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Working from home could kick off the next NI tech boom

  • Working from home could become the norm in the global tech industry, and that’s good news for Northern Ireland

    Global tech firms such as Facebook and Microsoft have attracted thousands of talented tech workers from around the world, with offices in major cities from San Francisco and London to Dublin and beyond. 

    A virtual war for tech talent has been taking place in these key cities, with salaries rising and companies offering ever-increasing perks in an effort to retain their top people. 

    Companies now routinely have private gyms in the office, free food and drink offered in the building, in-house doctors, fully-equipped chill-out or gaming spaces, and even spas for employees to relax in. The tech industry has been more than willing to throw crazy office perks and even free equipment at staff, but the one perk many firms have been reluctant to provide is remote or highly flexible work … until now.

    The impact of Covid-19 on remote work

    While the Covid-19 pandemic caused many customer-facing businesses to close their doors temporarily, the tech sector was quick to adapt by largely shifting to a work-from-home model. Companies that had never invested the time and money to build solid remote working processes and get the required equipment and training in place were forced to do so on short notice.

    Companies shifted their in-person meetings to online conference calls, set up virtual management and collaboration tools, and issued employees with equipment to use at home. This unexpected experiment in remote work has now produced hard data on the impact of offering employees remote and flexible work as a perk, and the results are surprising.

    While the switch to remote work did cause disruption and require some retraining, many tech firms are now finding that their staff are actually more productive at home than they were in the office. PwC reported that a whopping 76% of its workers in Northern Ireland were more productive when working at home, higher than the still impressive UK average of 61%. This may even be an underestimation of the positive impact working from home can have, as those who normally work from home are actually reporting a drop in productivity due to the pandemic.

    Remote working is here to stay

    The UK lockdown has been slowly easing as businesses such as cafes and restaurants try to get back to normal, but the tech industry seems in very little hurry to get back to the office. When Facebook announced that its offices in Dublin and Cork that service around 5,000 employees would be re-opening in early July, it was careful to specify that most of its workforce would remain remote where possible. 

    The only reason the office was opening was because certain highly sensitive data is not permitted to leave the company’s offices, so certain roles can’t be remote.

    Twitter went one step further and announced that it would be allowing staff to continue working from home indefinitely even after the pandemic as long as they’re in suitable roles. Microsoft similarly told all of its employees that they can continue to work from home through October unless their job requires them to be in the office, though the firm is unlikely to keep the majority of its staff remote on a permanent basis.

    Flexibility is the new killer perk

    Now that companies have figured out remote work processes, remote work and extreme flexibility may prove to be the new killer perks for tech recruitment. Employees have also now had a taste of remote work and many will be seeking out permanent remote positions if their current companies don’t offer some flexibility when the pandemic ends. While not everyone will want to be remote and not all positions make it feasible, firms may have to offer it as an option to stay competitive in the future job market.

    Offering remote work as an option also comes with some serious benefits for companies that are currently struggling to fill job roles with qualified workers. It opens the industry to people with complex medical needs who can’t leave their homes, disabled people for whom the typical tech office may be poorly equipped, and people with care responsibilities at home. Working from home opens the industry to a whole section of society that has been left behind in the tech boom.

    Remote work could lead the next NI tech boom

    Northern Ireland’s tech sector has been in a remarkable boom period over the past several years. Innovative local start-ups are regularly securing millions of pounds in investment for new tech products and services, and a number of major US tech companies have now set up NI offices to access our local talent. 

    Belfast is fast becoming a global hub for FinTech, Cyber-Security, and MedTech, coming in not far behind London in tech sector growth.

    Part of the reason US-based firms have their eyes on Northern Ireland is that they can get two or three highly qualified employees here for the same cost as one in Silicon Valley. The actual location of employees doesn’t seem to matter so much now that companies are used to managing remote work and organising important meetings online, so investing in Northern Ireland may look even more attractive to US firms post-pandemic.

    Even firms that only offer a percentage of remote positions stand to gain over those that don’t offer it at all, as remote employees have significantly lower office overheads. The future for Northern Ireland’s tech sector could look very different in a post-Covid-19 world, with smaller core teams in flexible office spaces managing larger remote workforces.

    This article first appeared in the summer edition of the Sync NI magazine and it can be found here.

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