The Department held a Public consultation on remote working guidance from 6 July to 7 August 2020. During this time, we received over 520 written submissions from a broad range of organisations and individuals. The majority of the submissions received were largely supportive of the practice of remote work. Nevertheless, concerns were still raised under the themes outlined below. This data provides an indicator of the main themes arising from the consultation.
Summary of key themes
Occupational health and safety – workstation set-up
A strong theme arising from the submissions received was that the current legislation on health, safety and welfare at work are directed at traditional office environments, and as such do not allow for modern work practices. Some submissions sought clarity on what constitutes a safe and ergonomic workspace and how this can be achieved at home. This included advice on using devices like laptops, and how risk assessments can be carried out remotely. Submissions called for a clear protocol to be developed for work-related accidents in the home, outlining liability and insurance coverage.
Occupational health and safety – mental health
Concerns emerged from submissions on feelings of isolation, loneliness and difficulty switching off from work and how these can impact employees’ mental health when working remotely. Some submissions suggested that to counter this, wellbeing and mental health supports/training should be put in place. Suggestions included facilitating informal contact with colleagues, increasing face-to-face interactions, encouraging employees to take breaks and leaving the house or exercising during the day.
A number of submissions expressed the view that remote work and/or the right to request remote work should be available to workers who can carry out their jobs remotely. Some submissions sought advice on how employers can introduce remote working policies. It was suggested that examples of best practice would be helpful in this regard, such as template request and response forms; outlines of grounds of reasonable refusal of a request; as well as parameters for appeal or reapplying. A number of submissions emphasised that an intersectional approach is required to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. For instant, equality concerns extended to those living in house shares, or home situations which are not ideal for remote working. This included young people in shared accommodation or one bedroom apartments. It also included those who, particularly during COVID-19, may be juggling caring duties with work. It was suggested that caring responsibilities should be factored into performance appraisals and when evaluating remote employees for promotion. Whilst remote working provides an opportunity to make work more accessible for people with a disability, the provision of assistive/accessible technology to enable remote work was raised as a concern in several submissions from representative groups. Flexibility regarding disability payment and hours worked was also raised as an area of interest – this is further outlined under Tax and Financial Incentives.
Tax and financial incentives
Concern regarding the cost of utilities including broadband, phone lines, purchase of equipment, electricity and heating came through strongly in the consultation. A common point raised was that the current tax relief for e-workers is not necessarily suitable for modern work practices. The current process for claiming the tax relief is viewed as overly difficult and not sufficient to cover employees’ costs. Some submissions also suggested that the credit also applies mainly to those working from home full-time may not encompass those working remotely as a blended/flexible model. Other submissions suggested a campaign to raise awareness of the tax reliefs available to employers/employees.
Some submissions raised concerns that cross-border workers are subject to double tax on income when working remotely, and that this can exclude them from doing so. Clarity was sought on this topic. A number of ideas were brought forth for financial incentives for employers/employees to engage in remote working. Several submissions proposed a scheme similar to Bike to Work to cover the cost of equipment and utilities for employees. Other submissions called for grants to be introduced to allow people to convert or extend parts of their homes to allow for the creation of dedicated workspaces in attics, garages extensions and garden pods.
Several submissions supported the concept of voluntary remote working. Similarly, submissions expressed that remote work should be an arrangement and employer/employee can opt out of. Guidance should encompass a number of remote working arrangements, for example, treatment of those working remotely occasionally, or on an ad hoc basis. The responsibility for provision of equipment such as desks, chairs and technology was raised throughout many submissions as an area which needs clarity. Clarity was also sought on whether employers can use 'check in' technologies to monitor employee activity, and advice on non-intrusive software that can be used.
Organisation of working time and the right to disconnect
Submissions sought guidance for employers on how to record employees’ hours worked and ensure breaks are being taken remotely. This includes information on monitoring systems. Employees’ privacy was also highlighted as an area of interest through several submissions. Guidance was sought for employees on maintaining boundaries and switching off from work. The importance of creating a culture of trust which encourages work/life balance was emphasised throughout submissions. Some called for legislative changes, such as a review of the Organisation of Working Time (OWT) Act to reflect modern work practices; and to introduce the right to disconnect for employees, drawing from the French law as an example. Others were not in favour of new legislation, and rather suggested guidance on how to navigate the existing OWT Act in a remote scenario. Some submissions suggested that guidance on disconnecting/working hours should be flexible, to accommodate for companies and employees operating across time zones. Similarly, flexible systems for logging in and out of work over a longer period of time were suggested, to accommodate employees with caring duties.
