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Returning to the office isn’t as simple as choosing a date

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The question of when workers can and will return to the office could have long-term consequences for the future of work, writes Jenny Darmody.

Click here to view the full Future of Work Week series.

Last week, the Government published the results of a public consultation on a legal framework for employees in Ireland to request remote work.

Tánaiste and Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, said there is now a “real opportunity” to make remote and blended working a bigger part of normal working life.

“We recognise that remote working won’t work for everyone or for every organisation, so the Government will take a balanced approach with the new legislation.”

This public consultation followed the National Remote Work Strategy released earlier this year, with the aim of making the practice a permanent part of work in Ireland post-pandemic. It marks another step towards legislation that could change how much of the Irish workforce works.

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But in the meantime, we’re all in a sort of limbo between pandemic and post-pandemic life. All these plans centre around the post-pandemic world and with around 85pc of the adult population in Ireland now fully vaccinated, that world seems unbelievably close – but we’re not there yet.

While the Government looks to the possibility of greater remote and hybrid working in the future, its workplace advice for the here and now remains the same: people should continue to work from home unless necessary to attend in person.

This is despite the fact that September, which has long been heralded as the month for a return to workplaces, is just around the corner.

However, a roadmap to reopening is on the way next week and is expected to include staggered guidelines for a return to workplaces and could see the use of antigen tests come into play.

What’s the hold-up?

I wrote about the rocky road to reopening at the end of July, and while there are many calls for clarity and guidance on reopening here in Ireland, there are also challenges that still need to be addressed.

For a start, there are questions around vaccinations. Earlier this year, William Fry’s head of the employment and benefits, Catherine O’Flynn, told Siliconrepublic.com that while employers may be keen to confirm whether their employees have or have not received a vaccine, it’s important to remember their duties under data protection legislation.

In terms of more general guidelines, there will also be challenges to address around buildings without sufficient ventilation, open-plan offices that may require protective screens and additional social distancing measures, and the task of dealing with a staggered workforce.

All of these issues will have to be addressed by the Government when it releases guidelines, particularly since these guidelines will be seen by many employers as the first official green light to bring their employees back to the office.

The Delta variant also remains a concern and has scuppered many companies’ plans to return to the office in other countries, with several Big Tech names in the US pushing out their plans until next year.

The latest of these was Apple, where employees had voiced their discontent at the iPhone maker’s disinterest in allowing remote working. Now, the surge in Covid-19 cases has forced Apple’s hand, and the company has pushed out its office return until at least January 2022, a delay first reported by Bloomberg.

Bigger, long-term consequences

While Apple’s delay may be welcome for many of its employees, it puts forward a bigger question around how many companies are willing to abandon remote working as soon as they possibly can.

I see the push for office returns as a double-edged sword. There is no doubt that clarity is needed on how people can return to an office-based environment safely. But once those guidelines are given, how quickly will employers use them as a licence to demand their staff’s presence as soon as possible?

To paraphrase Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm, several companies have become so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

While the pandemic inadvertently launched the world’s largest remote working experiment and accelerated the future of work, the light at the end of the tunnel may be causing us to turn our backs on the lessons we learned over the past year in favour of a desperate need to get back to what was once normal.

But that remote working experiment has successfully shown many employees that it is possible to work from home if they want to. While working during a pandemic should not be deemed a fair assessment of remote working, it has given us all a taster of what it’s like and shown us what we really want.

For some, that might very well mean returning to the office. For others, a blended or hybrid approach will work. And for some, fully remote is the only way to go.

But the power is firmly back in the employees’ hands now as while some companies are still craving that full-time office life, many others have seen the benefits of having a decentralised workforce. This could become a point of differentiation between companies and their competitors, and makes it much easier for remote-loving employees to seek work elsewhere.

Founder and CEO of Firstbase, Chris Herd, is a big advocate of remote-first working and often speaks about it on Twitter. “Imagine how small the talent pool will be for jobs that require five days a week in office,” he tweeted recently.

There is no question that companies, especially SMEs, need clarity on how they can safely reopen, and the Government needs to deliver on that while considering the legal, data protection and health and safety implications.

However, while employers are waiting, I sincerely hope they’re working on their own future plans to offer their workforce what is best for them.

The Government guidelines we’re all waiting on are still very much ‘mid-pandemic’ plans, even if it feels more like the beginning of the end.

But what workers need from their employers is a sign of post-pandemic plans that include the flexibility and understanding we’ve always needed, because the future of work is only going to work with a happy staff.



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NFT trader OpenSea bans insider trading after employee rakes in profit | Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

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A non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace has introduced policies to ban insider trading, after an executive at the company was discovered to be buying artworks shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page.

