Introduction

Over a year ago, I wrote a blogpost asking what would be the new normal once we left the Covid-19 pandemic behind us, see here. Then, very few of us thought that 18 months on we would still be under Government guidance to work from home due to the pandemic.

Nor did many envisage the large scale appetite for remote working among employees across Ireland with little sign that this is waning, see here. On the contrary, despite the difficulties working from home and the wider impact of Covid restrictions, the appeal of working from home has continued.

Given the pattern of the pandemic, it is likely to be at least another year before we can confidently talk about ‘a new normal’ in terms of the extent of the practice of working from home. Are past trends likely to be a predictor of future patterns? Before the pandemic there was an increasing incidence of working from home. There was some evidence that this was influenced by a tightening labour market; over the period 2012 to 2019, as the unemployment rate declined, the percentage engaged in working from home increased, see discussion here.

On the other hand, given the impact of the pandemic, what may emerge may be revolutionary in how many of us work. This blogpost reviews the recent evidence from the CSO Labour Force Survey on working from home and examines the patterns at a regional level.  A previous blogpost last year examined regional patterns from 2012 to 2019, see here[1].

 

 

Labour Force Survey: Working ‘Sometimes’ or ‘Usually’ from Home

The CSO Labour Force Survey asks how often you worked at home. If the response is that you worked for at least one hour from home in the last four weeks, then it is categorised as ‘sometimes works from home’. If the respondent reports that ‘At least half of the days worked at home’, then the response is categorised ‘as usually works from home’.

The data in the following tables captures the most recent data (published July 2021) as well as trends from 2016, nationally and at NUTS3[2] regional level.

Usually working from home

Table 1 below shows the percentage of employment by region, usually working at home over the period 2016-2021. The pandemic effect is clear when we examine quarter 1 in 2020 and 2021, with an over fourfold increase nationally, from 8.8% of the workforce to 37.4%. Every region recorded a significant increase in the percentage of those in employment ‘usually working at home’, with the highest increases in Dublin and the Mid-East. The next largest increases are in the regions home to the largest urban centres, the South-West (Cork), the Mid-West (Limerick) and the West (Galway) and this obviously reflects the profile of employment there with higher concentrations of occupations with an ability to work from home.

 

Another pattern that is evident is that pre pandemic some of the regions with the highest rates of usually working at home, are those regions with the relatively lower rates during the pandemic, notably the Border (11.5%) and the South-East (11%) in 2020.

This reflects the composition of employment in these regions. In more rural regions there are higher rates of self-employment which can be reflected in higher rates recorded as usually working from home. On the other hand, these regions have also less employed in those roles and occupations which could work from home under Government direction.

The trends from 2016 are also worth noting. In the five years pre-pandemic, nationally and generally across all regions there is a consistent upward trend in the percentage of those employed that are ‘usually working from home’. Both the numbers employed and the numbers usually working from home increased over these five years. The patterns in the Mid-West and Mid-East are a little more erratic but the overall trend is upward.

Sometimes working from home

Those categorised as sometimes working from home are those who have worked for at least one hour from home in the last four weeks. In Quarter 1 2021, 6.5% of those in employment reported sometimes working from home, less than half the rate the year immediately before the pandemic.

Between 2020 and 2021 there was a decrease in the percentage of employment sometimes working from home in every region except the Border region. The rate of decrease was greatest in those regions with large urban centres; Dublin and the Mid-East, Mid-West, South-West and West. A significant element is likely to be a change from working at home ‘sometimes’ to ‘usually’ due to the Government work from home direction.

Examining employment growth and employment by sector could help explain the different pattern in the Border region. Total employment in the Border region over the period declined by just 1%, compared to a national decrease of 5%. Even if the numbers working from home remained the same in regions with more significant employment declines, the percentage share of those working from home will increase. Over the same period, in the Border region, there was a large increase in Financial, insurance and real estate activities which are likely to have considerable working from home potential. Both these factors may help to explain the different pattern occurring in the Border region.

Trends from 2016

Between 2016 and 2020 the national trend in the percentage of employment ‘sometimes working from home’ was erratic but generally upwards, and this pattern was generally true across all regions with the exception of the Border region as discussed previously.

Working from home; the post pandemic outlook

The rates of working from home are clearly dependent on occupational profile and working from home potential and Government guidance due to the pandemic. Those regions with greater working from home potential have been those with large urban centres, and in large enterprises with significant working from home potential. During the pandemic enterprises which had heretofore not engaged in any remote work practices such as many manufacturing enterprises, now have significant percentages of employees working from home, see case studies in the following report.

