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Returning to the office isn’t as simple as choosing a date

23 Aug 2021

The question of when workers can and will return to the office could have long-term consequences for the future of work, writes Jenny Darmody.

Click here to view the full Future of Work Week series.

Last week, the Government published the results of a public consultation on a legal framework for employees in Ireland to request remote work.

Tánaiste and Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, said there is now a “real opportunity” to make remote and blended working a bigger part of normal working life.

“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.”

This public consultation followed the National Remote Work Strategy released earlier this year, with the aim of making the practice a permanent part of work in Ireland post-pandemic. It marks another step towards legislation that could change how much of the Irish workforce works.

But in the meantime, we’re all in a sort of limbo between pandemic and post-pandemic life. All these plans centre around the post-pandemic world and with around 85pc of the adult population in Ireland now fully vaccinated, that world seems unbelievably close – but we’re not there yet.

While the Government looks to the possibility of greater remote and hybrid working in the future, its workplace advice for the here and now remains the same: people should continue to work from home unless necessary to attend in person.

This is despite the fact that September, which has long been heralded as the month for a return to workplaces, is just around the corner.

However, a roadmap to reopening is on the way next week and is expected to include staggered guidelines for a return to workplaces and could see the use of antigen tests come into play.

What’s the hold-up?

I wrote about the rocky road to reopening at the end of July, and while there are many calls for clarity and guidance on reopening here in Ireland, there are also challenges that still need to be addressed.

For a start, there are questions around vaccinations. Earlier this year, William Fry’s head of the employment and benefits, Catherine O’Flynn, told that while employers may be keen to confirm whether their employees have or have not received a vaccine, it’s important to remember their duties under data protection legislation.

In terms of more general guidelines, there will also be challenges to address around buildings without sufficient ventilation, open-plan offices that may require protective screens and additional social distancing measures, and the task of dealing with a staggered workforce.

All of these issues will have to be addressed by the Government when it releases guidelines, particularly since these guidelines will be seen by many employers as the first official green light to bring their employees back to the office.

The Delta variant also remains a concern and has scuppered many companies’ plans to return to the office in other countries, with several Big Tech names in the US pushing out their plans until next year.

The latest of these was Apple, where employees had voiced their discontent at the iPhone maker’s disinterest in allowing remote working. Now, the surge in Covid-19 cases has forced Apple’s hand, and the company has pushed out its office return until at least January 2022, a delay first reported by Bloomberg.

Bigger, long-term consequences

While Apple’s delay may be welcome for many of its employees, it puts forward a bigger question around how many companies are willing to abandon remote working as soon as they possibly can.

I see the push for office returns as a double-edged sword. There is no doubt that clarity is needed on how people can return to an office-based environment safely. But once those guidelines are given, how quickly will employers use them as a licence to demand their staff’s presence as soon as possible?

To paraphrase Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm, several companies have become so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

While the pandemic inadvertently launched the world’s largest remote working experiment and accelerated the future of work, the light at the end of the tunnel may be causing us to turn our backs on the lessons we learned over the past year in favour of a desperate need to get back to what was once normal.

But that remote working experiment has successfully shown many employees that it is possible to work from home if they want to. While working during a pandemic should not be deemed a fair assessment of remote working, it has given us all a taster of what it’s like and shown us what we really want.

For some, that might very well mean returning to the office. For others, a blended or hybrid approach will work. And for some, fully remote is the only way to go.

But the power is firmly back in the employees’ hands now as while some companies are still craving that full-time office life, many others have seen the benefits of having a decentralised workforce. This could become a point of differentiation between companies and their competitors, and makes it much easier for remote-loving employees to seek work elsewhere.

Founder and CEO of Firstbase, Chris Herd, is a big advocate of remote-first working and often speaks about it on Twitter. “Imagine how small the talent pool will be for jobs that require five days a week in office,” he tweeted recently.

There is no question that companies, especially SMEs, need clarity on how they can safely reopen, and the Government needs to deliver on that while considering the legal, data protection and health and safety implications.

However, while employers are waiting, I sincerely hope they’re working on their own future plans to offer their workforce what is best for them.

The Government guidelines we’re all waiting on are still very much ‘mid-pandemic’ plans, even if it feels more like the beginning of the end.

But what workers need from their employers is a sign of post-pandemic plans that include the flexibility and understanding we’ve always needed, because the future of work is only going to work with a happy staff.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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