Barely six months ago, Jenny Doran, originally from Dublin, was working in psychiatry and caring for infant twins in London when a job in a research project on Clare Island caught her eye. Familiar with the area from countless childhood visits to her family’s holiday home, she threw her hat in the ring and is now “squatting” in the holiday home and working much of the time out of a community-run remote working hub in Louisburgh, Co Mayo.
“I’m on the island a day a week and work here most of the rest of the time,” she says. “I could work in the house but it’s nice, you meet people here and I’d eat the contents of the fridge at home.”
The children, who are going on two, are looked after in the local creche which, she says, costs less than half what it would have in London. “It’s wonderful, and if we stay they’ll go on to the same school with all of their friends, which wouldn’t happen in London, or Dublin.
“I thought I came here for the job but the quality of my life is so much better, the quality of my kids’ lives is so much better, even if the work finished up, I would definitely try to stay.”
The remote working hub at BooksatOne in Louisburgh, where Dr Doran finds space to do her job, is essentially two small rooms above the bookshop.
By the time Lisa Murphy took over as manager, in May of last year, the people who gave her the job were in the market for ideas as to how the space might be better used.
The shop, the first of a small network to be established by the One Foundation, a charitable organisation backed by Ryanair’s Declan Ryan, provides a venue to community groups, supports locally-based Ukrainians, hosts art exhibitions and, of course, sells books.
Originally from Mayo, Murphy moved back to the area looking to do something more in tune with her interest in arts and books than her background in accountancy. The latter comes in handy, though, as she tries to ensure the enterprise pays its way. “I wouldn’t recommend somebody to open a private bookshop in a town where the population is around 500,” she says.
A stand-alone hub might be a stretch too but the hot-desking room with space for five and a meeting room above it are an important part of the wider venture’s social and economic mix. Sometimes, she says, she has to send people to the town’s second hub, over the hairdressers, down the road.
On the morning The Irish Times visits, Dr Doran has the five-desk room to herself for a bit, while upstairs, in a room with a view, Siobhán Kelleher and John Hegarty are working away in what has become the base for Sision, a medtech firm that is aiming to dramatically improve the way endometriosis is diagnosed through the development of a wearable device linked to an app.
The project is well advanced and the company was one of 20, from 168 applicants, to receive European Innovation Council transition funding last year. The €2.5 million is intended to help Sision get to the stage it can go to market with the idea.
Kelleher, the company’s chief executive, is from Longford, had a spell in Dublin and went to Galway to pursue her work in the medtech area. “When I met John we decided on Louisburgh as my parents have a place up the road,” she says.
Hegarty is local but had enough days away, he says, in a big company plant where he didn’t see daylight from the time he entered to the time he left. He appreciates the set-up the pair have back in his hometown now.
“This,” he says, pointing out a big third-floor window at a chunk of Mayo countryside, “is great and at the stage we are at, it all works. We have a lot of challenges to overcome, a lot of problems to solve and it helps that we are able to do that together. You can work remotely but the collaboration together can help too.”
Though the pair sometimes retreat downstairs to make way for the local school to run interviews, the wifi and space are all they need, they say, to progress the company’s research and wider business development, although the peculiar nature of the environment isn’t lost on them.
“It’s cost-effective, the broadband is great and there are always tea bags,” says Kelleher. “It’s quiet but you know there’s life going on downstairs. There are so many groups. One day I walked in on a book club. But it’s great.”
On the face of it, Sision feels more like the sort of customer more likely to be found 30km away, at the Atlantic Technological University-backed hub in Castlebar, a centre that includes ordinary hot-desking facilities but where there is an emphasis on helping entrepreneurs and promoting innovation.
“If somebody comes in with an idea, we work to them,” says Maria Staunton, iHub’s manager.
“A company that left recently had 10 staff and we try to move them out when they get to that stage,” she says while citing some of the start-ups that have passed through the facility like Truckscience, Buy Media and Marine Cable Services. The list is long and diverse with the work done by the iHub (the i being for innovation) on programmes like Empower, a scheme specifically intended to promote female entrepreneurship in the western region and Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers providing a steady stream of new clients.
