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Right to request remote working: What employers need to know – and how to support employees

People & Leadership

Right to request remote working: What employers need to know – and how to support employees

The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on businesses. Among these changes is the move to remote working across many sectors.

Despite concerns around productivity and connectivity, recent research has found that employees favour remote working and it can bring many benefits, including better work-life balance, as well as economic and environmental benefits.

As part of the government’s commitment set out in its National Remote Work Strategy paper published in 2021, legislation around a workers’ right to request remote work, the Right to Request Remote Work Bill 2021, is being introduced.

The new law will give every employee the right to request remote working from their employer and the employer will have to provide “reasonable grounds” for refusing the request.

This article will explain the new legislation, the benefits and challenges for owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and advice on how to support your employees with working outside the office.

Here’s what we cover:

The Right to Request Remote Work Bill sets out a legal framework for requesting, approving and refusing requests for remote working. The term ‘remote work’ refers to the “broad concept of an arrangement where work is fully or partly carried out at an alternative worksite other than the default place of work”.

This alternative worksite can be a home office, office hub or another location that is different from the usual workplace.

Under the legislation, companies must devise a formal policy and this document must set out the process for managing requests and the conditions around remote working arrangements.

Subject to the employer completing the process and allowing for an appeal to be heard, an employee in the same role can submit another request 12 months after the first one.

Additionally, if the employee moves to a new role within the same company, they may submit a new request.

As an employer, you must communicate a decision in relation to your employee’s request within a specified time limit that must be within 12 weeks.

Employees become eligible to submit a request for remote working after six months from their start date. However, the legislation doesn’t prevent an employer from offering remote work at the start of the employment.

If the employer fails to respond to a request or provide reasonable grounds to refuse a request, the employee can submit an appeal to the Workplace Relations Commission.

An employee must not be penalised due to their request to avail of working remotely.

Under the Right to Remote Working Bill, an employer can refuse a request for remote working where one or more of the following 13 conditions apply:

  1. If the nature of the work means it can’t be done remotely; for example, jobs that require face-to-face interactions or physical tasks.
  2. If the employer can’t reorganise work among existing staff.
  3. If there is a potential negative impact on the quality of work.
  4. If there is a potential negative impact on employee performance.
  5. If the employer has planned structural changes to the business.
  6. If remote work arrangements would place a financial or another burden on the employer’s business.
  7. Where the employer is concerned about the protection of business confidentiality or intellectual property.
  8. Where there are health and safety concerns regarding the suitability of the proposed workspace.
  9. Where there are data protection concerns regarding the suitability of the proposed workspace.
  10. Where there are concerns around the internet connectivity or quality of the proposed location.
  11. Where the distance between the proposed remote location and on-site location is deemed excessive by the employer.
  12. If the proposed arrangement conflicts with the provisions of a collective agreement.
  13. Ongoing or recently concluded formal disciplinary processes.

The strategy aims to make remote working a permanent feature of Ireland’s workplaces by maximising its economic, social and environmental benefits.

The National Remote Work Strategy is built on the strategy paper Making Remote Work, which recommended the implementation of a statutory remote work policy that sets out clear guidance for employees to submit requests to work remotely.

The policy also sets out the process for an appeal or review process.

Inadequate infrastructure in rural Ireland was identified as a key challenge and the government has committed to accelerating the rollout of high-speed broadband across the country as well as providing investment to develop working hubs.

The strategy is built on three pillars:

  • Pillar 1: Creating a conducive environment for the adoption of remote working. This includes legislation to give employees the right to request remote work: Right to Request Remote Work Bill and a code of practice on the right to disconnect.
  • Pillar 2: Developing and leveraging infrastructure to support the adoption of working remotely. This includes “significant investment” in remote work hubs and the development of the national hubs network and accelerating the National Broadband Plan to deliver high-speed broadband to rural areas.
  • Pillar 3: Building a remote working framework that can maximise the benefits of working remotely. This includes collation of data on remote work to inform its impact on employment, equality, transport, carbon emissions and broadband.

The benefits for employees have been well documented and include time savings due to cutting out the commute to and from the office. Other benefits include better work-life balance, greater flexibility and lower transport-related carbon emissions.

