On behalf of Grow Remote Ireland and our 40 chapters across the country, I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak to it. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, for having spent his evenings supporting our chapter on the ground in Ennis.
I have a fundamental belief in the power of community when it is given space to be done right. I have watched meetings of this committee and I realise the committee also understands this, as well as the challenges faced by communities, whether it is the housing crisis, congestion, carbon tax, the need for more and higher quality regional employment and the need to relieve the pressure valve on urban areas. There is also a challenge to increase levels of employment and the quality thereof in rural Ireland.
We consider remote work as enabling decentralisation but for the private sector and by choice. We work with three groups to make it a reality: First is the companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, whose greatest challenge is securing access to talent and then retaining it. Second is the talent, that is, the people themselves. According to a Vodafone study, 77% of respondents say they want more flexible working policies in Irish organisations. In a Wicklow County Council survey of commuters, 50% of respondents wanted to work and live in their home town. The third, and my most important group, are the rural community groups, which need to ensure the economic sustainability of vibrant rural communities and which are building capacity to enable this new type of employment.
We started off by asking how we might drive it more. Remote working companies have identified remote work as a skill in itself. The first thing Grow Remote must do is uncover the highly talented workforce in Ireland which is already skilled in remote work. Having located that skills base, Grow Remote can point to this as a place to locate. Grow Remote has introduced a free scholarship programme for an accredited certificate in remote working.
Creating jobs in the regions relieves the pressure on our major urban areas in housing, congestion and everything else. Many people say that broadband in rural areas of Ireland is not sufficient. It certainly is not, but it is not inhibiting big companies from hiring here now.
The Grow Remote group began as a mobilised group of co-working managers, employers, and employees which saw an opportunity. It slowly evolved into an organisation with the structure to deliver its aims nationally and locally. It has 40 chapters across Ireland, as well as one each in Spain, Portugal and the US. We had not anticipated this scale but we hit upon a basic need which, if fulfilled, would enable our communities to thrive, and scaling was a natural next step.
A survey conducted by the telecommunications company, Blueface, found that there are 216,000 remote workers in Ireland. Our first goal is to understand that figure more deeply, and to establish their location, who these people are, who they work for and the nature of their skills. A recent Grow Remote event in a very rural location was attended by people from Dell, Pfizer, Wayfair, Shopify, Github and Hotjar. These are not companies that hire in this location specifically, but those people live and work in that community and contribute to it directly.
When we mention rural jobs, we think of SMEs, and I am not asking that we let go of the SMEs. A man stood up at the rural meet-up - John Horkan, who is owner of Horkan Garden Centre and employs 150 people. It is a Mayo company, born and bred. He spoke about how he was surprised to see the vast variety of skills in that room and how seeing that is fundamental to supporting the Horkan Garden Centre on its digital transformation journey to ensure that SME is sustainable for that community.
As to what we do, the idea at the heart of Grow Remote is quite simple in that we bridge the gap between remote work and local impact. Our focus is on remote work for full-time employees, with all of the same benefits anyone would get with a local employer, simply without the office. We separate the suppliers of remote work into two streams, first, fully distributed companies with no offices and, second, companies which are on the journey and which have ad hoc policies and, say, let people work in Castlebar or Tuam but which do not have a unified approach to hiring remotely. Companies such as Shopify, Buffer and 10up are moving towards having no offices whatsoever.
How do we bridge the gap? We operate in chapters on a platform called ChangeX. It is textbook community development and equips communities with the tools and resources to make change in their own environment, which is what they are doing. Our chapters range from communities on Arranmore island, which has a population of 465 people, to Dublin and Lisbon. They all support each other in enabling each one to thrive.
It is relatively obvious why are we doing this but there are two main points. The first concerns bringing economic life back to rural Ireland. People need high-quality jobs in rural places and they need to be able to spend their earnings in the local community. They want to do that and we just need to enable it. The second is related to the perspective we came from. Regional hubs are popping up all over the country. They started off with a focus on anchor tenants, start-ups and SMEs and we believe the final pillar in enabling these hubs to thrive is enabling remote work and people who wish to work remotely, but not necessarily within their own homes. This reflects the wider point in regard to these hubs, which is bringing life back to the main streets and central areas of our towns and villages.
What is the committee's role in supporting Grow Remote? Our first ask is that we would like to commission an in-depth study of the opportunities remote working presents, and the challenges currently faced by companies wishing to pursue such a strategy. Second, we would like solid co-ordination across Government agencies on the topic of remote work. While we have had positive engagement with Government bodies on an informal basis, we are asking this committee to ask the Government agencies with responsibility for job creation, and beyond that to carbon emissions and that side, to work closely with our team at Grow Remote as we deliver the necessary supports.
To recap, as part of changing the narrative on rural Ireland, we need to show that there is an abundance of jobs in the most rural places in Ireland, the jobs that do not come with a ribbon cut and do not come in the usual way. Such jobs are in brilliant international firms such as Shopify, Wayfair, Trello, Buffer, 10up, Scrapinghub, Nearform and others. We can all think of a town in Ireland that has a pub, a shop and a GAA pitch - I am thinking of Ballinderry, County Galway - where a person growing up will think they can be a publican, an undertaker or a primary school teacher. We want them also to think they can work for Expedia, Shopify or Wayfair, and just because we are no longer seeing them on the main street does not mean there cannot be brilliant career opportunities with these companies.
The proverbial win-win is normally too good to be true but this is happening in areas across Ireland. It is a win for employers, which are seeing increased productivity and better brands that attract new employees, it is a win for employees, who are more productive and happier, and it is a major win for our communities which enables them to grow more. While it is not a silver bullet and is not the single solution to our changing world of work and life, it is a smart, effective, economically viable solution that has yet to be fully embraced and become mainstream among employers and employees and communities. The question is what else we have in our arsenal to drive job creation in Ireland and whether one of those elements is the driving of remote work as a serious solution.
A couple of weeks ago we launched Grow Remote in Tubbercurry with a fantastic local team with a brilliant track record in delivery. I thank the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment for its forward thinking and proactive approach to supporting that community on the ground and behind the scenes, thereby enabling it to thrive, in particular, Caroline Henry, Stephen Brennan and the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. I thank the committee for their time.