The ferry out from Burtonport has some cracking views. There’s a house with so much glass in it that the residents are bordering on exhibitionism. Another has its own little sheltered cove, ideal for a barbecue surrounded by the best view you can imagine. Everywhere around, the ocean, houses only accessible by boat, and the hills, make for quite a sight.
Cars get over and back the same way people do, on the ferry which now has its own app to make it easier to know what time the next one is due. On both the wildest of wet nights and clearest day, Arranmore is an extraordinary sight.
It was just too extraordinary for most people to be able to stay. A remote island off the coast of Donegal is not the natural place one thinks of for creating sustainable employment, but islanders always have to be resourceful.
That’s where Mol Oifig Digiteach Árainn Mhór, or Modám, came from. Less than a minute’s walk from getting off the ferry, there’s a digital hub with plenty of oomph that required some smart thinking.
If people could connect to the rest of the world from the island, they wouldn’t have to worry quite so much about the challenges one bad day at sea would bring in getting off it.
“We have a working group that identified internet and employment as issues on the island so we started the project to encourage people to move back to the island,” Séamus Bonner, secretary of Arranmore community council, told Connected.
“Getting families to move back was the end idea, to get numbers in the schools. We did a survey initially, asking people what would make them think about moving back. Internet access and access to work were the main issues. There are a number of islanders with multinationals who could work remotely if we had the facilities.”
Getting the facility was the part the islanders could sort out with some smart thinking. Modám is a converted B&B, still functioning as one, but with some slight twists. A side room has been converted for video conferencing, but the main digital hub area is the delight. Rows of computers and desks in what used to be a pool room.
The island is three miles by four miles, so everybody is near everybody. You can get over and back to Arranmore Lighthouse on the far side of the island from Modám in five minutes by car, and there’s an Airbnb there, too, for those seeking to stay at the edge of the world.
That ability to offer a touch of temptation is part of the charm offensive pushed by Bonner and his cohorts. He knows that even before moving home or moving their lives to the island, people could be convinced to extend their holidays there.
“It matters, not just because they can spend more time with their families, but they have a lot more freedom on the island. We’re working with a number of other community groups around the country, we’ve been working with Grow Remote to link people that want to work remotely or hire people working remotely,” said Bonner.
The decision to use a B&B as the hub wasn’t an accident. There are other places to stay, indeed there’s another B&B right next door to Modám along with a hostel and other spots, but this way there’s a combined offering for those coming over.
“We were looking at other hubs around. There was one in Iceland we saw, they encourage people to come and stay in the venue. It’s like a package,” said Bonner.
“There are other accommodation options around, but it makes it easier for people to come here to work. Having that package where your office space, conferencing facilities and accommodation is all in one site helps.”
The island needs every edge it can get. Almost a quarter of the population has gone since 1996 alone, when there were 600 on the island. To arrest the decline, they need to give people what they need to stay. Fortunately, there’s a close community at hand to get to work.
“The response has been really positive. They are talking to people locally and abroad, encouraging others to come back,” said Bonner.
“Ideally, a year from now, we’ll see people using it on an ongoing basis. The end result for us is to have a number of families moving back to the island and working here.”
Bonner’s not a fast-talking salesman by any stretch, he’s more the subtle type that can quietly get in your ear and quickly get you thinking with a different perspective.
“I’ve got two boys who adore the island, to come home to see family. We come home every holiday we can,” said Lisa Rodgers, an Arranmore native who lives in London running her own HR business.
Bonner got talking to her and she’s suddenly finding herself back home a lot more than she used to be.
“With what I do, I can work from anywhere, but when I come home, I’m very limited in what I can do. Having somewhere that I can get into work mode, rather than a kitchen table with kids in and out, but also somewhere that you can chat to other people helps. That’s the thing with working from home, it can be quite lonely,” she said.
“You can get to know other businesses as well. There are so many people on the island doing other things that you can link up with. There’s also the flexibility of being able to do other things.”
Rodgers has been living in London 25 years, but still considers Arranmore to be home-home. The hub allows her children to get to know it as such, too.
“With the summer holidays it could be restrictive, as I wouldn’t have the power with broadband to stay the full six weeks. Now, the kids, they are delighted at the idea of it. They have such lovely freedom on the island,” she said.
“It makes such a difference to be able to come home and do work. You’re not doing nine to five, that’s the thing with modern working, you can be very flexible.”
