Comment: Remote working cannot be allowed to blur the line between labour and leisure

While working from home has many benefits, a properly planned national strategy is needed to ensure workers get a fair deal

The current lockdown presents a rare opportunity to press the reset button and improve work-life balance

One of the hardest won rights of workers – the right to their own free time – is more at risk than ever.

In the space of a few days in March, hundreds of thousands of people became remote workers, swapping the office for the kitchen table. According to a recent NUI Galway report on remote working, three-quarters (78 per cent) of respondents would like to continue working remotely after the crisis.

We now have a real opportunity for greater flexibility, reduced commuting time and a better work-life balance. However, clear regulation on remote work is needed to make this a reality.

For too many, remote working has meant longer hours, greater work intensification and interference with their lives.

For instance, the NUI Galway report found that nearly 40 per cent of workers said they were not able to switch off from work, while 30 per cent said they had a poor physical workplace.

These findings conform with a recent survey which found that four in ten are working longer hours than before, while another half are working from their sitting room or kitchen and experiencing family interruptions during their working day.

The hard-won boundary between work and home life is becoming blurred, putting intense pressure on physical and mental health amid this pandemic. Remote work, ushered in by the Covid-19 lockdown, is also diluting family and personal time.

Clearly, workers must take action to stop this sudden slide into an “always on” working culture.

A national flexible work strategy, as proposed by Labour, would retain workers’ rights and renew work-life balance while meeting the needs of business and a productive economy.

This would include three core components, and would also involve an examination of a four-day week and the possibility of a shorter six-hour day without loss of pay.

Firstly, a new right to disconnect from emails, phone calls and unpaid work is needed to define and demarcate the boundaries between work and personal life.

Secondly, a right to flexible working hours should be introduced to account for the needs of carers. This should coincide with the provision of flexible, affordable and high-quality community care.

Finally, clear regulations, enforcement and resources are required for remote work. Employers need to be aware, for example, that health and safety regulations and working time laws still apply to their employees – even if they are working from their box room in Bettystown.

The current lockdown presents us with a rare opportunity to press the reset button and improve our quality of life.

With a properly planned and implemented remote-working strategy, we could make technology work for us, rather than being overworked by technology.

We could better schedule our collective working lives, rather than being enslaved by a fixed schedule that owes more to the 1920s than the 2020s. And we could achieve a real work-life balance, particularly for parents and carers, rather than being forced to choose between our personal and professional lives.

Remote working could help stem the daily one-way flow of more than 200,000 commuters from counties, cities and communities, such as my own Louth and East Meath constituency.

This would not only reduce commuting times, but also cut congestion and carbon emissions and contribute to the growth of regional and local economies.

All this is possible, but the practical challenges must first be overcome, and the full rights of workers must be retained.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, Labour set out in detail how trade unions and employers could come together to develop standards for permitting people to work from home or from other locations.

All these issues, and more, must now be urgently considered as part of a national flexible working strategy. In short, a national dialogue on regulated remote work is required.

This process cannot wait for the crisis to “end“, when remote working is the reality now. To get Ireland moving again, we will need safer and smarter ways to work. The need for the separation of our labour and our leisure time should never be forgotten.

Ged Nash is a Labour TD for Louth and is the party’s spokesperson on employment affairs and social protection