decide it’s hardly worth the bother.

There is also another related issue discussed in the strategy paper: the right to disconnect.

What is meant by that is a worker’s right to be able to disengage with work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-work hours and holidays.

Currently, this is governed by the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997, but extra protections are being considered for employees.

If further regulation is put in place, it could potentially pose difficulties for employers and undermine the flexibility offered by remote working.

Ibec has concerns. Rhona Murphy, head of Employment Law Services at Ibec, says: “Ireland remains a small open economy.

“Many of our employers, whether large multinationals or small indigenous businesses no longer operate on a strict nine to five basis, but across different time zones and responsive to their customer needs.

“Any legislative intervention on working time as part of the policy response to this issue is likely to bring unhelpful rigidity to an increasingly flexible world of work.

“Where concerns arise about excessive working hours or disproportionate reliance on digital devices arises, Ibec recommends, in the first instance, a raising of awareness of existing legal remedies and the promotion of workplace culture that embraces a balanced and flexible approach to working time.”

You should start thinking about how remote working will work within your business and consult with your employees about what their expectations are.

The National Remote Work Strategy advises implementing a remote work policy that sets out clear criteria under which your employees can request remote work and establishing a review or appeal process for those who are turned down.

The Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment has published a webpage on remote work that advises employers on how to navigate the adoption of remote working arrangements.

It includes a checklist of items that should be considered and covers a vast array of issues such as employment conditions, the organisation of working time and employment rights, health and safety, equality issues, training, data protection and cyber security.

Each action in the report has an agreed delivery date in 2021.

The policies that are meant to be addressed in the first quarter are introducing a code of practice on the right to disconnect and laying out how the National Broadband Plan will be accelerated.

One of the later deliverables, and one of the most important, is legislating for the right to request remote work and this has a delivery date within the third quarter.

You should keep an eye on further developments throughout the year and what they will mean for your business.

Ireland has been forced to adapt to remote working on an emergency basis and it has thrown up many challenges.

And if remote working is to be permanently embraced, there are numerous issues that need to be resolved in order to ensure that your business can be successful in the years ahead.

It’s advisable to start thinking about the implications now.

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