OpenSea, one of the leading sites for trading the digital assets, will now prevent team members buying or selling from featured collections and from using confidential information to trade NFTs. Neither practice was previously banned.

“Yesterday we learned that one of our employees purchased items that they knew were set to display on our front page before they appeared there publicly,” said Devin Finzer, the co-founder and chief executive of the site.

“This is incredibly disappointing. We want to be clear that this behaviour does not represent our values as a team. We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough third-party review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take.”

NFTs are digital assets whose ownership is recorded and traced using a bitcoin-style blockchain. The NFT market boomed earlier this year as celebrities including Grimes, Andy Murray and Sir Tim Berners-Lee sold collectibles and artworks using the format. But the underlying technology has questionable utility, with some dismissing the field as a purely speculative bubble.

The insider trading came to light thanks to the public nature of the Ethereum blockchain, on which most NFT trades occur. Crypto traders noticed that an anonymous user was regularly buying items from the public marketplace shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page, a prestigious slot that often brings significant interest from would-be buyers. The anonymous user would then sell the assets on, making vast sums in a matter of hours.

One trade, for instance, saw an artwork called Spectrum of a Ramenification Theory bought for about £600. It was then advertised on the front page and sold on for $4,000 a few hours later.

One Twitter user, ZuwuTV, linked the transactions to the public wallet of Nate Chastain, OpenSea’s head of product, demonstrating, using public records, that the profits from the trades were sent back to a wallet owned by Chastain.

While some, including ZuwuTV, described the process as “insider trading”, the loosely regulated market for NFTs has few restrictions on what participants can do. Some critics argue that even that terminology demonstrates that the sector is more about speculation than creativity.

“The fact that people are responding to this as insider trading shows that this is securities trading (or just gambling), not something designed to support artists,” said Anil Dash, the chief executive of the software company Glitch. “There are no similar public statements when artists get ripped off on the platform.

“If Etsy employees bought featured products from creators on their platform (or Patreon or Kickstarter workers backed new creators etc) that’d be great! Nobody would balk. Because they’d be supporting their goal,” Dash added.



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British home computer trailblazer dies aged 81 • The Register

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Sir Clive Sinclair died on Thursday at home in London after a long illness, his family said today. He was 81.

The British entrepreneur is perhaps best known for launching the ZX range of 8-bit microcomputers, which helped bring computing, games, and programming into UK homes in the 1980s, at least. This included the ZX80, said to be the UK’s first mass-market home computer for under £100, the ZX81, and the trusty ZX Spectrum. A whole generation grew up in Britain mastering coding on these kinds of systems in their bedrooms.

And before all that, Sir Clive founded Sinclair Radionics, which produced amplifiers, calculators, and watches, and was a forerunner to his Spectrum-making Sinclair Research. The tech pioneer, who eventually sold his computing biz to Amstrad, was knighted during his computing heyday, in 1983.

“He was a rather amazing person,” his daughter, Belinda Sinclair, 57, told The Guardian this evening. “Of course, he was so clever and he was always interested in everything. My daughter and her husband are engineers so he’d be chatting engineering with them.”

Sir Clive is survived by Belinda, his sons, Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. ®

A full obit will follow on The Register.

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UN human rights chief raises concerns over AI privacy violations in report

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‘AI tech can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights.’

The UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence technology until safeguards are put in place to prevent potential human rights violations.

Bachelet made the appeal on Wednesday (15 September) to accompany a report released by the UN’s Human Rights Office, which analysed how AI systems affect people’s right to privacy. The violation of their privacy rights had knock-on impacts on other rights such as rights to health, education and freedom of movement, the report found.

“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said.

“Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states,” Bachelet added.

Japanese multinational Fujitsu caused a stir when it announced plans to implement AI facial recognition technology to monitor employees’ concentration levels during meetings.

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The report was critical of justice systems which had made wrongful arrests because of flawed facial recognition tools. It appealed to countries to ban any AI tools which did not meet international human rights standards. A 2019 study from the UK found that 81pc of suspects flagged by the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police force were innocent.

Earlier this year, Canada banned Clearview’s AI facial recognition technology after the company violated Canadian privacy laws by collecting facial images of Canadians without their consent.

Bachelet also highlighted the report’s concerns on the future use of data once it has been collected and stored, calling it “one of the most urgent human rights questions we face.”

The UN’s report echoes previous appeals made by European data protection regulators.

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called for a ban on facial recognition in public places in June. They urged EU lawmakers to consider banning the use of such technology in public spaces, after the European Commission released its proposed regulations on the matter.

The EU’s proposed regulations did not recommend an outright ban. The commission instead emphasised the importance of creating “trustworthy AI.”

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