How Lockdown Brought Remote & Hybrid Work to Ireland and Northern Ireland

How Lockdown Brought Remote & Hybrid Work to Ireland and Northern Ireland

Ka Ka Tsang

Almost overnight, the pandemic prompted unprecedented changes to how and where we work. 

In Ireland, the demand for the inclusion of remote working in future employment contracts is so significant that 30% of Irish workers indicated that they will change job if their remote working preferences were not met. 33% stated that this would still be the case, even if it meant taking a pay cut. 

The 2022 Remote Working in Ireland survey found that 58% of respondents in the Republic of Ireland had never worked remotely prior to Covid-19. In Northern Ireland, those working from home accounted only for 4% of the labour force pre-pandemic. 

As enforced remote working receded, however, working patterns did not revert to pre-pandemic levels. In April 2022, the survey found that 52% of employees were currently working hybrid in the Republic of Ireland, 40% were fully remote and only 8% were working onsite

Following commitments in the Programme for Government, the Irish Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar TD also published the Republic of Ireland’s first National Remote Work Strategy, making remote working a permanent feature of life post-pandemic.

The same cannot be said for the labour force in Northern Ireland (NI) which does not have a strategy, despite demands for such from employees. 

A survey led by senior economists from the Economic Policy Centre in Ulster University (UUEPC), Belfast during 2021 found over 60% of working men and over 70% of working women wanted a return to the office but only if it were combined with a remote working element. 

Despite increased adoption of new working practices in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, future implications are not without challenge. 

In an era where remote or hybrid working has become the new normal, it is appropriate to seriously reflect on what implications our working preferences have had and how they may contribute to our physical and mental health. 

Consultations led by senior economists from the UUEPC revealed mixed responses in relation to the employee experiences of remote working.   

Some reflected improved levels of work-life balance and employee wellbeing. Whereas others felt negatively impacted by extended periods of remote working and emphasised experiencing feelings of isolation as well as loneliness

Working from home and isolation

During the height of the pandemic, consecutive lockdowns and a fear of Coronavirus infection forced many of us back into hub sharing/working from our households. 

Research commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council found that significant increases in mental distress and loneliness were felt by the most isolated group, those who work from home and live alone

Cross institutional project, Work After Lockdown found that 8 out of 10 workers missed the informal contact with co-workers. The “social deficit” is what workers in England, Wales and Scotland felt was the worst aspect of working from home. 

Social interaction and the importance of face to face contact transcended working relationships as beyond that of business – but necessary to sustain a positive team work environment

Equally, professional interactions through enterprise hubs offer opportunities for innovation, collaboration and greater creativity for those living in rural NI

The Irish Central Border Area Network uphold remote working and digital hub development as, “increasingly significant for rurally isolated communities as part of our economic infrastructure and urban fabric”. 

Future investment into remote working should also take into account pre-existing infrastructure inequalities in rural NI such as high quality access to broadband services and the digital skills necessary to participate in post-pandemic working practices. 

UUEPC project leads in Northern Ireland found remote working was detrimental to collaboration prospects and opportunities for staff development, particularly for new and younger staff members. 

Longer working hours and more imbalanced working days were also found to be highly prevalent as NI respondents reported experiencing, “Zoom fatigue” which can cause eye strain and affect staff concentration levels. 

In the Republic of Ireland, 49% stated that they clocked more hours while working from home in comparison to those on-site.   

This emphasises the need to institutionalise right to disconnect policies in protection from not only high employer demands but also for employee mental health.  

Mental health in the workplace

Data from the Health and Safety Executive Great Britain found that the most common cited reasons for work-related stress, depression or anxiety were due to workload pressures including tight deadlines, having too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support. 

Just under half a million workers believed this was caused or exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Poor mental health still remains the most cited reason for long absences in work.

The pandemic not only raised questions on how we work but also how we manage and communicate with people too. 

Strong leadership was also identified as key to the formulation of a Northern Ireland based remote working strategy. Changes in how we work require changes in mentality to innovate line management styles and leadership skills in a post-pandemic workforce. 

Remote workers who were most impacted during lockdown were those with pre-existing mental health conditions. A UK study also found that lower leadership quality was a significant factor in the prolonged stress and burnout for both men and women. 

It is not clear how well equipped organisational leaders were in dealing with the management of a dispersed workforce during the pandemic. 

Workplace settings, virtual or not, must continue to be a key medium for mental health awareness and pro-active discussion to ensure those affected do not suffer in silence. 

One example of effective workplace intervention is found within the Welsh Government remote working case studies

“The health and well-being of Blaenau Gwent council staff was a priority for senior management. A staff survey checked in on how people were feeling, with regular one-to-ones between managers and staff to add a personal touch. Investment in well-being was paramount with a bulletin every week and mental health seminars and training to help all employees spot signs of domestic violence.”

Employers must continue to assess the current state and needs of employee mental health to ensure workers are given the correct tools to adjust to working life. 

The increasing acceptance of home working by employers has enabled women, many with care responsibilities to return and participate within the NI labour market despite pre-pandemic flexibility stigma. 

A British public health study identified gender and parental status as a factor in the UK nature and experience of working at home, particularly for women who have just given birth. Women who were working full-time at home had significantly higher rates of stress, burnout and sleeping difficulties than those who worked in their usual place. 

Options for hybrid working are welcomed for their potential to keep women active in the labour market, keeping them at higher paid positions for longer. A UK 2021 study looking at gender equality and flexible working emphasised that women also face spatial barriers in addition to a double shift of household duties.

Hybrid working alone cannot adequately address the management of post-partum mental health but family policies that are cognisant of gender norms and the pressures of early years parenting can help meet and properly manage work-life demands. 

Future considerations for remote working 

We can now safely consider remote working arrangements as an integral part of the modern workplace today and in increasing demand. 

It is estimated that between 41% and 60% of current jobs in Northern Ireland could in the future be completed remotely, at least in part. 

Employees living and working in the Republic of Ireland agree that the integration of remote working in employment contracts is necessary to both attract and retain staff. Employers fear losing staff to other employers if they were not prepared to offer remote working arrangements. 

In the absence of government strategy in Northern Ireland, employers should continue to consider the future implications of remote working and how they may better support employees moving forward. 

The implementation of policies and strategies to effectively manage and monitor the needs of the remote working population must occur in consultation. 

A one-size fits all approach may not be the way forward as mental health needs and symptoms continue to evolve in Northern Ireland and beyond. 

Dr Ka Ka Katie Tsang is a Research Fellow at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics in Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Northern Ireland International Public Policy Observatory team.