Getting the location and local buy-in involved a fair bit of work from Bonner and his buddies, but that was only part of the job. There was the small matter of being able to power the hub. That’s where Three Ireland came in to work out a solution to aid the island.
“About six months ago we were looking for an opportunity and we came across the Arranmore community council. It made a lot of sense to us, if you look at what we do, our vision is to create a better connected life. This allows us to showcase our products and services in a way that showcases that vision,” said Eóin MacManus, business and enterprise director with Three Ireland.
“We’ve got the digital hub, but we’re also working with the school, the medical centre and the community college. This hub enables people to work here on a sustainable basis.”
The surprising thing about the project, at least for the lay observer, is how simple it was to execute. With the furious debates around the ever delayed National Broadband Plan, the natural thought would be that a remote area involved all kinds of logistical challenges, let alone one not affixed to the mainland.
“There’s nothing unique. It was something we’re used to. It’s something we provide to many enterprises across the country, it’s just a unique setting. As long as there’s a mast, it’s not that complicated in principle,” said MacManus.
“We put an enterprise class solution in here. There’s a wireless lease line in the building, that allows people to get up to 150Mbps of uncontended broadband activity. Elsewhere on the island it’s a wireless solution that works like a fixed line. There’s a lozenge-like device that uses the signal from the outside, rather than the inside, and it significantly increases capacity.”
Beyond getting people to return to Arranmore, MacManus wants the connectivity to broaden the horizons of those still living here.
“I’m hoping this will encourage more people to come back, but I’d also like existing residents who previously had to go far and wide to do things to see they now don’t have to do that,” he said.
“The classic example was having to go to Dublin to visit consultants where now they can go with a video conference from the medical centre. It’s all about trying to bring to life what connectivity really means, supporting and encouraging a unique way of life.”
It’s been over 20 years since Neil Gallagher had to give up that way of life. Living in London, he’s set up a successful educational app and games company called Caped Koala. The cost of doing business in London being as high as it is, there are limits to what he can take on in terms of projects. Having a resource like Modám back home looks set to change that.
“For us, it ultimately presents a number of compelling opportunities. We often decline opportunities due to the viability, it’s a challenge in London with the high cost of living. That can change for us,” said Gallagher.
“We can potentially hire here or even act as a conduit for people taking the lead to set up their own companies. The connectivity allows the islanders to tap into a lot of information, with a company like ourselves we know the skills we want so we can give direction and train people up on the island.”
Gallagher has been in London since 1996. He came back in 2007 with a view of staying there but after six weeks found it was virtually impossible. It did at least give him time to work out what he was going to do next.
“It was hugely frustrating. At the time my children were just pre-school age, me and my wife wanted to move back full-time but I just couldn’t work full-time there. It was after that the genesis of Caped Koala came about, having that downtime to think in Arranmore,” said Gallagher.
Now, the goal he had 12 years ago looks a reality once more.
“The connectivity on the island will allow me to spend a lot more time there in the short term but, ultimately, I’d like to see us move home. It’s a tricky period with the age my kids are now, but in about four to six years’ time, when they are at university, it’ll be different,” he said.
“The connectivity in the hub is two to three times faster than what I have in my house just outside London. Once you can work there, a lot of things change. I think there’s huge potential here. There are multiple opportunities to develop.”
The pace of life, the people and the views make Arranmore attractive. It was more than enough to bring Adrian Begley to the island. Originally from Derry, he’s now chair of the community council. Begley’s family had a holiday home on the island and he decided it was where he wanted to settle down. He’s seen how the locals have proven their resourcefulness.
“It’s a fantastic place, the community here is great. There was a time when they didn’t have a secondary school on the island, but they had to fight for that, it’s there 25, 30 years now. We’re now at a point with the connectivity, kids can avail of third level for distance learning,” said Begley.
A local now, like Bonner he was determined to arrest the decline in population. What used to work simply couldn’t anymore so they had to find something that did.
“We were sitting chatting one day and we decided we wanted to encourage the diaspora to move back here. People moving back here, regenerating the population, will feed into a lot of things,” he said.
“Traditional industries like fishing and that, we no longer have. We have a high level of attainment from the secondary school, with people going away to university and working in jobs that would facilitate them working remotely.”
The journey to get from a meeting around a table to where they are now, involved thinking through all the steps along the way.
