The Covid-19 pandemic transformed the employment landscape in Ireland and remote working is now an integral feature of our working lives. ‘Making Remote Work’ – the national remote working strategy aims to ensure that remote work is a permanent feature of the Irish workplace. But what impact has remote work had on areas such as productivity, work-life balance, social inclusion, emissions, and regional development?
Making Remote Work
The goal of ‘Making Remote Work’ is to ensure remote working is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits. The strategy is built on three pillars: (1) create a conducive environment for the adoption of remote work; (2) develop and leverage remote work infrastructure to facilitate increased remote work adoption; (3) maximise the benefits of remote work to achieve public policy goals.
The strategy identifies the potential of remote work to improve labour market participation amongst cohorts with lower participation rates, such as people with disabilities, older workers and people with caring responsibilities. It also provides the opportunity for a better work/life balance and allows families to spend more time together
The strategy states that the increased adoption of remote working will support a wide range of national policy goals including aligning the significant number of remote working hubs across the country with the development of electric vehicle charging, walking and cycling infrastructure.
But what impact has remote work had on the aims of the strategy to date?
Evaluation of the impacts of remote working
A recent IGEES evaluation of the impacts of remote working contains some very interesting findings. The report evaluates the impacts of remote working to the Irish economy and society, building on the goals set out in the National Remote Work Strategy. Overall, the evaluation finds that remote working is likely to have a positive impact on the Irish economy and society.
Recent data indicates that, on average, management and employees alike expect remote working to improve productivity. It is likely to be the case that remote working boosts productivity in many occupations but reduces it in others.
Evidence suggests that remote working should improve labour market outcomes for both people with disabilities and caring responsibilities. Remote work enables improved access to the workplace through greater flexibility in terms of time management, childcare and commuting options. It is important however that firms do not use remote working to avoid providing required workplace provisions for people with disabilities.
Housing demand in more rural regions outstripped that of cities, at least in 2021. The evaluation found there to be an inverse relationship between recent house price and rent growth, and population density.
Emissions savings made from reduced transport usage are likely to exceed any extra household emissions, leading to net environmental gains from remote working. This paper estimates that remote working has the potential to save 164,407 tonnes of CO2 a year, with an equivalent monetary saving of €7.6m.
The evaluation finds that potential cost savings for employees could be large, with any increases in heating and electricity costs likely to be outweighed by a reduction in commuting costs. Estimated annual increases in heating and electricity costs for households are €79 and €30 respectively. Potential savings from reduced commuting are estimated to be €413 per remote worker. Remote workers can save an average of 93 hours per year through reduced commuting – with an equivalent monetary benefit of €1,103.
Firms too can make significant cost savings if they downscale expensive city centre offices. Past IGEES studies indicate potential benefits for firms to be approximately €1,492 per employee per year. This is on top of benefits accrued through improved employee productivity.
It is still unknown at this time what the impact of remote working will be on the Exchequer. There are potential costs of €200m per year, although the majority of this is likely to come through a reduction in ‘corrective’ tax receipts, such as excise duties.
As for most remote workers and firms, benefits of remote working are likely to outweigh the costs; there is likely to be little market failure for the government to correct. While blanket spend to encourage remote working could lead to deadweight loss, targeted spending measures could improve remote working outcomes for specific cohorts (e.g., people with disabilities).
National Remote Working Survey
The broad findings of the IGEES evaluation are also reflected in the results of the most recent national survey on remote working in Ireland from the Western Development Commission and NUI Galway. The findings of this latest national survey indicate that Irish workers expect to continue working remotely either all of the time or to find a balance in line with their lifestyle.
Among the main findings of this survey are:
Of those who could work remotely, 52% were currently working hybrid, 40% fully remotely, and only 8% were fully on-site
If their future remote working preferences were not facilitated, 30% of all respondents indicated that they will change job, with 33% indicating they may change jobs even if it meant a pay cut
37% indicated that they will change job and 27% indicated they are open to the possibility of changing jobs, even if it means less promotion opportunities if their future remote working preferences were not facilitated.
49% of all respondents clock more hours while remote working, compared to working on-site; 45% work the same hours, and 6% reported that they work fewer hours
30% of respondents indicated they spent 30 minutes to an hour of the time they saved commuting working; 27% spent up to half an hour; and 14% spent 1 to 1.5 hours
Almost half, 49%, believe remote working has no impact on opportunities for promotion, with 33% not yet knowing the impact. 9% believe there is a positive impact while 9% believe there is a negative impact on promotion opportunities.
Some 27% of respondents have changed employer since 2020. Of these, 47% indicated that remote working was a key factor in their decision as their new employer offered better opportunities in this area.
The vast majority of respondents indicated remote working is impacting employee attraction and retention in their organisation. 88% strongly agree and agree with the statement that their organisation needs to offer remote/hybrid working to attract staff and 90% strongly agree and agree with the statement that their organisation needs to offer remote/hybrid working to retain staff.
When asked about the future of remote working the survey showed:
50% of respondents said their organisation has confirmed how they will work in the future, while 22% are in a trial phase.
Of the 50% whose organisations have confirmed their future working patterns, 61% of respondents indicated that they will work hybrid; 30% will work completely remotely; and only 9% will work fully on-site.
Of those who will work hybrid into the future, 36% are expected to be on-site a minimum of two days a week; 24% a minimum of three days; 17% a minimum of one day; and 3% are expected to be on-site a minimum of four days a week; 8% are expected to be on-site several days a month; and 12% indicated “other” expectations of their employer about being on-site.
Social Justice Ireland view
The IGEES Report and the Western Development Commission Survey indicate that remote working is now a permanent feature of the workplace and that our national policies will have to evolve to adapt to this change. Remote working has the potential to transform rural areas in terms of employment flexibility and living standards generally once quality rural broadband is in place. Policies such as increased investment in healthcare and other public services and ensuring affordable and accessible quality public services to all regardless of urban or rural location must be part of the response. Improved and expanded public services (including public transport, broadband, healthcare, childcare) would contribute to regional attractiveness in remote and rural areas, while also supporting the transition to a low carbon economy. The evidence to date shows that the increase in remote working has had a positive social and economic impact on rural economies. However, the ongoing challenges in terms of access to public services and infrastructure in rural areas still have to be addressed. Progress is being made, and further investment in improved public services is essential to the success of 'Our Rural Future' and ‘Making Remote Work’.