Remote working: The most far-flung workplaces in Ireland

‘What’s happening now is not what remote work is, especially with children off school’

 

Many of us have had to become experts in remote working over the past few weeks, though not in the best of circumstances. We speak to those who’ve been doing this for a while, and have taken remote working to a whole new level, working for clients and employers from some of the most remote places in Ireland.

Lisa Smyth

Technical adviser, Darragh, Co Clare
Lisa Smyth is just off a Skype call to a construction manager in Yolo in Northern Nigeria, an area ravaged by Boko Haram. It’s a long way from Clare to there.

I have starlings nesting in my roof. I’m loving the simplicity
of it all

Smyth is an architect and once worked on the Dundrum Shopping Centre. Now she’s a technical adviser on shelter and settlement with Catholic Relief Services, working on projects all over the world from her base in the townland of Darragh, about 10km from the nearest village, Lissycasey.

“What usually happens is that I go out to the country involved – it could be Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Guatemala – to do a needs assessment, and then come back here and liaise with the country teams online as the projects proceed.”

After years on the road, Smyth made the decision to come home to be closer to family, moving into her late grand aunt’s cottage up a boreen, complete with grass growing in the middle of the road.

“This house would be sitting empty if I couldn’t work here. The biggest challenge was getting connected. Even the new services are not coming up this road, so eventually I got a mobile tower. That’s the only thing I was panicking about.”

Before the coronavirus crisis ever hit, Smyth was doing group Zoom chats with her friends, who are scattered around the world. “I don’t have to worry about social distancing, you’re automatically socially distant here.”

Smyth’s sister and sister-in-law are now both working remotely, and she has joined the local chapter of Grow Remote, an organisation promoting remote working to regenerate rural communities.

“I have starlings nesting in my roof. I’m loving the simplicity of it all. Moving home, and being able to work from here has been a complete blessing.”

Deirdre Ní Luasaigh and Adrian Legg built a business that was based on remote working, so they could live and work on Sherkin Island, west Cork.
Deirdre Ní Luasaigh and Adrian Legg built a business that was based on remote working, so they could live and work on Sherkin Island, west Cork.

Deirdre Ní Luasaigh and Adrian Legg

Culture Ark, Sherkin Island, west Cork
Deirdre Ní Luasaigh and Adrian Legg are old hands at the remote working game. Ní Luasaigh grew up in Dunquin, overlooking the Blasket Islands. Legg worked on the first digital media boom in London and retrained as a broadband engineer after the dotcom bust. He came to Sherkin 13 years ago to help install broadband for the first time, and didn’t want to leave.

“We had a phenomenally unusual pairing of skills just at
the right time

“We were keen to spend more time here so the best way to do that was to build a business that was based on remote working.”

Ní Luasaigh had a background in print, design and technology, and Legg’s was in music and digitisation. “We had a phenomenally unusual pairing of skills just at the right time.”

Their business, Culture Ark, has curated and digitised many collections including the 350-strong art collection at Cork University Hospital, all donated by leading artists. They produce online exhibitions and books, sometimes liaising with other remote workers in west Cork and elsewhere.

Living on an island has given them a chance to indulge their love of sailing, as several friends have boats, and to stay close to nature.

“We’re up a lane, looking out over gorse and heather, and there is absolute darkness at night,” says Ní Luasaigh.

But as Legg chips in, “It’s still four rooms and the internet, and all the force and fury of Twitter,” so he finds gardening a good counterpoint. They share a polytunnel, where they’ve just planted this year’s heritage tomatoes and chillies. They even have a grapevine.

As Legg installed the broadband in all the houses on Sherkin, Heir and Cape Clear, they know everyone, and he is regularly called upon to fix things. “I’m the digital nurse around here. The greatest satisfaction is when you see someone being able to Skype and see a grandchild in America who they’ve never met.”

Nathalie Moyano González outside her new home in Coolcronan, Co Mayo.
Nathalie Moyano González outside her new home in Coolcronan, Co Mayo.

Nathalie Moyano González

Linguist and localisation specialist, Coolcronan, Co Mayo
Nathalie Moyano González is literally carrying boxes into her new home in Mayo as we speak, just days before Ireland goes into lockdown, as it turns out. She’s in the middle of moving from a castle in Wicklow to a cottage on a remote estate beyond Foxford.

