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Working from home could become the new normal

"We're all working remotely sufficiently long to be learning how to do things efficiently"

Working from home could become the new normal

Doing the homework: parents are stationed in their bedroooms too

WORKING from home and will likely grow once business life begins returning to normal after the pandemic, the head of Offaly's Local Enterprise Office has predicted.

“We do think when we're back up and running that remote working is going to grow. We're all working remotely sufficiently long to be learning how to do things efficiently,” Orla Martin told members of Offaly County Council when she delivered a report using the Zoom teleconferencing application.

Outlining the impact of Covid-19, Ms Martin said there were three stages for business owners – shock, business pause and business recovery.

Offaly LEO is offering free Covid mentoring for businesses “to help people with the shock stage”, she said.

“We encourage people to take one to one mentoring for an hour and a half or two hours.”

She said it can be beneficial for businesses to speak to someone who's not emotionally attached to the business as small business owners in particular can be very proud of what they have achieved.

“It's very difficult for them to make decisions which might feel quite harsh, laying off staff, cutting costs and maybe even temporarily closing”.

She has found that this listening ear and counselling service is being taken up by a wider cohort of people than LEO clients alone and many business owners new to Local Enterprise Offaly are seeing the supports which are available.

They can tap into LEO's business continuity voucher of €2,500 which be put to a variety of uses, whether it's preparing a business plan or preparing an application for a loan or a grant, or IT work to get the business working remotely.

There is also the Covid microfinance loan where a business can borrow up to €50,000, double the previous limit of €25,000.

It has a reduced interest rate of 4.5 per cent, the first six months are interest free and they're non secured loans.

While Ms Martin acknowledged that a lot of people may not want to take on more debt, some need the money for cash flow and others will hold off drawing the loan down until they have a better view of how their business is faring during the lockdown.

LEO's trading trading online voucher has been expanded. Aimed at getting business selling online, it is worth €2,500 and whereas in past it was a 50% grant, meaning a business had to spend €5,000, now the business need only spend €2,750 or €2,800 to qualify for the €2,500 and a second voucher is available.

LEO has also moved its training online and has a range of 'webinars' with up to 12 people at a time participating.

“We all feel this is something we will continue with,” Ms Martin remarked.

LEO has established remote working hubs in Tullamore, Edenderry and Birr and they were “inundated” with enquiries once the coronavirus hit the county.

The hub in Birr has been closed and at both the Junction, Tullamore and eHive, Edenderry, tenants have been asked to work from home where possible.

A three-month rent break has been given to those who require it.

LEO has also given time extensions on its grants and will facilitate those who wish to change the purpose for which their grant was originally intended.

Assessing the overall impact of the pandemic and the lockdown across Offaly, Ms Martin said some businesses had closed completely and others were limping along.

“By any standards, these are absolutely extraordinary times and very difficult for all businesses,” she said.

“Some are flat out and are busy but even those businesses that are busy, there are such challenges in managing a safe working environment, to manage cash flow, stock, to make sure they get paid for work they are doing.”

Cash flow, staff layoffs, shorter working time and technology were all issues businesses were grappling with.

Brexit preparedness has helped “A number of businesses have come back to us and said all the work they had done in preparing for a hard Brexit meant they had sometimes three, or six months' stock in place and this has now helped them to continue trading.”

Those who previously took part in management development programmes had benefitted too.

“We saw on the ground a lot of those people who had participated in those programmes moved quickly to manage their cash, reach out to banks, reach out for loan holidays, cut their expenditure. They moved quickly and that has helped them.”

There are enormous variations across businesses which are trading. A small engineering business run by two or three people might have a few months' work on and can continue with social distancing.

“Some larger ones are able to bring in the safe working environment, but you might have others who may not have the space to do it and that has necessitated a temporary close.”

Retailers' fate was determined by whether or not they were deemed essential services but it was encouraging to see the community support for greengrocers and butchers.

Some businesses changed their focus, like Mor Gin and Tullamore Dew manufacturing hand sanitisers and ethanol and O'Donoghue's craft bakery selling wheatflour into the supermarkets.

Midland Sacks and Covers in Clara has been adapting PPE equipment and manufacturing masks.

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