EMPTY PROMISES If remote working is ever likely to benefit rural Ireland, housing policy needs to radically change first.
An Cailín Rua
Three years ago this month, this column talked about remote working, long before the pandemic rendered the concept familiar to most of us, whether we liked it or not. It feels timely to revisit the discussion in light of how it has evolved since.
From the outset, however, let’s make a distinction between ‘remote working’ and flexible working arrangements’.
Remote working, in its purest, intended form means that employees can do their jobs from locations other than a central office. This means that there is no regular requirement to attend a physical office, and it is feasible for the employee to work from literally anywhere in the world. This is not the same as flexible working arrangements that allow employees to work temporarily or part-time from home, with a requirement for occasional or regular office attendance.
Both remote working and flexible working have distinct merits. Both offer economic development opportunities for rural communities. Both can offer a certain work-life balance, and both can offer employment opportunities that may otherwise be impossible to access.
Back in 2019, the concepts of remote or flexible working appeared new to the Government, and that people, as is often the case, were waiting for policy to catch up. At the time, consultation had just started on a Remote Working Strategy, and in January 2021, ‘Making Remote Work’ was published. It’s stated objective was ‘to ensure that remote working is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits’.
Subsequently, the Government tabled the Right to Request Remote Work Bill, the name alone of which should raise some red flags. But we’ll come back to that later.
All the reasons that made remote and flexible working a positive thing for Ireland in 2019 still stand. The potential to revitalise rural communities, an opportunity since recognised by the Department of Community and Rural Development and promoted in its nationwide support of remote working hubs. The prospect of reducing or eliminating commuting, and its associated financial outlay and environmental damage. The chance for people to gain a greater work life balance. The ability to access diverse and interesting job opportunities with global employers from anywhere in Ireland.
But there are counter-arguments. Not least the fact that not everyone wants to work in such a way. It can be hard to find balance and escape work when it lives in your home. Humans are social animals and it turns out that many of us actually missed interacting with and even learning from our colleagues in person when we could not.
There are also the global multinationals to consider. While they might have been expected to lead out on remote working, they have in fact been recalling workers to the office – unsurprising, when we consider the significant investments they have made in property and working campuses in big cities. It would not be the first time that vested interests influenced government policy.
And on that note, let’s go back to the dubiously named Right to Request Remote Work Bill. Ireland, mercifully, is still a free country, which means that employees already have every right to request anything, including remote work, from their employers. A reading of the bill will reveal that it should in fact be called the Right to Refuse Remote Work Requests, given that it painstakingly outlines all the potential reasons an employer could decline workers’ requests. It’s clear whose interests are being prioritised, and here’s a hint: it’s not the workers.
But the biggest factor underpinning all of this is housing, which nearly renders the whole discussion moot.
Regardless of Government policy on remote working, it’s housing policy over the last decade that has ensured rural towns are not in a position to capitalise on or maximise these opportunities when the people already living in them cannot access or afford homes.
CSO data from earlier in the year estimated that a quarter of workers in Dublin would consider moving county if such arrangements – including accommodation options – were available. There is evidence that migration out of Dublin has raised house prices at a higher rate outside the capital.
So if remote working is ever likely to benefit rural Ireland, housing policy needs to radically change first. The newly announced vacancy tax urgently needs to be properly, meaningfully implemented and policed – and a tax on dereliction, the scourge of rural towns, along with it.
The chances of this happening? Remote.