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The ‘Great Reshuffle’ is far from over

Re-energising of suburbs and rural areas has been a major feature of the pandemic

As a nation, the first thing we did when the pandemic struck was stock up on loo roll. It seems the second was to see if we could move down the country.

According to analysis from MyHome.ie, included in the Government’s Making Remote Work report, remote working resulted in increased interest in rural properties.

Searches for property less than €100,000 went up by a multiple of six in counties Cork and Leitrim, and by five in Galway, Wexford and Mayo. Those for properties valued at less than €300,00 in Cork and Wexford multiplied by eight.

A nationwide shortage of housing stock may have prevented many from acting on their impulse, but one place they didn’t move is back to the office. At least, not five days a week.

According to a CSO survey on remote working, published in January, 80 per cent of those in employment worked remotely at some stage during the pandemic. The vast majority of us want to continue doing so – up to 90 per cent in the case of 35- to 44-year-olds.

Looked at by location, demand is even higher. Some 93 per cent of those in employment in Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow – the Dublin commuter belt – want to work remotely.

Nearly four in 10 of those in employment would consider a house move if they could work remotely. A further 7 per cent said they have already done so.

For the economy the potential gains are enormous, not least because remote working opens up the labour market to people previously excluded from it. Three-quarters of survey respondents who were engaged in home duties, and almost seven in 10 of those unable to work due to long-standing health problems, said they would consider employment if it could be done remotely.

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index 2022, published in March, finds employees of all kinds have little appetite for a return to pre-pandemic-style office working.

“The data shows the ‘Great Reshuffle’ is far from over. Employees everywhere are rethinking their ‘worth it’ equation and are voting with their feet,” it finds. “As more people experience the upsides of flexible work, the more heavily it factors into the equation. For gen Z and millennials, there’s no going back. And with other generations not far behind, companies must meet employees where they are.”

About two in 10 workers who want to work remotely would like to do so from a remote work hub, or a combination of home and remote work hub.

The launch of Connected Hubs, the national network of remote co-working hubs, is facilitating them. Already there are more than 100 hubs on the platform, with an ultimate target of more than 400 nationwide.

Whether to work from home, close to home, or even move house, people are voting with their feet.

“Notwithstanding the incredible difficulties the pandemic inflicted on people, families and communities, and the challenges it presented the hospitality and other service-based sectors, it has also had a transformational impact on Derry and Strabane and the wider northwest,” says Kevin O’Connor, head of business at Derry City and Strabane District Council.

Not alone was a significant portion of its worldwide diaspora brought home, but others with no such connection chose to relocate there. Freed by remote working to live virtually anywhere, they come for cheaper accommodation and a good quality of life.

“Previously, talented people from here had to leave to further their career; that has all now been turned on its head,” says O’Connor.

While house prices in the area have risen as a result of rising demand, it is still far cheaper to buy or rent than cities such as Dublin, Cork, Galway or Belfast. “You get more bang for your buck, with affordable homes in lovely places,” he says.

He believes employers have “no intention” of trying to go back to the traditional model of five days a week in the office, because they know their employees have reassessed their work-life balance.

That is allowing employers to cut overheads, leasing smaller offices as a base for a flexible workforce, increasingly relying on co-working hubs as an important part of the mix.

These include places like those set up by Innovate Limerick, a business development initiative of Limerick City and Council. It has established Engine Hubs, a network of nine collaborative workspaces spread right across the county, each of which is fully kitted out for everyone, from remote workers to business start-ups and multinational “landing teams”.

Throughout the pandemic Limerick sustained a high level of business investments, leading to record job announcements.

“We have come out of Covid very strong, with some 1,960 jobs announced since January alone. That compares with 3,500 in total for 2015, our best year ever,” says Pat Fitzgerald, head of trade and investment at Limerick City and County Council.

He believes regional locations across the country will benefit from the move to remote and hybrid working.

Where people go, money follows. “Those working in hubs want to go out for coffees and lunches, so the whole economy benefits,” he points out.

The individual saves time not having to commute, which they can spend on family or community.

“All in all, there has been an immense shake-up in the way we work. People have taken a more holistic view of work-life balance and where previously the career took precedence, that has now shifted and the individual and the community will benefit,” he says.

“Certainly, the re-energising of suburbs, satellite towns and rural areas has been a major feature of the pandemic.”

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times

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