Remote working can bring benefits to employers too. These include:

  • Attracting new talent: Businesses can hire from a broader pool of talent and find skilled employees in locations outside of the main office, worksite or region. This includes employees who might be unable to commute to a traditional workplace such as workers with disabilities.
  • Employee retention: Setting up a remote working policy and allowing employees more flexibility around location may encourage valuable workers to stay with a company if it helps them to find a better work-life balance by allowing them to organise their schedule around family and caring responsibilities.
  • Boost to morale and productivity: Employees who have more balance and flexibility will be happier and potentially more productive in their work.
  • Increase cost-effectiveness: Businesses can reduce office space and cut down on the cost of overheads such as electricity, in-house tech support, canteen, car parking, etc.

While your business may struggle initially with the additional financial costs of setting up remote working arrangements, the potential social, economic and environmental benefits can counteract these costs.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has published a resource, Guidance for Working Remotely, which includes a helpful checklist for employers adopting remote work arrangements within their businesses.

Another useful guide is the Remote Playbook for SMEs from the non-profit Grow Remote to help SMEs transition to remote working.

While remote working brings many benefits to employees, working outside the office presents some challenges.

This section will give an overview of how you can support employees with remote working and prepare your business for the new legislation.

Support employees to set up an ergonomic workspace

Provide the necessary equipment including laptop, desktop, mobile phone and software, so employees can perform their work tasks as efficiently at home as they would in the office.

Offer advice around expenses

Ensure that employees know what expenses they can claim and how to submit expenses.

Currently, there are two ways for an employee to claim work-related expenses. The employer can pay employees a daily rate of €3.20 or the employee can claim certain expenses against their income tax.

Revenue has a resource that explains what expenses your employees can claim for – generally a portion of the costs of heating, electricity and broadband – and to calculate the amount.

Research software and systems to make the transition smoother

Using cloud-based platforms enables everyone to work in tandem and communicate in real time. You might consider investing in video conferencing and file sharing systems to help employees with communication and productivity. Integrated accounting, invoicing and payroll software will help to streamline those processes.

As an SME, a comprehensive HR system can automate many time-consuming tasks such as timesheets and facilitate onboarding of new employees.

Encourage input from staff to help identify potential solutions. For example, productivity applications for scheduling and managing projects can reduce time and save on associated costs.

Managing training and IT requirements

Identify training needs for new software and systems, so employees are confident and ready to work remotely as soon as possible.

And for IT support, make sure there’s a designated person or team to help with technical issues and setting up and maintaining systems, or consider hiring an outside contractor.

To make things clearer for everyone at the business, it’s worth setting up and implementing a remote working policy, with clear guidance for employees.

A remote working policy should include the following:

Remote working model

Is the workplace fully or partially remote? Is there an expectation that employees come into the office for meetings or when asked to do so?

Can employees work from a hub as well as a home office?

Clear processes

Ensure employees know how to complete HR-related tasks such as booking leave, claiming expenses and submitting timesheets. Your staff structure should have a clear chain of command so employees who are working remotely know who to consult with queries.

Working hours

State the core working hours and expectations around availability during those hours.

One of the biggest benefits of remote working is increased flexibility for employees. However, this can lead to employees not fully switching off, particularly if their workplace is in their home.

Having clear boundaries around work and home can help to avoid burnout and work-related stress.

Note: The Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 applies. However, the government is considering additional legislation around this area.

Work-related stress

Ensure that employees are aware of the importance of caring for their mental health and wellbeing. Encourage employees to talk to their line manager or another colleague if they’re struggling to adjust to working remotely.

Organising occasional team meetups and facilitating virtual team activities can help to boost morale and keep workers from feeling isolated.

The Making Remote Work strategy paper also covers the need to introduce a code of practice around the right to disconnect from work, which means employees shouldn’t be obligated to respond to emails or calls during non-working hours, weekends and holidays.

Work environment

Set out requirements for your employees’ work environment; for example, a quiet space with minimal interruption where they can take client calls.

Productivity

Set clear expectations around work productivity, for example, operational processes should remain efficient and employees should be able to meet deadlines.

Cybersecurity and data protection

Check that your employees are using robust security including, two-step verification, antivirus software and use of a virtual private network (VPN). Is this provided by the company or should the employee purchase it separately and claim the cost against expenses?

The traditional workplace has been transformed over the past two years and the benefits are obvious – time gained on avoiding the commute, lower carbon emissions from transport and better work-life balance for workers.

The Right to Request Remote Work Bill seeks to put remote working on a formal footing and provide clarity to employers around their obligations.

It’s time to start figuring out how such a policy would work in practice within your business. Encourage input and feedback from employees – many or all of whom will have been working remotely over the past two years.

Now’s a good time to put in place a robust remote working policy to ensure that expectations – both employer and employee – align now and into the future.

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