As more companies move to downsize their office space and shift workers permanently to work-from-home status, an opportunity exists for Northern Ireland to take the lead in the post-COVID economy.
In mid-April this year, my business partner and I took the decision to close our offices in Washington DC. Permanently.
Only a handful of weeks after issuing a mandatory work-from-home order for all staff it became clear that remote work had not undermined productivity at all. If anything, productivity was up.
Going to ‘the office’ every day suddenly made about as much sense as ordering the tasty menu at OX Belfast and then asking for ketchup. Sure, you could do it. But why on earth would you?
We are not alone. A recent Gartner study found that 74% of CFOs expected to move previously office-based employees remote post-COVID.
From huge high tech firms like Facebook to old school companies like Nationwide Insurance, office footprints are being dramatically reduced and staff are being told that working from home will be the norm. As Tobi Lutke, the founder and CEO of Canadian giant Shopify put it, “office centricity is over.”
Workers are on board too. A recent Gallup poll revealed that half of those working from home due to COVID would keep working remotely if it were up to them. And why not? Just take the staff at my company. On average they are each saving almost 340 hours per year by not commuting to their office each day.
Plus there are the financial savings made by individual workers, which Global Workplace Analytics puts at between $2,500 and $4,000 a year just by working remotely half of the time.
The workplace for huge numbers of people in service sector jobs is wherever they want to be. One of my colleagues is splitting their time between their home in DC, their family’s beach house in South Carolina, and another beach house in Cabo. The back and forth of in-office chat and client management has been replaced by Zoom meetings and conversations on Slack.
This new reality should act as a call to arms for Northern Ireland. With output per hour a shocking 15.6% below the UK average in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Northern Ireland consistently ranks as one of the least productive regions of the UK. Only Yorkshire and the Humber was worse.
Huge and commendable efforts have been made by the Executive over the years to attract foreign direct investment, but as the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole recently pointed out the tendency has been to settle for investment that is low value-adding. Back-office jobs from foreign companies are not a bad thing per se, but a thriving economy they do not build.
A new approach is required. Not a replacement of that which went before, but an augmentation. To date, the focus has been on bringing jobs to Northern Ireland. To seize the opportunity of the post-COVID world, Northern Ireland should develop a plan to attract people who already have jobs elsewhere: high-income service sector professionals whose need for a home near the office has been replaced with a desire to set up home somewhere that provides their ideal lifestyle.
In short, an incredible opportunity to bring well-heeled consumers to the Northern Ireland economy is just sitting there, waiting to be seized.
The good news is that Northern Ireland has a huge amount to offer this new breed of nomadic lifestyle consumer. Let us just run through the obvious things. Low cost of living. Access to a range of incredible no-fee schools at both primary and secondary levels. Some of the most stunning outdoors in the world that are a short drive from even the centre of Belfast.
A restaurant scene that draws deserved international acclaim. An urban lifestyle in Belfast that provides enough of the basic needs – great coffee, independent shops, arts, music, and so on – to sate the day-to-day appetite of those used to living in much larger cities. And for those who need their big-city fix, London, Paris, Berlin, and more are just short flights away.
There is a problem, though. The Northern Ireland Executive does not have the levers it needs to pull this off, because it has no control over immigration and insufficient control over taxation to provide the right incentives. Those have to be fought for and won.
To be clear, Westminster will not cede immigration to the devolved governments of the UK anytime soon. But it could create a special class of visa, not dissimilar to Estonia’s Digital Nomad Visa, that would allow remote workers to live in the UK and legally work for an employer based elsewhere.
Westminster could allocate these visas on a quota basis to the devolved governments, providing them with limited control over immigration in their own jurisdictions, while pursuing a national policy to align immigration with the new post-COVID world. Even 5,000 of these visas for Northern Ireland could have a transformative impact when you consider that net immigration in the most recent year on record was only 4,100.
As for tax powers, a scheme like this would prove all the more effective in attracting people if the individuals taking advantage of the ‘nomad visas’ were able to deduct the cost of relocation from their taxes.
Better yet, some form of convertible grant could be offered to cover the cost of relocation, with that grant having to be repaid if the visa-holder leaves Northern Ireland before a certain period of time-in-residence has elapsed.
And in the latter case, the relocation to Northern Ireland could be further sweetened with a significant tax break, say, during the first year of residence.
The world has changed. And we are never going back. But as with all change, there is opportunity for those innovative enough to identify it and bold enough to seize it. The only obstacle is Westminster. The Northern Ireland Executive should begin the hard work now to see that that obstacle is overcome.
If you would like to get involved in #TheReset with Ulster Bank either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.
Shane is an entrepreneur, publishing executive, political commentator and author. Originally from Comber in Northern Ireland he now lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @shanegreer.