Over in Belmullet at Gréasán Digiteach na Gaeltachta (Gteic), the brand name used for the more than 20-strong Údarás na Gaeltachta-backed chain of hubs, Aoife O’Connor’s experience demonstrates the scale of the unintended consequences that sometimes flowed from remote working during Covid.
Employed in Dublin by market research outfit Ipsos MRBI but wondering if the chance might arise to move back home, she got the opportunity to do so as a result of the pandemic.
After what had initially seemed like a temporary arrangement prompted by travel restrictions was found to work well enough, O’Connor asked her boss for permission to stay in the west and ultimately started hiring people to work for the company locally. It now employs 47 people in Belmullet with close to another dozen on Achill Island and it is not done yet, she reckons. “Achill is only starting off,” she says.
The jobs are done by a mix of people working full- or part-time. “A good mix,” she says. “We would have had a lot of students in Dublin. We still have them but we have an older demographic as well ... there’s more commitment really and the turnover is a fraction of what it was.”
Elsewhere in a centre that started life as a textiles factory, then had a spell as a call centre, the mix could scarcely be more eclectic. Most are Irish but among those working there on the day The Irish Times visits are Cynthia Baloula, a French woman who runs a firm training corporate clients to make and promote videos; South African Darryn Lander, who employs more than a dozen people in four different countries through software and marketing companies he runs from Belmullet and Phil Thompson, a technology lawyer from Manchester who works for a specialist British law firm.
All are living locally because of partners with local connections and each points to the hub as having made that possible.
Relocating, they all agree, has presented some challenges, most obviously in terms of travel infrastructure with Thompson, who needs to fly to England fairly regularly, grateful for the recent announcement of a route between Knock and Heathrow; Lander lamenting the lack of late trains from Dublin that might allow meetings with new clients to extend to dinner or a drink without the need for a hotel stay; and Baloula good-naturedly complaining about the road between Belmullet and Castlebar. All, though, say they can do their work perfectly well from the hub and speak in glowing terms about the benefits the move has had on their children.
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“In England it’s how big the classes are that is always a huge concern,” says Thompson. “Here it’s almost the reverse.”
Here too, the guys who produce a daily online politics show for the German market have just finished up for the day and left, but a few minutes later another German, Jasper Frenzel, an energy efficiency manager, wanders in to inquire about working out of the centre. He has just relocated to Ireland and intends to continue working for clients back home from Mayo while setting up a business selling heat pumps. His wife and young child will arrive in a few weeks.
Seán Ó Coisdealbha and Orla de Búrca of Údarás na Gaeltachta see every new customer as having the potential to contribute not only to the centre but to the local community, and they speak enthusiastically about the next phase in the Gteic’s evolution, a significant extension currently being planned.
And their belief in the impact being made is shared. “People are moving back from bigger cities and it has a huge economic benefit for the town,” says Erris Chamber of Commerce chairperson, Damien Langan. “I used to say that there was nothing to complain about around here except the unemployment and this has definitely helped. It’s made the place better. There’s more spend, more employment. It’s hard enough to get a house now.”
Government on course to exceed remote working hubs target
The number of workspaces registered to the Government-backed network of remote working hubs is on course to comfortably exceed the target of 400 set for 2025 with 312 currently signed up, according to the latest figures from the Department of Rural and Community Development.
A further 323 hubs are already “mapped to be invited” to join the platform.
Occupancy at the ConnectedHubs.ie network’s existing sites is said to be running at 75 per cent, equating to about 24,000 users on any given day. The network provides a centralised booking system for its roughly 11,000 registered users. Many others, as the numbers suggest, deal directly with their local hub.
More than €150 million has been invested by the Government in a variety of schemes that support remote working, the department says.
The total number of hubs and broadband connection points up and running at present is put at nearly 650 but a portion of these are said to be community-based and unsuitable for the ConnectedHubs platform.
In the Atlantic Economic Corridor, which extends from Donegal to Clare, the goal was 100 connected hubs, says Leah Fairman, National Hubs Executive and the Western Development Commission.
The feeling was, she says, that all of the targets were “extraordinarily ambitious” when they were being set but “for a programme that’s two years in, we’re in advance of the curve”.
