The social impact of remote work: closing the urban/rural income gap

In 2019 (the most recent year for which we have data) the disposable income disparity between Dublin and everywhere else was significant, and growing

At the extreme ends of the spectrum, annual disposable income per person in the Midlands region was €17,125 (significantly below the national average of €22,032) while in Dublin it was €25,696. 

Income inequality between regions has heavy effects in the worse-off regions. It leads to fewer opportunities for social cohesion (connectedness and solidarity among people in that area), creates barriers to productivity and economic growth and even impacts the overall health of the people in that area.

The rural-urban divide in Ireland was exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis and now, as we emerge from the economic and social turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial not only to prevent it from widening, but to take this current window of opportunity to aggressively drive the systemic change needed to close that gap. 

Closely linked to the issue of income inequality is social mobility; in this context, the ability to take advantage of employment opportunities to increase your income and improve your socio-economic standing. 

Here, we explore what reducing the income disparity between urban and rural regions, and increasing social mobility in the worse-off areas, means for individual workers, their communities and for the country as a whole – and how remote working is a pathway to reducing that gap and achieving greater levels of social mobility for people outside of the major urban centres. 

What is social mobility and why is it important?

While Ireland ranks a respectable 18th of 82 countries in the Global Social Mobility Index, according to The Social Mobility Challenge, “all too often social mobility relies too much on being able to move to areas where life chances are higher. The economic domination of … large cities has meant that the greatest career rewards, in economic terms, are received by those who are willing and able to move to large, ‘escalator’ cities.” 

“This has led to a growing recognition of the importance of place in an individual’s outcomes and the need to level up local communities, avoiding ‘brain drain’ and an exodus of young people from market towns, coastal and rural areas.” 

The Social Mobility Challenge

This exodus, and its ripple effects, is visible and familiar all across Ireland in townlands, villages and towns from Malin to Mizen Head. It’s what prompted the birth of Grow Remote back in 2018: a group of people came together to change the whole system in order halt the decline of local communities all over Ireland. 

How can remote working bridge the divide?

Grow Remote takes a first principles approach to community development: if we can get decent employment into our communities, it will kick-start local economies. As Doist’s Head of Remote Chase Warrington explains, remote working is an effective pathway to achieving a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, namely, decent work and economic growth, reduced inequality, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action. 

It’s simple, in theory: help people in the worse-off regions to access the decent remote jobs that can directly increase their earning power – of which there are 80,000 available at any one time, and this figure is growing at a rate of 5-8% every month, according to the remote jobs platform EU Remote Jobs

But is it as simple as more remote jobs = higher household incomes = healthier local economies? 

The government recently published its vision, goals and conceptual framework for a new Well-being Framework for Ireland, which is currently in development. One of the overarching goals for the framework is to “preserve balance, inclusivity and equality of opportunities across society… empowering families, friends and communities to grow, connect and meaningfully engage.” 

This ties in with the Irish Government’s stated aims in its remote working strategy, Making Remote Work, to ensure that remote working is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits, and to capture the benefits of remote working in terms of enabling balanced regional development. 

In her foreword to Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, Minister Heather Humphreys specifically called out the move to remote working as having “the potential to transform rural Ireland”. 

“It will help to sustain and increase the population of rural areas, revitalise town centres, reduce commuting times, lower transport emissions and improve the quality of life of our people.” 

Heather Humphreys, TD, Minister for Rural and Community Development

By explicitly supporting remote work and investing in the infrastructure needed to make it a viable option for people living in rural areas, the government has already signalled its belief in remote work as a pathway to rebalancing economic betterment of our local communities. 

Supporting rural communities to develop the strategies they need to meet the long-term needs of their own areas is at the heart of Our Rural Future: by reducing income inequality through greater remote working opportunities, and boosting the social cohesion of those areas, our local communities will be more empowered and have greater capacity to dream up and execute those strategies. 

Remote work, where the jobs are visible and accessible to everyone, across regional and socio-economic divides, is the key to unlocking that potential. 

It’s important to highlight here that, in order to ensure that the benefits of remote working don’t only accrue to those who are already privileged – and doesn’t compound income inequality and further widen the economic differences between the regions – we need to make as many and as wide a range of jobs as possible accessible on a remote basis, including more entry level-level roles, and ensure that it’s not just the very high-paying, high-tech jobs that are available on a location-independent basis.

Of course, not everyone in rural areas will be able to – or want to – work remotely, but everyone can benefit from remote work being available everywhere; it is a rising tide that lifts all boats. 

If one person, couple or family that previously had to leave their rural homeplace to study and work is now able to move back home to the country, they are now spending their remotely-earned salary in the local shops, getting their cars serviced in the local garage, dropping their kids off at the local GAA pitch for training, and much, much more. 