You have to find your tribe, and you have time to do it if you are not commuting

“I realised I would never be able to save to buy a house if I stayed in Wicklow. Ultimately I would like to buy in Mayo, so I decided to move here now, with a friend, and rent first.”

Moyano González first came to Ireland 18 years ago and worked for Symantec in software localisation, using her language skills. For the past few years she has run her own business, working remotely alongside two colleagues based in Poland and France. They use Skype, Zoom, Slack and Google Docs. She doesn’t believe there is a magic tool, and is a great believer in picking up the phone.

“Remote working is not for everyone. It’s a choice, and it’s not always easier. It depends on your character. For anyone struggling to work from home during this crisis, it’s important to say that what’s happening now is not what remote work is, especially with children off school.”

Community is important, both online through groups like Grow Remote and WomenwhoCowork, and within the area in which she lives.

“You have to find your tribe, and you have time to do it if you are not commuting. I used to teach flamenco dance. Who knows I might get that going around here.

“Remote work is also great in terms of spending your money with local businesses, supporting local farmers.”

She also loves being close to nature. In Wicklow she lived along the Vartry, and her new home is along the Moy. “Maybe I’ll start fishing,” she says. “I’m already the owner of a wheelbarrow and a saw, something I never imagined when I lived in Dublin.”

Damien McClean runs a company called SIA Flexitanks fro m his home in Malin, Co Donegal.
Damien McClean runs a company called SIA Flexitanks fro m his home in Malin, Co Donegal.

Damien McClean

SIA Flexitanks, Malin, Co Donegal
If Damien McClean wants to clear his head after a long day on the computer and the phone, he’s only a couple of kilometres from a windy Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland.

This afternoon I closed a deal from home with a guy in Odessa on the Black Sea ... and yet I can be down on Five Finger Strand in a couple of minutes

“In the morning I’d be on conference calls with our sales people in the Philippines and Malaysia. In the middle of the day it’s Europe and at night it’s Houston in the US. I spent 10 years in Houston and 10 years in the UK, but being back here is worth any sacrifice in terms of travel time to airports.”

McClean runs a company called SIA Flexitanks, which ships everything from olive oil to wine around the world in flexible tankers. He describes them as being like the wine bag inside a supermarket box, saving valuable space. The product is then bottled at the other end.

He employs several staff at an admin office in nearby Carndonagh, but usually works from home. He also spends about 10 days a month travelling, although obviously not now.

“This afternoon I closed a deal from home with a guy in Odessa on the Black Sea to ship sunflower oil. And yet I can be down on Five Finger Strand in a couple of minutes.”

He says the biggest challenge in managing people remotely is that “it takes you a few months to find out what people are really like. We’ve a wide range of cultures. It’s all about constant communication.”

Switching off might be an issue for some remote workers, but not for McClean. “I go to my cousin’s bar, McClean’s in Malin, on a Friday evening [it’s temporarily closed right now, of course] and meet up with the local postmaster and a few others. That’s where I catch up on the real news.”

Karen O’Connell

Valentia Island, Co Kerry
In normal times, if Karen O’Connell wants to do a supermarket shop she drives her car down to the ferry at Knightstown. But to go to work she doesn’t have to go anywhere.

O’Connell works remotely as the Irish national co-ordinator for the International Foundation for Integrated Care (IFIC). It involves working with the HSE and hubs across the world on integrating personalised health and social care within the health system.

Human beings are social, and it’s very important to have human connection

O’Connell and her husband, Colum, were living in Limerick when they decided to make the move, having known the island well from holidays. At first her husband worked remotely for Dell but he now works locally for Fexco.

Some of O’Connell’s IFIC colleagues work out of the old Cable Station on Valentia. It seems fitting that the place that first linked Europe and the US via undersea cable is also leading the way in remote working.

O’Connell, who set up the first girls-only Coder Dojo project, says getting involved in the community helped her feel at home.

“Human beings are social, and it’s very important to have human connection. As the new person you get asked to do lots of stuff. It’s great, but you can’t say yes to everything.”

O’Connell has three boys aged 12, 10 and 7 and says the island is now their playground.

“They’ve great freedom to walk, cycle, go to the beach. Everyone knows them. They have that ease of growing up without us over their shoulder all the time.”

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