An Cailín Rua
Last week, I had the pleasure of being present at the first Grow Remote meeting in Ballina, and I think it might have been a world-changing moment. Or a town-changing one, at least.
Remote working can be defined as a situation in which an employee works mainly from home or from a location other than a centralised workplace, and communicates with the company primarily by email and telephone. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Working in your pyjamas, cups of tea on tap, Judge Judy in the background, the laundry done and dinner ready by 5pm….
The reality is somewhat different, but it is fast becoming a way of life for many people in Ireland. The IDA estimates that over 200,000 people now work remotely, but the real number is likely to be higher, and it offers an obvious solution to relieving many of the pressures that exist in cities – high rents, house prices and childcare costs, overcrowding, a poor standard of living – as well as offering rural communities an opportunity to repopulate and regenerate.
Grow Remote is a voluntary group, the members of which believe that remote work is a powerful tool for community development. They are mostly interested in rural areas and permanent (employed) remote work, and they want to raise awareness about opportunities and to provide community support for remote workers. The hope is that Ballina will emulate Castlebar, which has a 117-strong Grow Remote chapter, and start a chapter of its own.
We should be shouting about this from the rooftops. Remote working offers knock-on benefits to communities like ours – more people in rural towns equals more economic activity. People shop and socialise locally. Shorter commutes mean skilled people have time to contribute their skills locally on a voluntary basis. Costs to businesses are lower. It’s environmentally friendly.
Remote working isn’t for everyone, however. Discipline, self-motivation and routine are essential. Salaries can be lower; though typically balanced out by lower living costs and benefits-in-kind. It can be difficult to detach and compartmentalise when your workspace is right there, all the time – and social isolation can be an issue, especially in a new area. So digital hubs and co-working spaces like the one planned for Ballina offer should be developed with the needs of not just of new enterprises but also of remote workers in mind.
If remote working is going to grow, employers too need to facilitate a culture of trust and family friendly flexibility, focusing on outputs rather than full availability during standard working hours.
A remote worker I know refers to the contrast between ‘work-life balance’ and ‘work-life harmony’ – rather than them being two separate periods of the day, they are intertwined and run alongside each other, often long past 6pm. This might not be ideal for those who want a clear separation, and to ‘leave work at work’, but it offers a flexibility that works for many and results in positive outputs and high job satisfaction.
The Ballina meeting was refreshing; the room was full of people from different backgrounds with various roles and experiences, all eager to start something. Things arose during the discussion that I hadn’t thought of: for example the fact that remote working opens doors for people with differing abilities or people with social anxiety, allowing them to participate equally in the workforce.
I’ve engaged in casual remote working on many occasions (writing this column from north Mayo is remote working, right?). But until last week, I didn’t quite appreciate the breadth of opportunities available. Remote working opportunities vary, as do the required skillsets. A quick browse of the Grow Remote job board reveals positions for bookkeepers, accountants, app testers, software engineers and marketing managers. Ballina-based company Lionbridge is currently hiring Irish speakers to work as internet assessors.
The concept of remote working appears new to the Government, and as is usually the case, the people are far ahead and waiting for policy to catch up. Consultations have started this week with the aim of developing a Remote Working Strategy, with guidelines and targeted investment in training, to help SMEs to implement agile work practices. This should be a priority when Dublin is bursting at the seams and rural towns are wilting.
But ultimately, what is vital to the success of this potential lifeline for rural communities is high-speed broadband. And so, we wait.