Analysis: new research looks at how social distancing and remote working will impact occupations, sectors and regions across Ireland

By Frank Crowley and Justin Doran, UCC

Economic armageddon has struck. Since the Irish government took major steps to suppress the Covid-19 virus, the economy has fallen off a cliff. Over one million people are now fully or partly reliant on the state for income support in a country with two and half million in the labour force. Economic forecasts counting the costs are changing weekly.

The sudden collapse of labour supply and output means there is no previous economic crisis that compares with this one. It is completely unprecedented and unique. The predicted V-shaped recovery by many is looking more and more like a U-shaped one with each day. The upward trajectory back to more 'normal' supply and demand conditions looks increasingly many months, if not years, away. The path to normality is now in the zone of what Donald Rumsfeld referred to as the "unknown unknowns"; will human creativity be able to discover a vaccine or treatment? 

In the meantime, economies throughout the world are entering a new normal of occupational social distancing and remote working. How will this impact the world of work as we know it? What occupations, sectors and places will be most affected?

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sarah McInerney, how are Irish workers faring with remote working?

We have released a new paper - Covid-19, Occupational Social Distancing and Remote Working Potential in Ireland - that examines these questions. We generate two indices which capture the potential impact of Covid-19 through identifying firstly, the occupations which may be most able to implement social distancing procedures and secondly the occupations which have the greatest potential scope for remote working. This is accomplished using occupational level data from O*NET which provides very detailed information of the tasks performed by individuals within their occupations.

The social distancing index takes account of the prevalence of face to face communication, customer interaction and physical proximity for a given worker in a specific occupation. Workers who face high levels of face to face communication, customer interaction, and are in close proximity to others whilst working, score poorly for social distancing potential. 

The remote working index accounts for jobs requiring daily work outdoors, whether the tasks entailed require the operation of vehicles, mechanised devices or equipment, and the degree to which electronic means of communication versus face-to-face communication is used. Those whose jobs require working outdoors or operating vehicles, or who work in close proximity to others score poorly for remote working potential.

Social distancing and remote work potential indexes and employment in Ireland (circles represent proportion employed in each occupation)

Examples of large employment occupations which have relatively high indices are teaching occupations at secondary and third level and programme and software developers. While occupations which have large employment but which possess relative low indices are nurses and midwives and care workers.

The occupation categories identified to have the least social distancing potential include protective services, transport and mobile machine drivers and operatives and health professionals. The occupation categories identified to have the most social distancing potential include secretarial and related occupations, science, research, engineering and technology professionals and customer service occupations.

The occupation categories identified to have the most remote working potential include teaching and educational professionals, customer service occupations and business, media and public service professionals. The occupation categories identified to have the least remote working potential include skilled agriculture and related trades, skilled construction and building trades and transport and mobile machine drivers and operatives.

Some places are going to be better equipped than others to deal with this crisis 

The economic crisis in Ireland is likely to play out differently across places due to, firstly, existing occupational and industrial geographical clustering across Ireland, and secondly the associated social distancing and remote working potential required across occupations and sectors. In other words, the location of different types of jobs and sectors is going to matter. 

We found that the potential for social distancing and remote work favours occupations located in the Greater Dublin region and provincial city regions. Donegal is an exception bucking this pattern. Some places are going to be better equipped than others to deal with this crisis.  At a town level, more affluent, better educated and better broadband provisioned towns have more workers with a greater potential for social distancing and remote working. Paradoxically, urban areas with greater density levels and higher populations have also greater social distancing and remote working potential. 

Remote working potential by county

But this is not as surprising as it may first appear. It is difficult to disentangle occupations and sectors from one another and the benefits of living and working in dense cities. It's not a simple case of rural life for workers in high potential remote working occupations and urban life for low potential remote working occupations. We have experienced significant advances in information and communication technologies and in transportation innovations over the past few decades, to such an extent that the 'death of distance' was once professed.

However, economic activity and populations have continued to concentrate more and more in cities simultaneously over this period. In reality, much of the work we do, how we work and how we share ideas and learn from one another is dependent on physically meeting one another face to face, and hence geographical proximity is important. Cities also have so many amenities to offer that they are a strong pull for all types of workers.

This crisis has taken everyone by surprise and the economy is currently in survival mode, but the reality is there will be a geography story to this crisis. The fear is that the weakest regions and towns will be hardest hit and we must ensure that everything in the Government's arsenal can be used to protect business and jobs in these regions.

The potential for social distancing and remote work favours occupations located in the Greater Dublin region and provincial city regions

An one-size-fits-all policy approach to the crisis is unlikely to resolve regional inequalities from Covid-19. The Irish government needs to consider carefully how local and regional policy settings could be redesigned in order to better accommodate the impacts of increased social distancing and remote working on society over the short term. It also needs to consider how it can help deeply affected workers and businesses recover in the medium to longer term.

Dr Frank Crowley and Dr Justin Doran are Directors of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre (SRERC) at Cork University Business School (CUBS) at UCC.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