Remote working and the regions represent an irresistible rising tide

29 Jan 2018

Sunset at the Burren. Image: Gavinh/Shutterstock

As the accommodation crisis threatens economic recovery, a growing appetite for remote or flexible working in the regions cannot be ignored, writes John Kennedy.

At the weekend, I learned of the Docklands Residential Report for 2018, published by the Owen Reilly Agency. It showed that the shimmery, shiny Silicon Docks of Dublin are still a magnet for young tech professionals.

Some 92pc of residents in Silicon Docks are from overseas, mostly European and UK workers working in tech. The report surmises that around 50pc of tenants in Silicon Docks are from companies like Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

While it sounds like a load of property porn – and it mostly is – is anyone thinking of the long-term future of the district? It needs balance, it needs soul and it needs roots. Not just people passing through as they progress their careers.

It speaks well to the immediate image of a vibrant, bustling tech hub. But down the line when it comes to creating a culture, a local fabric, a community, the narrative feels temporary and hollow.

‘We are as ambitious for remote workers, new business start-ups and their customers as we are for Gort and the Burren Lowlands region. We want to provide an infrastructure that embraces connectivity and entrepreneurship and gives the individual and their family the chance to achieve a premium work-life balance’

On the surface, the investments keep coming and Dublin looks like a boomtown again. But inadequate rent controls have poisoned the well. And from a reputation perspective for capturing critical tech talent, the situation is bleak.

Dublin isn’t alone. Cork and Limerick also have problems with accommodation as rents soar. And, as someone who lives in the commuter belt, it is increasingly obvious to me that towns within an hour’s drive of the city are also straining when it comes to affordable rental property.

What’s more, if Trump’s taxation measures in the States lead to increased repatriation of people and money, can no one see the underlying threat to exposed economies like Ireland and trendy places like Silicon Docks?

Remote working trends upward

The entire world of work as we know it is changing, driven by advances in broadband. In most cases – where you can get broadband, that is – high-quality connections give workers equal firepower from a digital perspective as if they were in the office right at their desks.

A new study last week by Blueface forecast that, by 2025, remote working will rival fixed office locations. The study echoes a similar sentiment voiced in a remote-working report by job site Indeed, which found that, by the end of 2017, the number of Irish people searching for jobs using the term ‘remote’ surged 171pc. This is because technology advances have led to companies adopting more flexible approaches to remote working – and, according to Indeed, workers are responding.

Reading between the lines, a key facet of this is that many people working in businesses – many of them global tech giants – are maturing. Many are senior managers with a wealth of experience that employers don’t wish to lose. As their carefree 20s give way to more responsible 30s and 40s, they are craving balance as they juggle career goals with family life. Simple things like bringing kids to and from school and being able to work remotely a short walk or drive away, as well as raising families in crime-free environments and providing a more affordable, but higher and richer quality of life, really do matter.

It could also be about flexible working. I live 30 miles outside the city but start my working day online early in the morning. I wait until the morning traffic is gone to zip in to the office, then I zip home again after the evening traffic is long gone. My commute is shorter today than when I lived in Blackrock a decade ago. I also choose days to work entirely at home if I’m not required at meetings.

Bringing vibrancy back to Irish towns

This wouldn’t be possible without broadband. And this is a timely reminder that 2018 will be a crunch year for the National Broadband Plan to bring at least 30Mbps of future-proofed fibre connectivity to around half-a-million premises in rural Ireland.

What Irish Government strategists need to think about is the smart island of the future – 10, 20 or even 30 years from now – from a societal as well as digital perspective.

If they can make it more attractive for people to work flexibly or remotely in a balanced way across the entire island – whether at home, in co-working spaces or tech hubs like the Ludgate Hub in Skibberreen, Co Cork, or the Building Block – then every community could potentially gain.

Indeed, even moves by one of the most successful start-up accelerators in Europe, the NDRC in Dublin, to establish outposts such as at the Porter Shed in Galway or at ArcLabs in Waterford speak to this promise of a balanced, growing economy where regional entrepreneurs deliver the jobs of the future. It spreads the wealth but it also enriches the communities in terms of people, experience and culture. More people spending money in the local businesses, more people starting up their own businesses and more people living and breathing life into towns and villages.

My feelings on the matter were spurred by an email exchange and subsequent phone conversation last week with Ann Finn, a member of a community group called The Burren Lowlands based in Gort, Co Galway. The objective of the group is to stimulate economic development in this region, which includes South Galway and North Clare.

One of the ideas the group has is to propose to the larger corporations – or, indeed, to the next tier of multinational corporations – that they give their employees, if they so wish, the option of locating in Gort.

“The advantage to the employee is quality of life, affordable housing, childcare, easy access to the M17 and M18 motorway, easy access to all types of activities including rock climbing, sailing, golf, etc,” said Finn.

She continued: “While Gort has suffered from a lack of development and, perhaps, an over-reliance on tourism and agriculture, we strongly believe that diverse industries are required in Gort to build sustainability. There is a strong beating heart in this area, but we cannot stand still and [we] need to build up this community for the future.”

A golden opportunity

Finn suggested that some of these tech giants could create desks in remote working hubs in towns like Gort to foster teamwork and increase their visibility.

“We are as ambitious for remote workers, new business start-ups and their customers as we are for Gort and the Burren Lowlands region. We want to provide an infrastructure that embraces connectivity and entrepreneurship and gives the individual and their family the chance to achieve a premium work-life balance.”

Her instincts are spot on. As the frictions caused by soaring rents in Dublin and the need for balanced nationwide economic development become clear, there is a golden opportunity presented here by individuals like Finn and groups like Burren Lowlands. Not to mention the evident successes of the Ludgate Hub and Building Block to bring economic growth to regional towns and districts.

Not everything has to be centralised in the big cities. Yes, cities are attractive for young careerists on the rise from anywhere and everywhere, but the option for people to spread out to places to improve the quality of life for their young families should also be promoted and explored.

The key word is ‘option’. It has to be a choice.

The lynchpin to this is broadband infrastructure. 2018 should be the year to double down on the National Broadband Plan and make it work. Put shovels in the ground and just do it.

As Seán Lemass famously said, a rising tide should lift all boats.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years