With legislation due to come and many companies starting to settle on longer-term policies, the remote working landscape should, according to experts in the area, become much clearer over the course of this year.

The Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, currently in the Seanad, is expected to provide a legal framework for workers to request to work remotely and appeal to the Workplace Relations Commission related decisions which they believe breach a code of conduct yet to be drawn up.

However, the need to attract and retain staff in a tight labour market and a desire to achieve some sort of certainty in a much changed post-pandemic environment will do more to drive companies to settle on policies, says employment consultant Renate Kohlmann, who has previously worked with Dell and Wayfair.

She says most companies she has worked with used last year to “learn and haven’t been prepared to embed any policies or anything like that”. This year she expects to see “more companies buckle down and nail their colours to the mast in terms of setting up a remote policy”.

“I think that as a country, though, we need more than legislation if we are going to get ahead of this,” Kohlmann says. “We need investment into organisations to help to bring in a change manager or a change management team or help with training. You need feet on the ground to help build processes, to mentor the leadership team. That all costs money.”

Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) for the third quarter of last year indicate that some 850,000 of the State’s 2.55 million-strong workforce were working remotely at least some of the time, with 574,000 saying they “usually” work away from the office.

Mary Connaughton, director of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Ireland, says 50 per cent of workers could potentially work remotely and the CSO previously found that 88 per cent of people who could do so would like to at least some of the time.

A survey published by employers’ lobby group Ibec in October suggested that many people will get their way, with human resources executives representing 329 companies of various sizes across a range of sectors indicating that attracting and retaining the right staff were their two top priorities at the moment.

Almost three-quarters of respondents identified the use of hybrid working as a key “talent management strategy”, with providing for full-remote working a reality for 14 per cent of them.

Some 38 per cent said employee expectations around hybrid working would impact their organisations. The evolution of company policies was clear, though, with 31 per cent saying they would leave the decision to local managers, 23 per cent indicating a preference for having workers onsite at least three days a week, 18 per seeking at least two days and 22 per cent suggesting they simply have not decided yet.

Connaughton says most companies are still figuring out precisely what will work for them but that many realise there is no real option at the moment other than to offer significant flexibility if they want to attract and retain staff.

“It’s not settled yet whether companies look to have people in the office for two days or three days. They are changing their patterns and working on ways that when people are onsite they are doing things that are collaborative and not sitting there on Zoom calls with people who are not onsite,” she says. “We are seeing things like core days, anchor days, collaborative days, offices breaking into particular communities so people are not spread out over a big space and not connecting at all.

“But we have to remember it was only in 2022 when it [remote working] became an option again. Many companies were forced into it by Covid and it’s only since March or April that it hasn’t been a health and safety issue, so it is only since then that we have started to see experimentation.

She adds: “It was easier when everyone had to be in the office or everyone had to be out of the office. Now we are seeing the debate evolving over business needs and employee needs and it is taking time for that to settle.”

Prof John Geary, of the UCD School of Business, is sceptical, arguing that when chasing fully remote jobs in an international market ‘you’re competing with people in Bangalore’

Joanne Mangan, employers lead at Grow Remote, a social enterprise promoting remote working, agrees with Connaughton’s view.

“We’re still in the middle of a transformational phase, not at the end,” she says. “You’re hearing about a lot of companies settling now on the hybrid model and that we’re kind of into this steady state, but we’re not. We’re really not.

“We’re essentially changing how people have worked for the last 100 years, since the industrial revolution… and the office came into play, so it’s a massive shift in how people work. But I do think companies really are at that decision point.”

Mangan says “there is no roadmap, no industry standards and no benchmarking on how to do this” and that the forthcoming legislation will help, but is unlikely to massively influence what firms decide.

“Employees are looking for a lot of flexibility, a lot of choices. They want to be able to pick and choose how they come to the office and it’s very hard for companies to square that circle. There’s sort of an us versus them mentality going on right now and I think that’s causing a lot of problems,” she adds.

Employers and employees are, she says, looking at what is going on with their peers and want to take from that, even if a significant portion of workers do want to be onsite at least some of the time. “Ultimately, though, more are going to be advertising jobs without location, offering remote work on a full-time basis.”

As things settle, Mangan believes the benefits of remote working will start to be realised, particularly in rural Ireland, with people enjoying wider options in terms of where they make their home, with remote office hubs potentially playing a major part in rejuvenating small towns previously left behind when more lucrative jobs piled up in more populous areas.

“I don’t think we are quite there yet in terms of big employer uptake, which is an important part of it, but hubs can address a lot the challenges associated with remote working and a lot more awareness is needed,” she says.

“If you put remote working and EMEA [Europe, the Middle East and Africa] into LinkedIn, you get 150,000 hits. Now, not all of those jobs can be done anywhere, sometimes it says remote in Germany or something like that, but if we could land even a portion of those jobs in Ireland it could be absolutely transformative, particularly in rural Ireland.”

Prof John Geary, of the UCD School of Business, is sceptical, arguing that when chasing fully remote jobs in an international market “you’re competing with people in Bangalore”.

“It’s an international labour market, not national or European; it is truly international and these companies know how to drive costs down in our platform economy,” he says.

Mangan accepts that remote working “can be bad if it’s not done well,” but says “if we do it well and build up a really strong remote working workforce here, a really strong ecosystem for companies, a really strong pool of talent” there is serious potential for growth.

“There’s nothing to stop us as a country looking and asking: ‘Well, does that job really have to be done in Germany?’ How do we land those jobs in Ireland, I think, is going to be a really important thing to focus on in the next year.”