“With opening the digital hub, the plan was to have a shared workspace to allow people to work remotely. We had the hub part, we had to get the connectivity. Long-term, we’re looking to get fibre to the island, but it was imperative to get it open as soon as possible,” said Begley.
“It’s got to a point now where it is open, it has a lot of interest from some of the young ones. They’re coming back from Dublin, London and even Chicago to spend more time here. The connectivity is going to allow them to do that. It’s a very organic type of thing. As time goes on, there are more things coming out of the ether.”
Those working remotely are seeing the changes already. Martin Gallagher, a software engineer with Dublin-based AdaptiveMobile, had to create his own personal hub at home to make it happen.
“I’ve been working remotely for two years. Initially, I spent more time in Dublin, but in recent months I’ve spent more time here as they’ve gotten more comfortable with me working remotely,” said Gallagher.
“A few years ago, the connectivity was dreadful. There have been incremental improvements. I have a reasonable set-up in my office, but it cost a lot, to work reliably I had to get one or two connections set up. It’s comforting to know I can just log in here, it gives peace of mind. The speed is good, the latency is low, and they’ve invested in some good kit.”
While Gallagher gets to stay put, Matthew Loughnane, who works with Neil Gallagher’s Caped Koala, gets a different experience. Loughnane is originally from London, but his mother is from Arranmore.
A few years ago, he made the ferry app, but he saw the issues with the island’s connectivity just as it was about to go live.
“I did the ferry app for the ferry times, when I came here there was something wrong with it, but I couldn’t fix it here. I had to wait until I went back to London to fix it and then they launched the app,” said Loughnane.
“It was heartbreaking when it happened. In the time since then, we’ve added an Alexa skill and it works with Google Assistant.”
With a whole lot of power in Modám, it’s a wildly different experience for Loughnane now.
“The idea is for us to come back here as often as possible. It’s perfect for working. It’s better than what I get in London. When I upload larger files, I get throttled. Here, I was throwing them up and it was nothing,” he said.
“It’s ridiculous, it’s brilliant. Before, I’d have come back for a weekend for a friend’s birthday. Now I can come for the weekend and then stay working through the next week. I’ve got about ten cousins here so I can see more of them.”
That’s the type of story Nóirín Uí Mhaoldomhnaigh, manager of the Arranmore co-op, wants to hear. She wants to see more people realising the upside of being on the island.
“We’re a development association, it’s very important for the development of the island. They put antenna in our building a couple of weeks back, we’re getting 99Mbps,” she said.
“We want the same connectivity you can get in any city. At times it can be. I’ve a daughter living in Dublin, she’s in Cabra, and it’s often better than what she gets.”
Uí Mhaoldomhnaigh knows the emigrant story all too well, she was in London from 1985 to 1999, and the challenge of coming home. Now, she sees it can be easier.
“In terms of work, there wasn’t much. I went to work as a school secretary for a number of years and then in the co-op. It’s not that easy for everybody here getting employment,” she said.
“This can help attract more people to work remotely, help to reverse the population decline. For the people from here working with Pramerica in Letterkenny, this gives them a chance to do their jobs from home.”
Think staff first
With somewhere like Arranmore, the challenge was thinking from the people out. What do the individuals need? The challenge for all businesses great and small is realising that it’s not just the communities that need to do that, but for companies to take the same approach.
Be it working full time on a beautiful island or a day a week in their homes that may only be a three-minute walk from the office, employees are looking for more room to manoeuvre and for their employers to enable it.
“Flexible [working] is taking on legs. IDC reckons it will be around a $1 trillion market by 2022, it’s a huge focus area for all companies,” said Catherine Doyle, director of strategic outsourcers EMEA with Dell EMC.
“The main issue is attracting and retaining good people. Good people want to live wherever they want. You get to a skillbase that’s more global than ever before. It makes employees a lot happier as well.”
It’s a challenge Doyle’s own business sees first hand, with staff numbers globally around 250 times the size of Arranmore’s population.
“We’ve now over 120,000 employees. We need more people to keep growing, we’re constantly hiring more people. In order to do that, we have to spread the net wider,” she said.
“We’re investing heavily in video conferencing. It’s a lot more the norm than it was even 12 months ago. We’re using Zoom, which we’ve found really good. You can see and hear multiple on it at the same time, it makes that remote meeting more personable.”
Getting that message out to those Dell is providing services to requires thinking beyond the technical solutions for Doyle.
