When Covid hit, people across the country and around the world were united as bedrooms and kitchens became offices and working from home became the norm.

The abbreviation WFH entered the modern lexicon along with 'Zoom', 'Teams', 'hybrid' and 'flexible' - a common language embraced by so many.

But what was once unifying has now become somewhat divisive, when it comes to drawing up formal policies on remote working.

There are a variety of views on the rights and laws that should be enacted.

In January, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar announced details of the 'Right to Request Remote Work Bill'.

The legislation was designed to give employees the right to request remote working and to require employers to provide reasonable grounds for refusing such requests.

The draft bill attracted criticism from all sides.

"The committee agreed the grounds for refusal are cumbersome and require change."

Unions said that it was stacked in favour of the employer when it comes to grounds for refusal and grounds for appeal.

Employers questioned the need for the legislation and warned that it may result in additional administrative burdens for businesses.

The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment held a series of hearings to listen to the views of stakeholders and published its findings on Thursday.

Divergent views

"In putting in place a framework to allow for a right to request remote work, the department must balance the various interests and views, including those of businesses, business owners, employers, employees, and trade unions," the committee concluded.

"The committee has heard some quite divergent views as to what has been proposed."

That divergence was reflected in the long list of recommendations made by the committee members who outlined 20 changes they'd like to see made to the remote working bill.

Among the issues identified were the high number of grounds to refuse a request, the rights of appeal and the six-month service requirement before a worker can make a request to work remotely.

The committee recommended that refusals of requests for remote working must be grounded in a stated policy from employers, founded on established codes of practice. Members called for the introduction of tighter grounds in primary legislation so that unreasonable refusals should be open to challenge.

They also recommended removing the need for an employee to have worked 26 weeks before being allowed to request remote working.

The committee said that remote working should incorporate hybrid and flexible working and that bureaucracy involved in the drawing up of remote working policies should be kept to a minimum for small and medium businesses.

Unlucky 13

In the draft bill, the Government listed 13 grounds for refusal - in other words, 13 reasons that an employer could use to say no to a request for remote working.

They included the nature of the job not allowing for the work to be done remotely, potential negative impact on performance, the burden of additional costs and concerns about the suitability of the proposed workspace.

The 13 reasons would prove to be an 'unlucky 13' for supporters of the bill, as they attracted some of the loudest criticism.

The Enterprise Committee's report on the bill noted that the number of grounds to refuse requests throughout Europe varies from five to eight.

"The committee agreed the grounds for refusal are cumbersome and require change," the report stated.

"The department responded and confirmed they are also reviewing the number of grounds with a view to getting the balance right," the committee said.

'Fatally flawed and utterly pointless'

In March, groups representing trade unions and employers appeared before the committee to express their concerns about the proposed new remote working legislation.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions told TDs and Senators that the proposed legislation was stacked in favour of the employer and was "fatally flawed" when it comes to grounds for refusal and grounds for appeal.

ICTU's General Secretary Patricia King told the committee that, in effect, the proposed legislation would only allow for a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission on procedural grounds.

"ICTU and its affiliates are strongly of the view that an appeal to the WRC taking issue with the substantive decision of the employer must be provided.

"Without this, the proposed legislation is utterly pointless," she said.

"The Government must act without further delay to ensure that the gains from remote working are not lost."

Business group IBEC warned that the new law could place an additional administrative burden on employers and questioned the need for the legislation, arguing that many companies are already offering remote or hybrid working.

"We believe that legislating for a statutory right to request remote work at this stage is premature and may stymie the ability for employers and employees to manage remote working in a creative and flexible way," IBEC's Director of Employer Relations Maeve McElwee told the committee.

In April, remote working organisation Grow Remote told the committee that the Government should consider financial supports for businesses, should make drastic changes to the list of reasons for refusal and should broaden the grounds for appeal.

"We encourage the committee to allow for appeals to the WRC to be based on the substantive decision of the employer, not merely on procedural grounds," said Joanne Mangan of Grow Remote.

"There are many employers who are still sceptical about remote work and we urge the committee to strengthen the legislation so that employers must have a firm rationale for refusal that is based on objective and measurable reasons," she said.

A 'listening ear'

While there has been lots of criticism of the bill in its draft form, the Government has always said that it will be taking on board the views of stakeholders when it finalises the legislation.

This was laid out in clear terms in May, when Department of Enterprise Assistant Secretary Dermot Mulligan appeared before the Enterprise Committee.

"We have a 'listening ear' on the draft legislation and are open to changes to it," he said.

"We are currently examining how best to strengthen the redress provisions and the right of appeal in the draft legislation. In addition, we are considering a reduction of the enumerated grounds for refusal," he added.

But while the Government has said that changes will be made to its original bill, those calling for reforms have criticised the length of time it is taking to pass the law.

Government Buildings

On Thursday, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said it should be made a legislative priority.

"There has been a deficit of ambition by Government to deliver on their commitment to providing workers the right to request remote work," said ICTU General Secretary Patricia King.

She also said that it was time to "correct the conventional wisdom" about current levels of access to remote working.

Some employers have questioned the need for remote working legislation saying it is something they have to offer anyway when trying to recruit staff because of the tight labour market and competition for talent.

Not so, said the ICTU general secretary.

"This does not tally with what we are hearing from union representatives on the ground. Their experience is of employers reluctant to engage until this legislation is enacted," Ms King said.

"Indeed, statutory remote working rights are the norm throughout Europe and the English-speaking world. Now the Government must act without further delay to ensure that the gains from remote working are not lost."

In contrast, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce recently called for the introduction of the bill to be postponed to give companies time to establish their own hybrid working models.

Aebhric McGibney, the chamber's director of public and international affairs, made the comments to the Business Post.

"The one thing the Government could do is just hold fire in terms of the right to request remote working, that piece of legislation, because most companies are trialling new ways of working in some sort of hybrid form and they are going to evaluate it after a year to see how it works, because it will take that long to figure it out," Mr McGibney said.

Popularity of remote working

The latest 'National Remote Working Survey' highlighted how important remote working has become to those who avail of it.

Researchers from the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway and the Western Development Commission gathered responses from more than 8,400 employees, in late April and early May, on their current experience of remote working.

95% of people said they believed it had made life easier.

Almost one third said they would change jobs - even if it meant a pay cut - if their remote working preferences were not facilitated.

37% of respondents said they would change jobs for remote working, even if it meant fewer promotion opportunities.

Of those who changed employer since the outbreak of Covid-19, nearly half, 47%, indicated that remote working was a key factor in their decision to move jobs.

Almost half of respondents, 49%, said they work more hours while remote working, compared to working on-site, with 45% saying they work the same hours.

Getting it right

Now that the pre-legislative scrutiny of the 'Right to Request Remote Work Bill' has concluded the legislation will be finalised over the summer with a view to having a final version ready by the autumn.

While the Government has vowed to make changes to some of the more unpopular elements of the original draft bill, it won't keep everyone happy.

Few pieces of legislation are perfect and no doubt all sides will have strong feelings about the final law.

A devastating pandemic forced many into the world of remote work, an emergency response to a crisis.

As the country went into lockdown, workers met the challenges of being told they had to stay at home.

Now the Government faces a challenge of a different kind, passing legislation that maintains a working model that has become so important to so many.

The real test of the new law will come when the first refusals are issued by employers and the first appeals are lodged by employees.