Video-conferencing company Zoom’s staff announcement earlier this week sounded a death knell for remote work advocates.
The firm, which was so widely depended upon during the pandemic lockdowns and fuelled change in working habits, said that any of its employees that live near a Zoom office will be required to be onsite two days a week to interact with their colleagues.
Zoom is not an outlier either. Other companies, particularly in the tech industry, have rolled back on offering remote working in recent weeks, and staff across the globe, including in Ireland, have been searching for guidance.
“In the last number of weeks and months there appears to be an effort by many of the tech and financial services firms to regularise the working patterns and systems of their employees,” said Barry Crushell, solicitor at employment law specialist firm Crushell & Co.
In another example, Facebook owner Meta recently said it will be reversing its working-from-home policy despite telling its staff it would allow permanent remote working post-pandemic.
Mr Crushell suggested the issue of remote working is rearing its head again in Ireland, as a sweet spot is yet to be reached that makes both employees and employers happy.
He said that some firms began asking staff to return to work as covid restrictions eased at the end of 2021 and 2022 and the discussion around it tapered off somewhat for a while.
Big Tech firms have brought the matter back to the forefront and without clear legislation or guidelines for employers and staff, teething problems are set to continue.
Under Irish law, employees now have the right to ask their boss for a remote working option. But employers are within their rights to say no.
Mr Crushell argued that some firms are clamping down on remote working under the current system in an effort to abide by their EU regulatory obligations and to prevent risk exposure.
“Over the last number of years, there was a significant degree of flexibility afforded to many employees which means they could operate remotely and their whereabouts in many respects were unknown,” he explained.
“If they (the employer) become aware that an employee is no longer resident in Ireland for tax purposes and is carrying out the overwhelming majority of their work for that company in a foreign jurisdiction, it actually exposes that company to potential liability in that jurisdiction,” said Mr Crushell.
Now there is a determined effort by many employers that their employees are back in the office living and working in Ireland.”
Taxation is just one piece of the remote working puzzle yet to be solved though. Some firms, including Zoom, are pushing the value of socialising in the workplace and have indicated that they want more people onsite for this reason. For some, this is a welcome move.
“I prefer hybrid or fully onsite. This whole remote palaver gets on my nerves,” said Rosanna Loughnane, former talent acquisition partner at tech firm Zendesk’s Irish operations.
Ms Loughnane lost her job at the end of last year after Zendesk announced it would cut 5% of its global workforce amid the global tech slowdown, impacting some of its 500 staff in Ireland.
Curtailing remote working could become a major obstacle for employees who have built their life around this system over the last three years. For example, employees with children were among those that reaped the benefits of being able to work from home.
“I prefer to be out meeting colleagues and mixing up my day. I do think circumstances affect this. If you have kids you would want no commute or live further away,” said Ms Loughnane.
“I am 41, single, and have no kids living in a studio apartment in Rathmines. No brainer don’t you think,” she said.
Mr Crushell said he is also aware of the positives remote working can have for parents.
He said that he knows people in the legal profession who have had children pre and post-pandemic who said if remote work wasn’t made available to them they would go to a competitor.
While there is no legal obligation to provide remote working to a parent, it could become problematic in the near future if employers fail to do so.”
At the moment, employers and employees are in a standoff over remote work with no clear path forward. It is difficult to determine which party has the edge.
Ireland currently has an extremely tight labour market with unemployment at a record-low level of around 4%. Therefore, firms that are looking for mainly on-site workers may have to compromise if potential applicants are demanding remote working conditions.
However, big tech companies are still attractive employers for people and some might forego remote working for the chance of getting hired.
Mr Crushell said that some of his clients were made redundant as part of the tech job cuts and many are not being offered the same opportunities that they had pre-covid. He added that it’s also taking a long time to get new jobs due to heavy competition and a tight jobs market.
Employment in the tech sector, which is leading the push back to the office, increased by 3.1% in the June quarter despite redundancies, according to the Central Bank. This reflects continued strong labour demand in parts of the sector.
The tech sector provides more than 160,000 jobs across the Republic. Ireland has escaped the heft of global tech layoffs due to tighter redundancy laws but the number of cuts is edging closer to 3,000 as the slowdown persists.
The long-term solution still needs to be outlined but Mr Crushell said he believes the majority of employers “are willing to offer a degree of flexibility in how and where employees can work”.
He added that it is likely most workplaces will keep hybrid and flexible working conditions, but “there are limits to it”.
Mr Crushell suggested that removing remote work will not be sustainable for companies in the long term if there is “no discernible benefit for employees being there except visibility”.
Meanwhile, a full return to the office could be a “double-edged sword” for firms said Mr Crushell.
“I do think there are inherent commercial risks if employers insist on employees returning back to the office on a more permanent and frequent basis,” he said.
Remote working still offers firms the opportunity to look at a greater talent pool as they could hire staff in different counties with a lower cost-of-living. Mr Crushell said that he has heard of job applicants living in rural counties accepting lower remuneration for firms based in cities that offer remote working.
However, this may have some unintended consequences and could eventually hit the commercial property sector which has buoyed the construction industry post-pandemic.
Mr Crushell said he is aware of developers looking at older offices and some firms are downsizing as remote working continues. These spaces could have the potential to be converted into residential properties to tackle the housing crisis.
The remote working conundrum is likely to be addressed in more detail soon as there is a clear hunger for it among Irish employees.
Ireland was the fastest to adopt remote working among 27 EU member states, according to a recent report by BNP Paribas Real Estate Ireland (BNPPRE).
The report, which analyses Eurostat data, showed the Netherlands has the highest percentage of its workforce engaged in remote working, but Ireland is leading the change in workforce habits in terms of how rapidly remote working is taking the place of traditional office-based work.
“Ireland’s adaptability throughout the pandemic has been remarkable in many ways, not least the ease with which businesses and employees alike adjusted their working models,” said John McCartney, BNPPRE’s director of research.
Of course, this has had knock-on implications for commercial property. Over time, remote working has enabled employers to adopt hot-desking and rostering systems which reduce the amount of office space they need to carry per employee.
In addition, co-working spaces are also quickly becoming a thing of the past as employers grapple with the issue of remote work.
Office space provider WeWork said it had “substantial doubt” about its future. The company, which has operations in Ireland, was adamant that the pivot toward remote and hybrid working would benefit them as employers would be more careful about entering into long-term leases and would look to WeWork’s flexible models instead. However, the business has struggled to stay afloat post-pandemic.
IWG provides an optimistic contrast to WeWork though. The office space provider’s revenue rose 14% in the first six months of the year while operating profit more than doubled.
It is not yet clear what the employment norms will look like in the coming years but one thing seems certain. The consensus among employees is that a five-day week working in the office is quickly becoming a thing of the past.