“It depends on the client. Tech companies are adopting quicker than others. Some companies are still struggling to get their heads around the work at home concept. It’s not just working at home, it’s how you ensure motivation, connectedness with the rest of your colleagues, and also output,” she said.
“For some companies, it’s a culture shift around how people work and are managed. It’s difficult for some of our clients that have a workforce living close to their office to get their heads around letting go. The technology is all there, a lot of them have access to it.”
In order to prepare businesses for that cultural shift, Doyle has taken the most practical approach to educating them. Seeing as Dell EMC deals with a lot of remote and flexible working staff, it’s a good idea to show how her own team manages.
“We’ve brought a lot of them in, sat them down and showed them what we’re doing internally. We show them how we’ve adapted it from a culture perspective. They talk to people in different areas of our business that wouldn’t normally be customer facing,” said Doyle.
“It’s a leadership change that’s required more than anything else. If you have the right structure and leadership, it makes life a lot easier. It also helps to drive up diversity and inclusion. Some people are put off going to certain companies because they find them restrictive, it helps companies cast a wider net.”
Making it work goes beyond giving someone a means to access their work apps, platforms and data. For a business to succeed at implementing any kind of flexible or remote strategy, it needs to look at how those staff retain links to the company.
“I’m really seeing that more and more. The key is the attitude of the employees, not to get completely disjointed. There has to be some facetime. I was in Germany the other day and 70 per cent of the team lived nowhere near the office, but they had regular meet-ups, there was a good group culture that kept the collaboration going,” said Doyle.
“The security is really critical. The spend and focus on security to make sure this works is one of the core things that drives it. From there, it’s how they manage their networks. On a lot of the mobile apps, that helps to manage the security so everybody can move about. There’s a huge conversation around that at the moment.”
Doyle is noticeably confident about where this trend is going, she can already see a stage where working off-site will not just feel the same as being in the office, but look it as well.
“Artificial intelligence and robotics will kick in, eventually we’ll see people in a more 3D experience like we’re sitting in the room with them. We’re not too far away from it as an available technology, it needs adoption to drive down the cost.”
To get remote and flexible approaches working, it requires leadership to drive it. Having someone in leadership with real experience of doing both certainly helps. Chas Moloney is marketing director of Ricoh for Ireland and Britain. He also lives nowhere near his office.
“The nature of work these days means organisations have to be more flexible in how they manage the value of an employee. One of the drivers of that is the generational change in the workforce, digital natives are growing up. They have the ability to work in different ways and they want to work in different ways,” said Moloney.
“The challenge for most organisations is balancing the need of the baby boomers, who look to work in more traditional environments, and accommodating the needs of millennials and Generation Z who don’t want to work in a fixed location with fixed hours. They want work to fit around them.”
Moloney wants businesses to stop thinking about just being able to see that someone is at work and create the best environment for them to work.
“The optimal office isn’t a building, it’s the best way of working. You need to understand the needs of your people. Once you’ve done that, you need to understand what the desired workplace is. I’m going to spend five hours on the train today, but I still work perfectly effectively,” he said.
“One of the challenges with remote working is middle management expectation of presenteeism. If you can get past that, and it typically is a middle management issue, you can manage outcomes not presenteeism.”
Moloney lives in the west country of England, near Gloucester, but his desk is in the centre of London. It’s been the norm for him for years and that personal experience has helped him shape how Ricoh thinks about what is required to make work optimal for employees like him.
“That’s going to be more prevalent. People mixing commuting in one or two days a week and working from a touchdown area, be it a WeWork or whatever, you’ve got to understand that place is an important part of the process,” said Moloney.
“Then there’s how you bring people together, how you are going to get them to collaborate when they are working remotely or from home. Once you understood the people, place and processes to bring them together, only then should you look for the technology that enables all of that to work.”
The gain is not merely in making staff available from a wider pool, it means those that join your business will want to stay there as well. You’ve just got to be sure they know that being off site doesn’t mean being always-on.
“If I’ve got a happier more dynamic workforce that feel valued, they’ll want to stay, improve engagements, and all that leads to better results with customers,” said Moloney.
“From my perspective, the biggest challenge is that we live in an always-on society. Technology is allowing us to work 24/7 if we choose to. It’s the culture of the organisation that creates expectation. You’ve got to bring that culture in to have the discipline to say you can stop.”
Like Doyle, he looks at it as a challenge that needs to see the technology be the last thing brought into the discussion.