“When you looked at a county like Mayo, five years ago you were looking at issues like equity of salary opportunity, equity of career opportunity, the ability to stay where you wanted to live and not have to move elsewhere. But unless the IDA was bringing investment into your area then the opportunities weren’t there.
“And when you looked, there were people who had gone away who wanted to come back but they would have been concerned that the opportunities weren’t there and concerned that they were getting back into a small-town mindset.
“What the hubs have done is showcase to the world that you can come to the west of Ireland and have an equal career opportunity that you would have in an urban centre.
“Galway is one of the medtech leaders in the world,” she continues, “and there are top-end jobs that can be done in the west of Ireland. What had been missing was the infrastructure; meeting rooms, broadband ... the hubs are joining an awful lot of those dots.”
Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys said last month her focus had shifted to the next phase of the hub network’s development, and the department says it expects the forthcoming National Hubs Strategy, which is currently being developed in conjunction with an interdepartmental group, to be published towards the end of this year.
Local councils are also playing a key part in helping with the development of a sector that is facing a significant challenge in keeping pace at a time when workplaces are evolving quickly, says Fairman.
“They need to be the future of work,” she says, “and not a second best option”.
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‘I don’t know whether I should say this but I’m loving it’: Three people share their experiences of remote working
Communications director at the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, Teresa Noone, spent 16 years in Dublin before a couple of stints working back in her hometown of Belmullet during the pandemic gradually turned into something more permanent.
“I had been working down here a bit and when the office said everyone could work remotely, I asked them if I could do it from here and I’ve been here since,” she says. “I don’t know whether I should say this but I’m loving it.”
At the local Gteic hub her daily routine is similar as it used to be “but you have to organise work a little differently”, she says. “I still have to go to Dublin fairly regularly and you’re looking then to squeeze everything you have to do there into a few days.”
Back in Belmullet, she says, “I’d be lost without the hub. You meet people working in other industries who you can chat to and I’ve ended up working with a couple of them. Plus the wifi isn’t great in the house and there’s only so long you can use that as an excuse during Zoom meetings.
“It’s funny, I never felt completely settled in Dublin but never saw a way I could be back, working back here. Then Covid happened.”
Having never met some of the community groups and small businesses he worked with over the course of the pandemic, Bernard Joyce has experienced a side to remote working that might still seem a little alien to those who have relocated but perhaps retain a connection to bigger organisations.
He does, he says, “a little bit of everything”, including some third-level lecturing, report writing and planning, and is currently working on a Belfast-based project with Macra na Feirme.
Most of it is done from his home in Ballyvary, near Castlebar, where he also spends a bit of time volunteering with the local GAA club and doing battle with Eir over the wifi signal.
“It’s been fairly consistent for the last few months but at one stage during the pandemic, my wife and I were both working from home and we had 0.9 of a megabit or something like that. It is a drawback but it has improved,” he says.
“I still have the option of dropping into the iHub [in Castlebar] and sometimes that’s just so you have the chance of going for a cup of tea and maybe meeting someone. You can be trying to solve a problem in your head and you bump into someone who can help, either because they have had the same problem or they know someone who knows something about the issue. You don’t get that at home.”
Louise McGinty, a graphic designer, was brought up on the Wirral, Merseyside, but all four of her grandparents came from Achill and she had been a regular visitor all her life. She jokes about the inevitability of her marrying somebody from the island and moved there in 2017 after 18 years in Dublin.
Her initial move to remote working came with the birth of her first child 17 years ago. “I wanted more flexibility but the company I was working for said no as they didn’t want to set a precedent. I went ahead anyway and they were very good to me, they basically gave me my wages in freelance work the first year,” she says.
These days she runs her business, Impack.ie, from her home on the island and is gearing up for a holiday season likely to be boosted by the success of The Banshees of Inisherin. “You need that flexibility in your life, there is always a sports day or something with the kids and I can do a day’s work and get out to the beach. Broadband used to be an issue, it’s important for me, I’m always searching for images online or send large packages, but the options are much better now. There’s nothing really you can’t get or do here.”