Civil servants in Northern Ireland will be able to work closer to home in future under plans to develop 10 remote-working hubs in town centres, the finance ministry has announced.
In opening the 10 “Connect2 hubs” across Northern Ireland over the next two years, the civil service is aiming to capitalise on new ways of working that have been developed during the coronavirus pandemic, finance minister Conor Murphy said.
“These regional hubs will transform how civil servants work – enabling them to be based closer to home, reducing travel time and lowering carbon emissions while importantly promoting regional economic balance,” he said.
“Covid-19 has seen an unprecedented shift in how the civil service works with many public services being delivered remotely. We now have an opportunity to build on these new ways of working.”
The drive to enable flexible working for staff is an “important part” of the Northern Ireland Civil Service’s Reform of Property Management Programme, Murphy said.
In line with the property consolidation programme, the hubs will be opened at existing public buildings rather than at new sites. They will provide similar facilities to NICS offices, many of which are concentrated in Belfast.
Murphy said that while the level of remote working seen during the pandemic is “not optimum in the long-term”, there is “an appetite among staff and departments for a blended approach to remote working”.
He said it was “evident” that some parts of the NICS will have a “significant number of staff working outside of the office” under this blended model.
The DoF also hopes the move will help to revitalise local economies in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
“Given the detrimental impact of Covid-19 on local economies, it is imperative that the NICS office estate works to reduce revenue pressure within public spending while maximising the local economic and regeneration benefits in the towns and cities across the region,” Murphy said.
The first two hubs, in Ballykelly and Downpatrick, are expected to open this spring. However, the Department of Finance noted that this will only happen “when appropriate in line with health advice and health protection regulations”.
Four further hubs are planned for Ballymena, Craigavon, Omagh, and the Antrim/Newtownabbey area next year, the DoF said. The final three hubs, in Derry/Londonderry, Enniskillen, Newry and the Bangor/Newtownards area, should open in 2023.
The timeline for each hub is based on the estimated time needed to find and equip suitable buildings in each area, the department said.
The hubs opening this spring will be based at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs site at Ballykelly, and Rathkeltair House in Downpatrick, where civil servants from DAERA, the Department for Infrastructure and other ministries are based .
There will continue to be a “significant civil service presence” in Belfast city centre, the DoF said.