“If you get the process right, the technology can be a massive enabler in the success of it. The clear benefit to everyone, no matter your generation or where you work, is it can help maximise productivity,” said Moloney.
“Whether I’m with my parents in Clare, my home near Gloucester, in our office in central London, or our office in Swords, I can be equally productive. Using collaboration platforms, the people I work with have access to me and the access they need to do their jobs.”
Take it back to the start
Throughout the conversations on Arranmore, one name kept coming up. Bonner, Begley and a few others kept talking about Tracy Keogh. She’s not from there, she’s from Galway, and she wasn’t there for the launch of Modám, because she was busy elsewhere.
Keogh is a co-founder of Grow Remote, having worked in a broad spread of jobs aimed at helping drive tech communities. Most of those were in more traditional urban hubs, but in recent years she’s found herself on the road to a lot more places which would normally be shy of resources.
Grow Remote’s purpose is to help make remote working local. It looks to bridge the gap between remote work and local impact.
“It had a catalyst in every corner of Ireland. There were conversations, mostly in rural co-working spaces, around working out what remote work was. It began with a 14-person WhatsApp group in August which led to us starting to figure things out,” said Keogh.
“We put up a beacon for remote work in Ireland and people started contacting us. We saw there is a huge potential that we’re not tapping into. It’s a new mindset for job creation.”
Explaining how an Arranmore situation happens requires Keogh to be able to show communities that the idea must come from within. Begley, Bonner et al got tools from outside, but the thinking and organising came from home.
“I’ve learned to trust communities. When we started off, people started asking about how to get remote working in their communities. We started sharing what we were learning with all these community leads,” said Keogh.
“We saw chapter leads come up with a range of programmes breathing life into rural areas. Valentia Island has two families making the move back, you see what’s happening in Arranmore as well. If you give communities the tools, they can work out what to do with them.”
There’s a personal understanding with Keogh. She’d been in Dublin for a few years, but she wanted to get back to Kinvara, just outside Galway city, and she was determined to find a way to make that feasible.
“I wanted to go home, I wanted freedom. With young people, we’re not all going to urban centres, what we want is freedom and flexibility. Remote work levels the playing field, your job is mobile and you can choose where you want to live,” said Keogh.
On the same day as Modám was being formally launched, Keogh was at Grow Remote’s event in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.
“It’s Ireland’s first smart community. They got together, worked out what they had, what they needed, and pulled out a number of opportunities that digital can provide,” she said.
The event brought communities from all over Ireland with speakers flying in from the US, Spain and Portugal.
“It’s not the rural extreme of Arranmore, which is magnificent, very easy to film, and all that stuff. Tubbercurry is an inland town which, to me, is a lot harder in terms of rejuvenation, but it has the community underneath it,” she said.
The ability to bring the personal touch, to see people in communities doing small things to work together is why Keogh is so involved with the movement.
“The day before the event I was handing out posters to every business in the town, I met a guy in the town who knew the event was one. He was 23, had dropped out of college, I told him about Shopify and it was eye-opening for him, he didn’t know that he could work there,” she said.
“For me it’s those small moments where you literally bring the remote work local to towns like this. There was a guy outside on the phone to someone, he said it was like a rural parish hall mixed with the Web Summit. That was what we wanted, for him to feel the shock of the two cultures coming together.”
In less than a year, she’s got a lot of people in communities across the island thinking about what they can do and Keogh isn’t stopping there.
“So far, we’ve worked on community building. They use that to build off what is coming from different sides of the community. In a year, I want to be able to show people at meet-ups across Ireland working for companies across the world.”
The next step is called Operation 5, aimed at getting tangible results from all the education around remote and flexible working Grow Remote is doing.
“It’s taking everything we’ve said so far and just trying to make it work. Our chapters try to get people in their areas employed, use remote work to repopulate, and do meet-ups. We’re looking to get five people employed in two target locations in Ireland, Monaghan and Tubbercurry,” said Keogh.
“We want to use general awareness and training programmes to get five people employed remotely in each of the towns. We’re working with employers who will do mock interviews, Q&As and a range of things to help get remote work more normalised.”
Grow Remote is working with Doist, a remote working business which Keogh described as being like the Intercom of remote working companies, to hit the ground running. Getting the ten jobs between Monaghan and Tubbercurry is the start but, as with the resourceful types on Arranmore, she’s confident of delivering a lot more.
“We want to have Operation 5 completed a couple of times over within a year and evolve what our communities are doing.”