Opinion: The commute is extinct – remote working can revive rural Ireland

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Grow Remote’s Joanne Mangan says remote working is here to stay so it’s time we all worked together to get it right.

PICTURE THE SCENE. You leave your house at 8:30 am. The sun is shining so you decide to walk the kids to school. You hug goodbye at the school gates, then pop into the local coffee shop for a takeaway breakfast. It’s only a short stroll from there to your co-working hub where you take a few minutes to catch up with a couple of locals before you start your working day.

No more two-hour commute, no more traffic, no more mad dash to get to the childminder by 6 pm. And bonus, your career isn’t hindered because of where you live.

Welcome to the world of remote working in rural Ireland.

Earlier this week the government launched its new rural strategy ‘Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025’ which plans to revitalise rural Ireland over the next five years.

The policy aims to re-energise town centres, enhance outdoor amenities, develop rural infrastructure and services, and bring more job opportunities to people in rural Ireland.

How will it work?

Central to this plan is a significant investment in remote working, with relocation grants, tax incentives and funding for local authorities and community groups, and a ‘town first policy’ with investment in enterprise spaces, co-working hubs, and remote working facilities in rural towns.

Despite the huge challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year, the shift to remote working has thrown the door wide open to an incredible opportunity for the reinvigoration of rural Ireland.

Local communities thrive and grow when people can work anywhere. Remote work gives people the freedom to choose where they want to live, bringing more people back into local communities, a multiplier which in turn creates and sustains further local jobs.

For the nearly two million people who live in rural areas, the government’s plan represents a roadmap to address the decline which they have witnessed over the past decades, where empty shops, shuttered pubs, derelict post offices and garda stations are the everyday reality.

If the government’s plan is implemented successfully, people in rural communities will no longer have to say, ‘there are no jobs here’. Young people will no longer be forced to migrate to cities for work, putting further pressure on an already unsustainable housing market. Job opportunities will be available to everyone, no matter where they live.

A hill to climb

While the government’s plan is to be welcomed, it is not without its challenges. There is no doubt many of the proposals will set off alarm bells for city-based businesses and organisations.

This was seen earlier this week when Dublin Town accused the government of ‘a clear anti-Dublin bias’, claiming the plan could damage Ireland’s ability to attract foreign direct investment as large organisations and their workers seek leisure, entertainment, arts and cultural opportunities which cities are best placed to provide.

Rural life is not for everyone and for many people the cities offer a breadth of activities that would be difficult to replicate in our towns and villages. But addressing the urban-rural divide in Ireland is not a zero-sum game. Fundamentally it is about equal access to opportunity, whether you live in Dublin, Ballina, or Valentia Island.

We are at the threshold of a unique opportunity to reimagine our vision for rural Ireland, but also for our cities. We need to future-proof the vibrancy of our cities, while also building sustainable communities elsewhere.

There has been a lot of discussion this week about the challenges faced by the government in implementing this plan, with some commentators pointing out the lack of specifics around targets, timelines, and investment.

Cultural shift

But let’s not forget that we are still in the very early stages of building a remote working culture in Ireland and the government’s plan represents the right direction of travel towards a thriving and vibrant rural Ireland. Specific targets for remote job creation could be a valuable next step in the right direction.

We should also be acutely aware that the window of opportunity to realise this vision is small, as we move towards a post-lockdown world. If the plan is going to work, it needs to work for companies first.

Remote work can no longer be a one-off deal agreed between employers and employees, we need to take a systematic approach to firmly embed remote working into our economy.

Companies need to be provided with incentives to make sure that their remote jobs stay remote, and do not move back to Dublin, Cork or Galway if the employees move on. Businesses, community, and government need to take a joined-up approach to driving the occupancy of co-working hubs.

People in rural areas need to be upskilled in the competencies required for remote work so that they are ready to take advantage of the opportunities which will be opened to them, as they compete for jobs that can be done from anywhere in Ireland.

Companies need to advertise open roles as location-agnostic so that rural communities have visibility of the opportunities that are open to them. Currently there are 55,000 remote jobs open in Ireland today – now it is about making sure rural communities are aware of these opportunities and are ready and able to take advantage of them.

There are already over 60 communities of remote workers established in Ireland, led by people who volunteer their time to foster thriving communities of remote workers locally – running meetups, getting local people employed, and running re-location programmes – and we need to build more of these.

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At Grow Remote we are excited about the future of rural Ireland and we look forward to working with the government together with our stakeholders, including Enterprise Ireland, IDA, Laois Offaly Education and Training Board, Western Development Commission, National Association of Enterprise Centres, and SOLAS.

The government’s plan lays out the foundations for a truly reinvigorated and sustainable rural Ireland and we look forward to playing our role in the realisation of this vision.

Joanne Mangan is the Employers Lead at Grow Remote – www.growremote.ie.

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