A graphic of a man leaving his house for work while a hand places a cage over the house, symbolising a return to offices.
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Return to offices: Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should

24 Jan 2022

Employers in Ireland have once again been given the green light to bring their staff back to the office and, once again, Jenny Darmody wants to know if they’ve thought it through.

We’re not far off the two-year anniversary of that fateful day when offices around Ireland were told to send staff home and close up shop – for two weeks.

Back then, Indeed had already taken the lead on sending Irish staff to work from home in February. By March, most office workers had packed up their desks and headed home to kitchen tables, living room couches and apartment bedrooms to set up their impromptu remote working stations.

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But as remote working policies were extended and extended, many future of work experts, who had already been talking about a decentralised office, were starting to question whether now was the time to start a remote working revolution.

Now, as virtually all restrictions lift in Ireland and employers can start bringing their workers back to the office from today (24 January), I have to wonder if we’ve actually learned anything from two years of working from home and countless debates around the benefits of remote working.

Groundhog Day

Firstly, it’s important to remember that this is not the first green light employers have received to return to offices.

The Irish Government initially published the Return to Work Safely Protocol in May 2020 ahead of a gradual reopening of certain workplaces later that summer. However, variants and rising case numbers soon saw the advice switch back to working from home where possible.

The next whisperings of a return to offices were in the summer of 2021, with 20 September named as the date when a phased return could begin once again. Then, with very ‘Groundhog Day’ vibes, another new variant and even more rising cases of Covid-19 meant this had to be delayed until 2022, which brings us to today.

HR body CIPD Ireland is, yet again, urging employers to manage the lifting of workplace restrictions with caution.

The organisation’s director, Mary Connaughton, said that while the changes announced should be “welcomed as good news”, it’s important to remember that the removal of restrictions and a return to offices can spark some concerns in the workforce.

“Businesses have the opportunity to make a lot of their own decisions about this and it’s important to design a reopening that works for the business and workforce”.

Aside from the fact that ‘slow and steady’ is generally always advice worth living by, we must not forget that the pandemic is not over. This means a reversal of office openings, which has already happened, may come into play at some point.

That’s the law and that’s a fact

While the Government has promised that remote working can be a long-term option in Ireland and legislation around the right to request remote working is a priority, nothing has been drafted yet.

According to solicitor Richard Grogan, who has become well known for sharing his legal knowledge via TikTok, the lack of legislation around this issue means “it’s all going to be a bit of a mess,” especially for workers who are carers or have childcare responsibilities.

In terms of forcing employees back to the office, Síobhra Rush, partner and head of the Dublin office of law firm Lewis Silkin Ireland, said while employers can do this “in theory”, it would be “badly advised to issue any kind of blanket notice” telling staff they have to return to the office full-time this week.

‘Employers need some good guidance before any kind of knee-jerk entrenched position’
– SÍOBHRA RUSH

“Strictly speaking, we have this gap now where we know that there’s legislation coming down the line that will give employees a statutory right to request remote working,” she said. However, until that legislation is brought into play, it ultimately comes down to what’s in an employee’s contract as their principal place of work.

“I think that employees may seek to rely on the fact that they have been working remotely for the last few years to say that that changes the contract. I don’t think that that will work,” she said.

“But it definitely makes it easier for them to push back and say, ‘The work can be done from here. I don’t feel safe going in.’”

Rush also said the Work Safely Protocol needs to updated in light of the latest announcement. “It was last updated on 14 January, definitely not in the expectation of this message,” she said.

“I know that the public health message was very sudden, but I think most reasonable people appreciate that some people are still uncomfortable with it and particularly if they have to take public transport, the Luas, etc. So employers need some good guidance before any kind of knee-jerk entrenched position.”

The case for hybrid working

Countless surveys throughout the pandemic have suggested that many employees want to continue working remotely at least some of the time.

Add to that the fact that productivity has risen for many employees, who will no doubt be making the case that they have worked better from home and would like to continue doing so.

Every workplace is different and so is every employee, and while employers may not be able to accommodate each and every individual need perfectly, refusing to make any attempts will only lead to a loss of talent.

And, as I’ve written before, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop and think about whether you should.

“Employers don’t have to change existing practices if they’re working well,” said Connaughton.

CSO figures released just last week backed up our own CIPD Ireland research about how a majority of people would like to work remotely to some extent after the pandemic. It’s not over yet, but the coming weeks will be the best chance we’ve had to see what that landscape could look like – and it’s in the company’s hands to design that future”.

Now is not the time to push the big red button, especially if you haven’t spoken to your employees about their feelings on the matter – and no, the conversation you had with them six months ago doesn’t count. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that things are constantly changing.

If you had plans in place for a previous ‘return to offices’ phase, it’s important to re-evaluate them. Expect anxiety and trepidation from your employees and be sure to listen to their concerns.

While I have been advocating for employers to consider long-term flexible working plans throughout the pandemic, I know that there are still plenty who were so focused on getting through the current situation while waiting for permission to return to offices that they didn’t get around to this planning.

But we are where we are now. So if careful thought has not been put into what the future of work looks like for you, your office and your team, it’s time to put the brakes on.

The remote working genie will not go back in the bottle. What worked before may not work the same way again. Change isn’t just coming, it has already happened and it needs to be acknowledged.

More importantly, just because something worked ‘fine’ before, does that mean it should never be re-evaluated? Has the pandemic not proven that some workplace practices can be done better?

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. 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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