Opinion: digital hubs may provide the halfway house between working 100% from home and commuting daily to the office

By Maébh Coleman, Marian Jennings and Rowena HenniganTU Dublin

Our world of work has been changed forever by Covid-19. 80% of us now favour a hybrid model, working remotely for a portion of the week and on-site for the rest, and many will never go back to the way things were before March 2020.

The Irish government has acted fast to open up funding for existing digital hub centres to provide support for small businesses, with this fund being open to both private and public hubs. It's a move in the right direction, bolstered by the National Association of Community Enterprise Centres, the Irish network organisation for hubs and community centres. Now all they need is the awareness and demand from these former commuters to ensure success.

What is a digital hub?

Digital Hubs are hives for remote-workers, an emerging job sector in itself, bolstered by support from the community organisation Grow Remote and the increase in availability and demand for remote working roles in Ireland. They provide a ready-made business community, help counteract the risks of individual remote worker isolation and loneliness and also have positive environmental benefits, as commuter journeys and carbon emissions are reduced.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime in 2019, then Minister of State for Gaeilge, Gaeltacht and Islands Sean Kyne on the launch of new digital hubs in the Gaelteacht

For many of us, the pandemic has influenced our views on living and working. Many are now seeking  to leave the big cities for a more regional or rural lifestyle. One of our authors, Maébh Coleman, has recently moved from Dublin to the west of Ireland and visited the Galway Technology Centre to research more about how to stop 'living at work' and move toward a more sustainable remote working model.

The Centre has been in existence since 1994 and affords the ultimate guide to developing an effective hub with shared ideation spaces, an onsite O’Briens café and a thriving startup scene where the energy is palpable and the welcome is warm. Many international companies work globally from the site and the facilities are excellent. State-of-the art learning and networking experiences are scheduled by the management team - there is even a yoga class for wellbeing. 

The experience of working remotely from a hub while attending on-site was very real. The facilities and networking opportunities were outstanding. Because of Covid-19, safety measures surpass expectations on many levels. A company from the Centre, MedScan3D, provided anti-bacterial lightswitch covers using their innovative new technology. The hub is also enabling 'virtual office' space, where you can create your own blend of working from home and using the state-of-the-art affordances of the centre.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Weekend, former All Ireland footballer and RTE & TG4 analyst, Sean O'Domhnaill; musician and video editor Gearóid O'Maonaigh and director of Dublin International Film Festival, Grainne Humphreys, on regional digital hubs

Company founders hatching ideas often use the spaces as an incubation environment for projects. Meeting rooms for physical and virtual webinars are also available for rent. Some 100% remote companies, like Shopify (who have a 100% remote workforce in Ireland) regularly use these hubs to hold pop-up meetings where staff assemble to meet and work together, supporting team building and bonding.

The list of benefits are long and many. Hubs provide support, innovation, facilities, services, networking and much more services, which are difficult to quantify and replicate, as well as physical space. At their very best, they host and support the local business community and are developing further. For example the Galway centre will expand far more in the future with the addition of Academy West.

Who uses the hubs?

From digital nomads to entrepreneurs, the profile of a digital hub user is diverse and changing. Pre-Covid19, many former commuters in Ireland had already been bitten by the remote work bug. But a new cohort of workers are choosing to live and work locally, accessing these digital hubs and supporting community and rural regeneration.

"At an international conference last year, I encountered a digital nomad whose true passion was surfing, and he told me of his working holiday come surf trip along the Wild Atlantic Way." says one of our authors, Rowena Henningan. "Surfing early in the morning and spending the rest of his days working remotely at various coworking locations in Donegal, Sligo, Galway and Clare meant that he could truly enjoy an unparalleled work/life balance." There are now some 114 hubs on the Atlantic Economic Corridor

Hubs can also negate the potential negative impacts of the 100% work-from-home model for remote working

Rowena is originally from Galway, but now lives in Spain and is currently a coworking space member at La Caravana in Tarragona, Spain. She has used various coworking hubs during her career. "As a seasoned remote worker, I have always appreciated how coworking hubs are an integral part of the infrastructure for remote work; from providing physical space and services to facilitating networking and events, but this belief has been elevated.

Their role in the recovery from this pandemic, cannot be underestimated. I have regained work-life-balance through safe access with perspex panels and desk spacing to my coworking space. If you don’t believe me, try one! Many Irish locations are providing free trial days so you can test out their facilities."

Ireland has a hub location in (almost) every corner of the land, from MODAM on Arranmore to Ludgate in west Cork. "It is hard to encapsulate in words the USP of these hubs", says Rowena, "but I think The Republic Of Work in Cork does a good job with the promotional message on their website: 'space to think differently - a flexible work environment where you’ll do your most productive work ever. Work here for a day, a month, or forever and see why we’re Ireland’s most active and engaged business community'". 

For hubs to ultimately succeed, they will need wider recognition of both the services they provide and the positive environmental benefits they support. They can also negate the potential negative impacts of the 100% work-from-home model for remote working. One of the known risks of remote work (particularly when it is 100% working from home) can be isolation and loneliness. Accessing hubs and coworking spaces regularly, counteracts this risk.

Find a local hub and organise a trial day to experience their unique environment for work for yourself. The potential for the hubs to help Ireland place itself at the top of the list for travelling digital nomads post-Covid is also worth considering, as well as supporting our world-leading business start-up network.

Maébh Coleman is a lecturer and teaching fellow at the School of Business at TU DublinMarian Jennings is a law lecturer at the School of Business at TU DublinRowena Hennigan is a lecturer on the Future of Work module and various marketing modules at TU Dublin and a freelance consultant.

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