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Remote working, Virtual Bunch

New research from Eurofound, the EU’s tripartite agency that imparts knowledge to help develop better labour, employment and social policies, shows that 47 percent of work has been done remotely in Ireland since the beginning of the pandemic.

Given the advance of Covid-19, companies decided to mitigate the risk posed by this situation by resorting to remote work to prevent employees from being infected and spreading the virus.

This is how workers began to use virtual platforms to hold meetings, conduct training, inform and follow the progress of tasks with their colleagues and bosses, and also increased the use of applications and platforms to support mobile work, unified communication, organisation of contacts, video calls and messaging.

But a new trend also appeared on the scene: moving to remote locations, far from the big cities and offering employees the facilities to be able to carry out their work. That is, a stable broadband connection and access to other services that will make their life more comfortable.

Ireland has not been the exception in this trend. In fact, the Regional Coworking Analysis, which was prepared by the three Regional Assemblies of Ireland, indicates that more than one in four private sector workers in Ireland is capable of working remotely.

The same report indicates that the development of coworking hubs with high speed broadband has the potential to open up an array of economic and environmental opportunities and stimulate inclusive recovery in regions of the country.

The study also highlights that 387,000 private sector workers are capable of operating remotely in Ireland. That represents 27.4% of the workers in this sector, a very interesting figure if we consider the fact that the current population of this nation is 5 million inhabitants.

According to the Regional Coworking Analysis, the quality and strategic location of co-working hubs will determine the degree to which regions can capitalise on the potential of remote working.

The study focused on locating three types of hubs:

  • Enterprise and Coworking Hubs: Any hub whose primary remit is largely enterprise oriented and provides facilities and co-working desks that allows firms and workers to work remotely.
  • Community Hubs: Any hub whose primary remit is largely community oriented but also provides some coworking desks and Wi-Fi to allow workers to operate remotely.
  • Higher Education and Knowledge Intensive Hubs: Any hub whose remit is largely research and knowledge intensive and provides facilities and coworking desks that allows relevant and knowledge intensive firms and workers to work remotely.

The three Regional Assemblies of Ireland identified a total of 67 co-working hubs – both privately and publicly owned – in the Northern and Western region, as of September 2020. The estimated number of private sector workers that are capable of operating remotely in this region is 42,100.

In the Eastern and Midland region, as of September 2020, they identified a total of 158 co-working hubs – both privately and publicly owned – and an estimated number of 253,600 private sector workers that are capable of operating remotely.

Finally, the three Regional Assemblies of Ireland identified a total of 105 co-working hubs – both privately and publicly owned – that were located in the Southern region, as of September 2020. The estimated number of private sector workers that are capable of operating remotely in this region is 91,300.

The analysis also included 8 areas of consideration for policymakers to identify how gaps in information can be addressed, start a discussion on actions that could be taken and help to establish an evidence-based approach to progress remote working.

The first is to open a consultation process with private firms in sectors that are capable of operating remotely, seeking their views on factors that need to be addressed to allow employees to work remotely from co-working hubs on a permanent basis.

The second area of consideration is to prepare a nationwide survey of the current capacity of co-working hubs – both privately and publicly owned .

Third, is to prepare a nationwide survey that identifies the ideal work location of private sector workers whose jobs are considered to be remote workable, while simultaneously identifying the up-to-date habits of commuters who have remote workable jobs.

Exploring the possibility of providing employers with a tax credit for every employee that is allowed to operate outside of its own head office in Ireland, as a means of encouraging private firms to let employees work in geographical locations of their own choice is the fourth consideration.

The analysis also urges to enhance the level of funding provided to the Regional Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), for delivering high quality co-working hubs of scale within or in close proximity to designated regional growth centres and key towns as defined by each Assembly’s RSES and prominent rural communities.

Explore a range of match funding opportunities for REDF projects that will deliver additional co-working hubs of scale within or in close proximity to Designated Regional Growth Centres and Key Towns as defined by each Assembly’s RSES and prominent rural communities. This could involve – but wouldn’t be limited to – encouraging private sector companies to provide an element of match funding for these types of REDF projects or possibly removing the 20 per cent for these types of REDF projects that provide a sizeable economic uplift to a geographical area.

The seventh area of consideration is to utilise resources from the European Regional Development Fund to assist in developing high quality co-working hubs of scale within or in close proximity to designated regional growth centres and key towns as defined by each Assembly’s RSES and prominent rural communities.

The eight and final recommendation is to safeguard funding for the National Broadband Plan to allow for the delivery of up to three hundred Broadband Connection Points across Ireland, providing remote working opportunities in rural communities.

The reality is that the landscape of the cities of Ireland, mainly its capital, Dublin, has been changing since the pandemic began. You no longer see the streets with the traffic of the cars with people commuting or the crowds on public transport. As Michael Moynihan puts it:

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were spending hour after hour sitting alone in their cars when they could be at home with their families.

Now we see the resurgence of local communities with the development of coworking hubs, the arrival of broadband fiber, in some cases the construction of new homes to welcome new inhabitants and even a boost in local economies with the appearance of new ones.

Many are the companies that have recognised that their employees can carry out their functions from remote locations and the same are those that have come to have this modality as their work policy. However, much remains to be done, especially by the State to promote a series of policies that encourage companies to send more of their workers home to work from there.

You also need to know which companies are willing to start or continue with remote work and know their needs to make it easier for them to make the decision and take the first step.

The possibility of developing regional Ireland encompasses agriculture. The fact of having entire families living in these areas means that traditional farms will also have to be modernised in order to supply more people with their products.

The transportation system would also benefit. As Moynihan also points out in his article “One legacy of Covid-19 can be a revitalised rural Ireland“, regional connectivity needs to replace delivery systems to major hubs. We know there is a natural limit to the former approach – there are only so many new lanes that can be added to a motorway, after all. While some projects will still be necessary in this regard, we need to improve the quality of connections between smaller communities.

Education will also benefit from this whole process. While it is true that it is important that children continue to attend their school so that they can interact with other children as part of their growth and development process, it is also true that online homework will continue to be part of their education. In the case of small schools in regional Ireland, the risk that they may disappear decreases with the arrival of new family groups.

Greater investment in Ireland’s small regional hospitals and outpatient clinics will also give a major boost to the country’s health system, supporting new families integrating into more remote communities, but also paying particular attention to those who were already part of them and that want to continue living there.

For the most remote regions of Ireland, and for the whole country in general, the possibility of being able to receive people who decide to move to continue their work remotely represents a great opportunity to develop new businesses and give a boost to small towns that until a few years ago seemed destined to disappear.

Now, is this an opportunity for the Channel Islands – Sark, Herm or Alderney?

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