Poor connectivity was cited as a major difficulty amongst those working from home during COVID-19. For remote working to be successful submissions agreed that it must be accompanied by rollout of national broadband infrastructure. It was suggested that access to broadband should also be considered from an equality perspective. It was further suggested that guidance is needed on employer responsibility for ensuring a remote worker has broadband if their job requires it. Hubs were raised as a potential solution to lack of broadband. An allowance for working from home to cover broadband was also suggested.
Data protection and cybersecurity
Submissions sought guidance on the data protection risks specific to remote working arrangements, such as the use of video conferencing and remote-enabling software. Advice would be welcome on best practice/minimum requirements to offset these risks. Guidance on data protection in co-working spaces and hubs was also requested.
Clarity was also sought on maintaining cybersecurity in remote working arrangements. This includes advice on secure, non-intrusive remote working software; best practice for cybersecurity in hubs; and clarity on who is responsible for internet security in remote working arrangements.
The topic of training was raised in a number of submissions, particularly around the need for upskilling and management training. The question of how best to deliver training for remote employees was also raised. These areas are outlined below.
- Training delivery: Guidance could promote awareness amongst employers of the training platforms that are available to upskill existing teams on remote and flexible working. Some submissions sought advice on how to move existing training options online. Submissions also suggested that a blended approach to training could be beneficial going forward – part virtual, part physical.
- Areas of training for employees: Submissions suggested several areas of training for employees working remotely. This includes workload management, communication, maintaining work/life boundaries, and IT skills. Mentoring and coaching for remote workers was also suggested.
- Areas of training for managers: Submissions suggested that training for managers could be beneficial for organisations making the transition to longer-term remote working. Areas of training included leading remote teams, assessing performance, measuring productivity, culture change, and building trust.
Some submissions sought clarity on how work-related accidents and/or damage of equipment are covered by insurance, both at home and in a hub. Mental health insurance was also suggested. It was proposed that businesses could benefit from clear, practical guidelines outlining best practice in health and safety, insurance policy and liability in the case of an accident. A step-by-step handbook was suggested in this regard.
Many submissions were made in the context of working from home during COVID-19. In some cases, employees expressed concern over returning to their usual workplaces. Some submissions expressed that, while their employers were keen to have staff back on premises, they would prefer to remain working from home. Clarity would be helpful in the parameters of returning to work, and likewise, continuing to work from home and what employees’ rights are in this area.
Other points raised
Other areas of concern were raised throughout the submissions, which are listed below.
- To encourage the adoption of remote working, its benefits should be clearly communicated to employers and employees, for example, savings, sustainability, productivity, reduced commute.
- It was pointed out a lack of visibility resulting from remote work may impact employees’ career mobility.
- A great interest in hubs emerged across a number of submissions, as a space which provides a work station, broadband and social interaction. However, there is need for greater awareness of hubs’ offerings, and a protocol for availing of hubs/co-working spaces.
- The environmental impacts of working remotely should be recognised and utilised in encouraging its adoption amongst employers.
- Many submissions from employees expressed a preference for a hybrid model of remote work (working remotely 2-3 days/week).
- Several submissions proposed the formation of a small group of business and organisations representing employer and employees to discuss, agree and promote a business case for remote working to employers.
We would like to extend our sincere thanks to everyone who made a submission under this consultation. The views shared under this consultation have been analysed and will be used to form enhanced guidance on working remotely with the support of an Interdepartmental Group consisting of representatives across the relevant areas. This guidance for working remotely will be available and regularly updated as a live resource for employers and employees.
Going forward, the perspectives shared in this consultation will also be used to inform a National Strategy on Remote Work. This work will be led by an expanded Strategy IDG to coordinate a cross-Government approach to facilitating and encouraging longer-term remote working in Ireland.