As we near a year since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland, Rory Clarke examines whether there are any positives to our enforced shift to remote working.
As we pass the one-year anniversary of the first diagnosed case of Covid-19 in Wuhan, much and more has been written about the difficulties presented by enforced remote working. Far from our minds when we were celebrating New Year’s Eve in packed bars and clubs, toasting Valentine’s Day in heaving restaurants, and even dreaming of busy St.Patrick’s Day parades, remote working has become an unfortunate everyday reality. Even with a potential vaccine on the cards early next year (testing the glass-half-full perspective to its limit!) it seems likely that remote working will retain its substantial place in the workplace from some time to come.
However, how sustainable is the narrative that remote working is inherently, inevitably and incontrovertibly bad? Whilst undoubtedly costly to social wellbeing and emotional and organisational supports, there is a case to be made that the opportunities it presents have been marginalised in a desperate and ardent competition to compare its most pernicious effects.
Even before the pandemic, there had been uptakes in flexible working schedules, which generally incorporated a degree of remote working. To those pre-pandemic advocates of remote working how strange it must seem to have their working norms discussed, debated (and generally) condemned as a matter of public discourse. To most people, the sudden enforced shift created such a negative shock factor that they could not understand why any rational person would elect to work remotely. Deliberately isolating yourself, excluding yourself from office anecdotes and gossip and missing post-work pints seemed insanity incarnate. However, we must remember that this shift also coincided with workers being deprived of their entire social network and a general (and understandable) emotional downturn. The circumstances which led to this mass remote working should not mean we automatically condemn it.
Here are 3 reasons why remote working presents opportunities, rather than just difficulties. Some are practical, some are more substantive; all will hopefully enable us to get to grips with remote working, however long it stays with us!
1. Jobs ‘abroad’
One of the best possibilities that remote working offers is to improve job prospects, both in number and geographic spread. We are no longer confined to jobs which are either already in our locality or in places which are in our financial gift to move to. Previously, with traditional working patterns, the companies you could work for are limited to those incorporated within a commute - be it reasonable or often not. Additionally, many people incurred significant financial debt to move out, to move to a different country and culture just for a job. This can be severely debilitating in the long-term, as people are tied down having made a move. This system didn’t make any allowances for mistakes, changes-of-mind, or career pivots.
With remote working, however, all of these situational challenges can be overcome. For example, there are anecdotal stories of new US Embassy officials ‘in Dublin’ working whilst Stateside. This is particularly the case as more and more employers begin to permanently facilitate remote working. Rather than negotiating ad-hoc remote working arrangements, employers are beginning to offer jobs which are entirely remote. This enables people to work for companies they could only have dreamt of previously. These workplaces are those which never had offices locally, never recruited globally or never contemplated remote working, even where it would have been easily achieved. This enables upward career development without running the risk of financial insecurity. Companies such as Facebook, PayPal and Salesforce have all begun to offer permanent remote working opportunities, with some civil services doing so too, for instance, EU Court interpreters, usually based in Luxembourg.
2. Jobs at ‘home’ but work abroad
This one is pretty much the inverse of jobs 'abroad'. Consider this; you are in a remote working position in Dublin, having previously worked in the office in-person. You’ve lived in Dublin throughout your employment with this company. You continue to work from your home in Dublin, whilst the rain pours down, your extortionate rent continues to rise and chances of returning to the office grow ever more slim. Why stay in Dublin? There’s no mandated attachment anymore - whether your Wi-Fi signal is Irish or otherwise is irrelevant, once it works.
Many people have begun to realise this in recent months and taken the opportunity to fly the nest and set up in sunnier and cheaper shores. Once a Wi-Fi connection is strong enough, and the time-zones aren’t too debilitating, there is no reason remote workers need to stay near their company’s ‘base’. This gives employees the opportunity to work with the companies they always wanted and live in the places they always wanted. There’s no compromise, no deadweight of time, location, or employment satisfaction. The main risk is isolation from organisational peers, but remote workers generally interact with each other through online mechanisms anyway. It is the modus operandi for the company, for both social and professional engagements. A great example is UCD students who were meant to go on foreign exchanges this year, who have gone to the country anyway, completing their UCD work from there.
3. Career Pivots
Many people find themselves stuck in an employment rut. Whether it is due to financial or geographic convenience, established work social networks or otherwise, it can be very hard to face up to the prospect of changing career. Remote working facilitates this choice in two different ways; by allowing you to work on multiple projects at once, and easily facilitating up-and-cross-skilling to make career pivots more achievable.
Many office-based jobs require employees to be in the office for certain fixed hours, regardless of how much work is required of them on a certain day. In fact (and rather unfairly), whilst most employees have mandated minimum hours when the business is quiet, most are expected to stay beyond these when extra work is required of them. Conversely, remote working generally measures employee productivity by task rather than time. Thus, at home, if you have little or no work to do on a given day, this spare time can be applied to other projects, either personal or professional. This allows greater flexibility for other work, be it freelance, personal interest or otherwise.
Secondly, as remote working becomes ever more prolific, more and more specific jobs, designed to be done remotely, will crop up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, computer and tech-heavy careers are coming to the forefront as they are jobs which rely on internet connectivity, a keyboard and not much more. As your existing career becomes ever more reliant on technology and atypical working styles, you may realise that it’s the technology itself which interests you. If you’re in that position, reskilling for remote technological work doesn’t necessarily require going back to college - it’s not that sort of skill they’re looking for. Know-how and quickness of thought and typing can all be easily gained online, and that’s what differentiates one remote worker from another, between those who excel and those who struggle.
Remote working has undoubtedly presented serious issues for many employees and employers. However, much of the negative narrative and commentary has been unfortunately conflated with the negativity surrounding the lockdown as a whole, when there are in fact several key advantages to our new working reality. From the chance to work for dream international companies, live the dream working on a sunny coast or changing careers completely, remote working does not deserve all the flak sent its way.