Can remote hubs transform the way we work?

A vacant Ulster Bank in Edgeworthstown that has been turned into a thriving hi-tech work hub, and it’s happening all over the country

There was a time when Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, had three banks. One by one they closed. In 2017, the last remaining bank, Ulster Bank, shut its doors for the last time. A few doors down, the same fate befell the town’s sole hotel, the Edgeworth Hotel, which had served the town for generations. The nearest hotels are now a drive away on the N4, either in Mullingar or in Longford.

However, this isn’t another maudlin account about the gradual demise of another town in rural Ireland. This is a story about change and renewal. The centrepiece of the story is the old Ulster Bank. It is one of those gorgeous period bank buildings that dominate towns. It did not stay shuttered for very long after 2017.

The modest sign outside the door that says “Co:Worx” does not prepare you for what to expect. Once inside the door, what confronts you is what you would might see in Google HQ, but transplanted to a town in the Irish midlands. It is cool, modern and flooded with lights, its decor steeped in strong primary colours. There is office space, hot desks, sealed booths for private conversations, conference rooms, video conferencing, kitchens, coffee machines, a meeting room and an audio-video studio with €100,000 worth of equipment.

Just over 100km from Dublin, Edgeworthstown has benefited from its location, close to the M4 and also served by a mainline train station. Its population mushroomed during the Celtic Tiger from 900 to close to 3,000. It weathered lean years but some traditional businesses closed and the three banks closed down.

“When [Ulster Bank] went in 2017 it was time to stop the rot on the main street,” says Hugh Quinn, who runs a local hardware company. “It was time to get involved and identity what can be done to turn this building into something valuable.”

The idea to set up a co-working hub in the town pre-dated Covid-19 but the pandemic moved remote working from possibility to reality. What helped the town was that it has had a dynamic community development committee, and in Hugh Quinn it had a human dynamo to lead the project on the bank building. They secured €1.45 million funding from Longford County Council and from the Government, conducted focus groups and spend a lot of time working on its branding. Even before it opened its doors in April this year, Co:Worx had become a poster child for digital hubs and for remote working, with politicians beating a path to its door.

The same group were also behind the handsome new €4.5 million library in the town. For Quinn, it’s about galvanising the future of the town. He wants to arrest a trend where upwards of 150 people commute on the train each day from the town to Dublin. The hub can address that. He points to growing the town’s population, a new school with 400 children, the new creche with 25 staff, the fact that 40 per cent of the town’s population are not Irish-born. “The value of volunteerism is huge. A big part of the job is integration, trying to get our foreign nationals involved in the hub, involved in the GAA and in the community. It’s working extremely well.”

Quinn quotes a line from the movie about a guy who builds a stadium in a remote cornfield, The Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

Super-fast broadband

But have they come? The eye-opening statistic of the week was that only 1,800 people have registered on the app on the Connected Hubs Network which now has 242 remote working facilities throughout the country. The Department of Rural Affairs has invested €100 million in the development of these hubs and there will be 400 connected hubs within the next two years. It goes without saying that all of them have super-fast broadband, but will they attract the people to use it?

So are they the future, or a potential white elephant? The answer is closer to the first but they have been a bit of a slow burn. The number of users is higher than those who have registered. The Western Development Commission (which runs the Connect Hubs Network) says that of the 23,850 spaces in the 242 hubs, 12,402 seats are occupied. It’s a 52 per cent return, still not as high as it could be. Its CEO Tomás Ó Síocháin says the first phase was to build the network and the next will be persuading more people to use them.

There’s no shortage of people still working from home after Covid. According to the Central Statistics Office, almost two-thirds of workers were working remotely all or some of the time as of November 2021. But of those respondents, almost all (98 per cent) were working from home. Only 2 per cent were working from a remote hub.

The 2022 National Remote Working in Ireland Survey carried out by NUI Galway’s Whittaker Institute confirms remote and hybrid working are here to stay. Ten per cent of respondents moved to new locations during Covid (many to the West) and 60 per cent of those with confirmed future work patterns said they had hybrid arrangements – most spending two or three days a week in the office.

At a policy level, the Government is keen to wean people away from their kitchen tables. This week, Minister for Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys launched a €5 million scheme to encourage people to use hubs. A central party of it will be free vouchers to allow remote workers to get a taster of what working in these hubs is like.

“If you are at home and you are working from the kitchen table it’s not a particularly healthy place to to be. It may suit on occasion but generally it’s better if you come into a properly kitted-out working facility,” she said.

Some of the hubs (mostly urban) are very busy, O Síocháín adds, pointing to changed patterns of work. Hubs are not just about a single remote worker taking permanent occupancy of a desk at €20 a day. There is the phenomenon of the seasonal hub user. In some hubs in rural settings, a family (usually from Dublin) rents a holiday home (or goes back to the home place) for weeks on end with one parent working full time from a local hub.

Companies or individuals with business in an area over a short period can use them, too. Studio facilities facilitate the making of podcasts. They can be used to host meetings, or conduct interviews either in person, or by video conferencing.

Promotion

O Síocháin believes one important consideration is that people who work remotely are not disadvantaged when it comes to promotion. “It cannot come down to a choice between where you work and promotion. That principle needs to be established on a statutory basis.”

All those will help to boost numbers.

Back in Edgesworthtown, Quinn believes that the voucher scheme will be a game-changer by allowing people experience what it’s like to work from a hub. “The kitchen table brings children, brings toasted sandwiches, brings homework, brings zero privacy and no productivity. Hubs are all about a professional working space close to your home.”

If they are to succeed, hubs need to be adaptable. Co:Worx, for example, emphasises benefits not available at home, such as networking, sharing ideas and a defined work atmosphere. It even hosts regular movie nights to foster networking.

Co:Worx is also used for education classes and has ties with the Technological University of the Shannon. The nearby Center Parcs recreation park uses it for staff training and as a meeting space. Two companies with extensive interests in the midlands (one a forestry company) have rented office space, as have individuals. Business manager Luiz Roque says that after less than three months, Co:Worx has 40 per cent occupancy, well in advance of schedule. “I think the main challenge we have had so far is really to spread the word, because every person who comes through the door loves the place,” he says.

On a national level, the big task is also to do just that; spread the word and convince people that, unlike the banks or the hotel, the 400 hubs will be there for the long term.