To what extent regional differences will persist in a post pandemic environment will depend on (1) employee preference and the profile of employment, (2) Government support for continued home working and (3) the employer view and the extent to which employers embrace the practice.

  • Employee Preference

Employee interest in continued working from home shows no sign of abating. In the WDC-NUIG Survey in April 2020 (just one month after Government direction to work from home), 54% of respondents said they would like to work remotely either daily or several times a week. A year later the WDC-NUIG survey in 2021, showed that the proportion wishing to work remotely on the same basis increased to 85.5% nationally[3].

Table 3 below, shows that there was little regional difference in employee preference in continuing to work remotely on a daily/weekly basis. Combining the first two categories (daily and weekly), all regions have more than 83% wishing to continue to work remotely. The lowest rates are in the South-West and Mid-West (83%) and Dublin (84%), those regions with the largest urban centres. The regions with the highest rates expressing a preference for more remote working are the more rural regions. This along with the survey evidence indicating that the absence of a commute is one of the biggest advantages of remote working, suggests commuting is a large aspect of normal working life for residents in those regions.

[1] While the term used is remote work (rather than working from home), it is clear that the overwhelming preference is working from home.

So examining employee preference, the rural regions are those with a slightly higher preference for remote working, though the more urban regions are those with the higher incidence of the practice (LFS Qtr 1 2021), which reflects where the workers originate from and where the working from home potential jobs are located.

  • Government Policy

 Before the pandemic, in December 2019, the Government published Remote Work in Ireland, a report examining the prevalence of remote work in Ireland. A key aspect was to understand how remote working can support flexible work practices. With the onset of the pandemic, working from home became a key policy tool in reducing transmission of Covid-19. Now, with the easing of Government restrictions, it appears that Government policy is increasingly supportive of the practice of remote work in a post pandemic environment.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is currently running a national advertising campaign promoting remote work post pandemic, providing guidance on working remotely, an employer checklist, as well as proposing legislative change on the right to request remote work.

The Department of Rural and Community Development, in its recently published Rural Development Strategy 2021-2025 ‘Our Rural Future’, highlighted remote work as having ‘the potential to be transformative for rural Ireland’.  Remote work will enable people to continue to live in rural areas, regardless of where their employer is based. Separately the Strategy notes that remote working hubs will enable remote working and support the revitalisation of rural towns. The development of a ‘national network of remote/co-working spaces and enterprise hubs’, see here, is an important element of the strategy which is being led by the WDC.

(3) Employer views

 In terms of remote work, we are still operating under Government guidance, however some have returned to offices and there is the prospect of a full return to the office in the Autumn.

In 2020, the WDC convened ‘an Expert Group’ to identify the opportunities, issues and challenges associated with remote work in a post pandemic environment.  Consultations with employers, employer representatives and trade unions all illustrated that the experience of remote work since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 has changed employer perceptions of remote work, see full report here.

Now that Government restrictions are being eased, the extent to which employers will support and implement long term changes in remote working will become apparent. It is likely that sectoral and regional differences will persist given the differences in occupational profile, but one can expect that the new normal will be significantly higher than that prevailed pre-pandemic.

Conclusions

Prior to the pandemic, telework and e-work were used to explain the practice of working remotely using technology. These work practices were largely seen as niche, limited to specific sectors particularly technology. The practice may have been extended to other roles and sectors (where the technology and role allowed) and was often not very visible, usually at the discretion of the employer, and on employee request.

The experience of remote working during the pandemic has shown (1) the technology has been tested and delivered, (2) employees appreciate the benefits and (3) employers too have realised some benefits. So, a continuous practice of remote working on a scale much greater than pre-pandemic is very likely.

However, there are challenges which many are starting to grapple with. There are ongoing issues related to the pandemic such as the need for social distancing, as well as large scale preference for hybrid working mean that the logistics of managing who is working where and when is and will be a new challenge for many.

It is likely now that the real constraint to continued relatively high rates of remote working post pandemic will come down to employers and how they manage to introduce remote work practices with the support of Government policy. Many of these issues and challenges were discussed in detail in the Expert Group on Remote Working, see here. The WDC will continue to monitor trends and highlight issues in future blogposts.

Deirdre Frost

September 2021

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the WDC.

 

[1] Note, the LFS data in this blogpost is updated and revised slightly on the LFS data discussed in the previous blogpost.

[2] Nuts is an acronym for the EU Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics. This classification was legally established by EU regulation No 1059/2003 in 2003. In Ireland it is classified hierarchically as Level 1 – Ireland, Level 2 – Regions and Level 3 – Regional Authorities.

[3] While the term used is remote work (rather than working from home), it is clear that the overwhelming preference is working from home.