At this point it is important to say that Grow Remote is not about creating a “them vs us” narrative when it comes to remote working. There is a thriving remote working community in Dublin and in urban areas across the country. It’s also clearly visible for all to see on our Mapping Remote live census of remote workers: 

A related – and very important – conversation that is also needed is how to frame this shift in the workforce away from city centre office buildings for the benefit of urban communities and businesses. We’ll be publishing a piece on that in the coming weeks. 

More to do

We’ve spent 4 years working on every part of the systemic change needed to drive the change that needs to happen. 

We developed a mini-course on finding remote work, and we’ve built on the original jobs board, built and donated by community member John Brett, with a new Career Centre that is more than just a useful tool for jobseekers and hiring companies: it’s part of the collective push for progress in the remote working ecosystem. 

In order to bridge the remote working skills gap that businesses told us existed, we’re building the remote ready workforce of the future: training people at all digital literacy levels, in all corners of Ireland, to thrive and lead in a remote working environment. 

There are more than 130 remote working advocates driving change in their local communities all over Ireland (and further afield) and we facilitate more than 100 introductions each month between people who are curious about remote work and the experts who’ve been doing it for years. 

But work remains to be done if we are to unlock the power of remote working to redress the economic imbalance between urban and rural areas. 

Remote work isn’t a silver bullet solution to all social or economic challenges, in either urban or rural communities. But, much like its potential to contribute to climate targets, the availability and accessibility of remote work has unique potential to decrease the urban/rural income gap and increase social mobility. 

In order to take advantage of remote working opportunities, individuals must be able to organise their working lives and their physical environments in order to do the best work of their lives. How can people from across the range of geographic, socio-economic, educational, age and professional experience groups be supported in this? 

The G20 looked into this in detail last year. It found that workers’ ability to work from home differs greatly depending on their socio-demographic and economic status. This highlights the urgent need for systemic change to ensure that access to remote work is vastly improved so that it is not just a ‘special few’ with suitable homes and the skills and resources to work well in a remote setting who can take advantage of the remote working revolution.

The evidence shows that businesses benefit from remote working, and a huge proportion of the Irish workforce wants the opportunity to work remotely. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of Irish remote workers recently reported very high levels of work and life satisfaction. We cannot let this opportunity to re-balance regional income disparity and boost upward social mobility pass us by. To do so will be to face a number of significant risks, including: 

  1. Irish employers who are ill-equipped or unable to offer remote working run the risk of losing talented employees to those who do; and
  2. Ireland, Inc. will struggle to compete internationally with other countries, such as Portugal, who are moving quickly at a national level in this space.

So what needs to happen? 

We need to support employers to begin advertising jobs without location. Government action is needed to de-risk the transition to remote for companies so that they can successfully and enthusiastically undertake this significant, costly and time-consuming transformation project, and enable them reap the benefits of remote in terms of employee engagement, talent acquisition and retention, company growth, and meeting their specific sustainability goals. 

We need employers to understand that in a remote-first setting, it’s the roles that are remote, not the people, and advertise jobs without location. The pandemic triggered a major shift in how jobs are advertised; major platforms such as LinkedIn and Indeed now allow roles to be advertised as remote. Prior to this, companies were forced to tie a job spec to a specific city or geographical area. Advertising jobs without location gives companies access to a much larger talent pool, and gives people unable or unwilling to move to a large urban centre the opportunity to access employment that was previously unavailable to them. 

We also need to see a focus on closing the digital, educational and skills gaps between the urban centres and rural areas. 

Ensuring employers understand the benefits of remote working and enabling them to become remote-ready and equipped for the future will require an awareness and communications campaign at the level of Brexit Ready. Why can’t we replicate what’s done to attract FDI to ensure that when the jobs can go anywhere, they come here? 

Despite what the regional income gap tells us, talent and potential is everywhere – it’s just that, right now, opportunity is confined to certain areas. Remote working can change all that. 

When the generations to come are building their careers in the decades ahead, they’ll wonder why anyone ever had to leave their flourishing local communities for decent employment.

Conference: the social impact of remote work

In April 2023, we’re going to bring global leaders in business, government and the future of work together in Ireland for a first-of-its-kind conference on the social impact of remote working.

Our objective with this conference is to catalyse a massive leap forward from conversations about the future of work to real action and deep impact, with a central focus on figuring out where the gap lies between the potential of remote working to meet social challenges, and the impact outcomes.

If you’d like to submit an early idea for a talk, please fill out this form and we’ll be back to you in the coming weeks with more details.

You’ll get a free ticket as well as access to any and all speaker events. In some instances, we will provide cover for travel and conference expenses.

If our last two national events are anything to go by, we can not wait for the conversations that will happen here, and the action that will emerge afterwards.