THE remote working revolution prompted by the Coronavirus pandemic would have been impossible to predict at the start of this year. A life-time ago, back in January, working away from the office was still a fairly fuzzy concept for most of us, tied in with worthy but not-always-attainable aims like reducing our carbon footprint, cutting down on daily commuting and achieving a better work-life balance. Now that we have all been thrown into reality of having to meet our work commitments without venturing into crowded offices, finding an appropriate space for remote working has become a real challenge. Kitchen tables across the country have been acting as board room bases for video conferences, while serving as virtual classrooms at the same time – not always with harmonious, or productive results.
In Clare, thanks to a synergy of two key departments, the local authority has been better able than many of its counterparts to respond to the surge in demand for remote working facilities. Its digital hubs had been growing in popularity, even before the pandemic, but are now a much sought-after lifeline for individual workers, students and even entire micro-enterprises. In recent weeks, under DigiClare – part of the Rural Development Strategy, the latest hub opened in Kilkee, following hot on the heels of facilities in Ennistymon, Kilrush, Feakle and Miltown Malbay. There are plans in the pipeline for more bases, with a view to making Clare the remote working capital of Ireland.
“It’s fair to say that Covid-19 accelerated plans that we had already been working, and it has also forced us to look at the changing requirements of remote workers,” outlined Urban McMahon, Head of Information Systems, Digital and Broadband with Clare County Council. “We are now seeing a Zoom Boom and workers might be spending 50% of their time on video calls. We have privacy booths at hubs like the one in Kilrush, and those are in very high demand.”
Other typical facilities include hot desks, which can be booked on a daily, weekly or monthly basis; meeting/training facilities; boardrooms and even entire business incubation units, in the case of the hub in Ennistymon. There is also the capacity to share skills and network. “At the Multi-Service Innovation Centre on Parliament Street, in Ennistymon, the North West Clare Family Resource Centre is the anchor tenant and there is scope for more development there. With Rural Regeneration Funding of €1m, we were able to develop seven incubation units and they’re all full. We have a mix of Tech, ICT, graphic design, web and marketing companies and there are huge synergies for those companies, they’re all talking.”
At this point in time, all five hubs are supporting multinational team calls, the delivery of remote training, distance education and blended learning, and many other activities. Mr McMahon notes a recent example of where a family on staycation in Kilrush booked the hub’s training facilities for a week to enable their daughter to remotely undertake an intensive online course.
“We are committed to opening six to seven more new hubs under the DigiClare initiative,” outlined Mr McMahon. “The model we are using involves working with local groups and community organisations to see what kind of facilities we can add value to. For example, in Corofin, there is St Patrick’s Hall. In Cross, there’s the national school building. We are also looking at Flagmount and Lisdoonvarna among other locations. What we would proposed in most cases would be to set up a hub in an existing community facility. We would kit it out and equip it, working with local organisations.”
As county town, Ennis is another priority for a hub and Killaloe is also on the radar for future development. “In terms of Ennis,” said Mr McMahon, “we have well-advanced plans. Construction is set to start before the end of the year.”
“Clare County Council was one of the better positioned local authorities, because of our Rural Development Strategy, coupled with a digital strategy,” Mr McMahon explained. “There has been quite a significant investment in remote working initiatives and this has given Clare an edge. Right now all of our hubs are full and because someone might only use a desk on one day of the week, one facility could be providing services to as many as 15 or 16 remote workers on a weekly basis.”
“The feedback has been amazing,” added Mr McMahon. “In some cases, we would even have waiting lists. We are now working with more third-level students and we would expect an increase in demand in September because of the increase in blended learning. We would see ourselves as being key in helping students to connect to the likes of the University of Limerick (UL) and other colleges.”
Chief Executive of Clare County Council, Pat Dowling, echoed these sentiments, saying, “One of the lessons to be learned from Covid-19 is the huge potential of remote working. Clare County Council is committed to making Clare a key destination for remote working. Currently, there are five digital hubs established in Clare, at locations in Ennistymon, Kilrush, Feakle, Miltown Malbay and Kilkee, and I am committed to further expansion of the network before the end of the year.
“Digital hubs can be an enabler of rural, community and economic development in the county, in line with the Clare Rural Development Strategy and Clare Digital Strategy.
“As a rural county with an abundance of fresh air, enviable amenities and space for social distancing, the county is uniquely positioned to attract people to relocate here for health and quality-of-life reasons.”
The benefits in terms of balancing development – within the county, and regionally, are clear. There is also the obvious benefit of reducing long commutes for workers. Mark Killeen from Liscannor works with Limerick-based Quinn Architects. Commuting to and from Limerick City was taking its toll and renting a hot desk at the Ennistymon Multi-Service Innovation Centre was an ideal way to save time and money. “When you’re not commuting ten hours a week any more, there are big savings,” Mr Killeen said. “It’s just 15 minutes from my home to my desk, and I also find I’m more connect to the community when I’m working locally.” For Mark, the facilities in Ennistymon are of a standard to enable him to connect to colleagues in Limerick and to work with clients. “Because I’m an architect, I work on a desktop computer and I can leave that on the hot desk, because I rent it permanently,” he explained. “There’s high-speed broadband, so I can connect remotely to the office in Limerick. If I have a client coming in, I can book a meeting room here.”
The professional environment and the mix of co-workers are other pluses for Mark. “I had to work from home during the lockdown and was really looking forward to the hub re-opening,” he said. “This is a focused environment, everyone is here to work and there’s a productive atmosphere. There’s a great group of people here. We’re all in creative sectors so there’s a chance to bounce ideas or problems off others. Working here is particularly good for anyone who has moved into the area or returned to it. It’s a great way to make connections.”
Full details are available of all of the hubs are available on www.digiclare.ie.