How will Ireland’s new Government legislate for the future of work? William Fry’s employment law team has been keeping a close eye on developments and what’s to come.
The way we work continues to evolve as technology advances. However, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, resulting lockdown and phased but cautious return to the workplace has served as a catalyst for a re-evaluation of how employers and employees regard the concept of remote and flexible working.
The sudden movement away from traditional ways of working necessitated by the immediate urgency of the pandemic in March 2020 has not gone unnoticed by the newly formed Government, which has addressed remote working and the right to disconnect in the Programme for Government.
The Programme for Government focuses on a “jobs-led recovery” that aims to get people back into the workforce as quickly as possible.
This approach includes a number of short-term quick fixes in addition to a commitment to wider and deeper reform of how we work. It also addresses how employers and employees can work effectively in an evolved workplace without entirely sacrificing their work-life balance.
Remote working: Here to stay?
During the pandemic, many sectors switched to working from home. Indeed, Government and public health guidance require all employees to work from home where possible.
Furthermore, there are green shoots in the Programme for Government that suggest this move towards remote working may be here to stay.
In summary, the Government has committed to:
- Developing a remote working policy to facilitate employees working from home or from co-working spaces in rural areas
- Mandating public sector bodies (including colleges) to move to 20pc remote working in 2021
- Accelerating the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan. (High-speed and reliable internet connection will be essential in ensuring that those who wish to work from home, especially those in rural communities, will have the infrastructure to enable them to do so)
- Examining the feasibility of changing the tax regime to encourage more people to work from home
The right to disconnect
Even before the ongoing pandemic, the traditional concept of structured nine-to-five working hours has been gradually giving way to the more fluid models of remote working and more flexible working arrangements.
In today’s global economy, many employers are engaging with employees across multiple time zones and conference calls are routinely set up outside of core hours to facilitate all participants. With this in mind, the need to ensure work-life balance and minimise the plague of the ‘perpetual plug-in’ in today’s digital workplace is evident.
In December 2019, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation published a report on remote work in Ireland, which acknowledged that the right to disconnect is an important issue that needs to be addressed as more people take advantage of remote working opportunities. The report also acknowledged that “employers would benefit from increased clarity and support in balancing their employees’ right to privacy and the practical elements of performance measurement and monitoring working hours”.
The Financial Services Union (FSU) has been calling for the introduction of new legislation that would give workers the right to switch off and not engage in work activity (including answering phone calls or emails) outside of paid working hours. AIB recently became the first employer to agree a right to disconnect policy for their workers with the FSU.
This debate around the right to disconnect has gained considerable traction in recent months in light of the ongoing pandemic. More and more employees are working remotely, some for the first time, and the question of how to draw the line between working from home versus living at work is firmly on the board agenda. In May 2020, The Irish Times reported on a LinkedIn study highlighting that Irish workers were putting in an average of 38 hours extra work per month during pandemic-led remote working.
As part of a commitment to improving work-life balance, the Government will bring forward proposals on a right to disconnect in 2020. The Workplace Relations Commission will be brought on board to draw up a code in this area.
Greater opportunities for people with disabilities
Another key takeaway from the Programme for Government is the pledge to offer increased supports, incentives and training to allow for greater opportunities for those with disabilities to remain in the workforce.
The Government commits to promoting an awareness and support programme for employers, which would support recruitment and retention of staff with disabilities. Initiatives will be introduced to improve employment opportunities in rural areas for those with disabilities, including the provision of remote working opportunities.
Some State supports for those with disabilities will be improved. For example, employment schemes such as the Wage Subsidy Scheme and the Ability Programme will be fine-tuned and expanded to help more people with disabilities remain in the workforce. The programme further commits to fast-tracking the return to Disability or Invalidity Pension for people where employment opportunities do not succeed.
There will also be an audit of equity access to further education and training for those with disabilities.
Catherine O’Flynn is head of William Fry’s Employment & Benefits department where she advises on all employment matters with a particular expertise in equality issues. Within this department, Ailbhe Dennehy is a partner, Darran Brennan is an associate and Elaine Egan is a trainee solicitor.
A version of this article originally appeared on the William Fry blog.