Though unintended, one of the biggest experiments in employment practices is underway globally; enforced working from home. Where possible, Governments have asked that all workers conduct their normal work from home, a radical change from what has gone on before.
What will happen when some degree of ‘normality’ returns? Some commentators suggest working from home will become a much more established feature of working life. Others suggest that life and work will return to ‘normal’, only time will tell. In this blogpost I look at patterns and trends in working from home and remote working up to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The terms telework and e-Work were more common in the past but generally refer to remote working – the practice of using technology (tele-work) and electronic ways (e-Work) to work at a location separate or remote to the office. Working from home is specifically that and can be considered a subset of remote working, in contrast to working from a shared space such as a hub.
Working from home and remote working is not a new phenomenon. As noted in the recently published Government report Remote Work in Ireland (2019), The late 90’s saw the first emergence of Government activity on remote work (then referred to as e-Work or telework). This was due to the increasing availability of ICT and broadband infrastructure. A series of actions were undertaken to promote e-Work (largely working from home).
- In 1998 the National Advisory Council on Teleworking was established by Government. Comprised of experts across a range of areas it was charged with the task of advising the Minister on telework and related employment opportunities.
- In 2000, twenty years ago, the Government approved a Code of Practice on e-Working entitled ‘e-Working in Ireland’ and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (2000-2002) (PPF) committed the Government to introduce e-Working options into mainstream public service employment by 2002.
- In 2001-2003, the Western Development Commission (WDC), was represented on the e-Work Action Forum, the successor to the National Advisory Council. The e-Work Action Forum assumed the role of developing tasks and strategies set out in the report, e-Working in Ireland: New Ways of Living and Working.
- The Department of Finance, in 2003 issued a circular on Pilot schemes to promote e-Working in the Civil Service.
- Though some individual Departments did introduce pilot schemes and may have continued the practice, no central evaluation or assessment of the policy has ever taken place.
- The Office of the Revenue Commissioners issued guidance dealing with the tax implications of e-Working for employees and employers which was updated in 2013 and updated further in April 2020 to take account of the current enforced working from home practice under Covid-19.
Generally, the earlier work on promoting e-Working focused on economic and social benefits and there was little attention paid to environmental benefits. Before the financial crisis hit, and in line with economic growth, high employment levels and greater levels of commuting, the Department of Transport published its Smarter Travel Policy A Sustainable Transport Future, A New Transport Policy for Ireland 2009-2020 (2009). This included actions to reduce travel demand and traffic congestion.
- One of the actions was to realise some of the benefits of e-Working. This included setting targets to encourage e-Working in the public sector.
- There was also an objective to research and develop e-Working centres (in effect the precursor to enterprise centres & working hubs). For example, as part of the smarter travel town initiative, a pilot e-Working centre was established in Dungarvan in 2012. This ‘Remote Working Space’, allows workers to rent space and access broadband while also operating in an office environment closer to home than the office. At that time, Westmeath County Council set up six community e-Working centres aimed at residents who travel to Dublin or elsewhere to work.
However, the financial crash ensured that e-Working as policy objective was relegated and the ensuing higher unemployment, lower employment levels and associated lower congestion levels removed some of the impetus for e-Working.
Employment Trends and Working from Home
The unemployment rate and the numbers working from home rate, as measured by the Labour Force Survey (LFS) is shown in the chart below. The data from the LFS measures those who work ‘usually or sometimes’ from home.