We expected it to impact the global economy and health systems but this contagious virus has also reduced air pollution levels in China, cancelled rugby matches and is making thousands of people worldwide ‘work from home’.
Google Ireland and recruitment firm Indeed told their staff to work from home for fear of exposure to the virus. Twitter said it was mandatory for staff in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea to work remotely and it encouraged all of its 5,000 employees worldwide to work from home.
I have been expounding the virtues of remote working for five years. Most of the people or companies I work with are based in Dublin and I go to meetings and on shoots around the country regularly. But day to day I work from a small office in Cork city that is a ten minute cycle from my house.
When I moved back to Cork after 17 years of living in Dublin, I worried that conducting business by email, phone and video conferencing would be annoying and I wouldn’t hack it. But a few minutes of tech faff at the start of a conference call beats hours of commuting hands down.
The technology that enables remote working has improved hugely in those five years too.
Video conferencing platforms like Zoom, workflow collaboration apps like Slack or a simple Whatsapp video call or Google Docs folder have all made remote working much easier.
Of course you can’t remote work if you’re a midwife or a chef or a truck driver but a significant chunk of the workforce have the capability to work remotely at least some of the time.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation published a report last year acknowledging the lack of Irish data on remote workers but estimated, based on 2016 census data, that approx 57,000 people are working remotely from home; an increase of 20% from the 2011 figure.
Research from the jobs portal Indeed found that the number of Irish people searching for jobs using the term ‘remote working’ increased by 171% in the year 2016-2017. An IBEC survey found that 37% of companies had a practice of remote work one or two days per week, while 7% enabled remote work five days per week.
Flexibility, work life balance, reducing commuting times and environmental reasons are some of the main reasons people choose to work remotely. Avoiding traffic, even for one or two days a week, has big benefits for stress levels and pollution levels.
Cork’s South Ring Road (N40) handled 30 million cars journeys in 2017 with Fridays being the busiest day for traffic according to a Transport Infrastructure Ireland report. Imagine the impact on carbon emissions if we were able to shave even 10% off those numbers by more people working from home an extra one or two days a week.
Sitting in traffic also costs money in terms of lost time and productivity. A 2012 EU report estimated that the cost of congestion in Ireland is €1.8 billion or 1.1% of GDP.
Of course the environmental advantages of working from home only stack up if you don’t have the heating on all day – the carbon footprint of heating lots of individual workers’ homes versus one office building might quickly cancel out any reduced transport emissions – especially as more workers start to get to work by cycling, using public transport or driving electric cars.
Remote working and flexible working might have the greatest value in rural regeneration.
Our educated youth may not have to move to an urban centre after college to pursue their career if they are able to work remotely for Amazon from Allihies or for Google from Glengarriff or for Facebook from Fermoy.
Internet connectivity is an obstacle that will hopefully be overcome with the National Broadband plan and the expansion of places like The Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen which helps workers access high speed internet in a pleasant co-working space while enjoying life in West Cork.
There are downsides, I miss the camaraderie of the office environment and the banter with office colleagues but the upsides of no commute, flexible hours and getting to live near my extended family in Cork all outweigh the cons.
I have a friend who is my remote working hero. He worked for a Dublin software company and started to work from home because he was more productive away from office distractions. After a while he realised there was no need for him to live in Dublin anymore and he moved to Barcelona and continued doing his job remotely. He met a girl, bought a house and lives a very lovely life.
His Dublin-based bosses were unaware of his new geographical location until they sprung an unplanned meeting on him and he had to explain he wouldn’t make it at short notice because he now lived in Spain! They were unimpressed but he’s still working from them. He must be very good at his job. And he should be an example to us all!
At a time of full employment, workers should be demanding remote working where practicable. Companies should be encouraging a flexible work environment and perhaps one of the after-effects of Covid- 19 will be a cultural shift to remote working which will reap benefits for individuals, families, businesses, communities and the environment.