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It's very important that individuals realize the power of remote work and realize that they can have a voice for these communities that don't have a voice.
Founder of RoRemote
Rowena Hennigan is a speaker, professor, and founder of RoRemote.
Rowena is passionate about the flexibility and well-being that digital nomadism can offer individuals and families. Even before the pandemic accelerated the growth of remote work, Rowena recognized the market need for training on remote work skills. She started RoRemote, a remote skills training and consultancy company, back in 2018 and coauthored academic courses at TU Dublin on remote work skills. And in 2022, LinkedIn News named her one of the 10 Top Voices in Remote Work. Rowena currently lives in Spain with her location-independent family.
Rowena Hennigan is the embodiment of remote work. Having moved from her native Ireland to Zaragoza in Spain to help with her daughter’s asthma, she has since built a remote business that aims to highlight the positive opportunities remote work can bring to communities.
We want to talk to her about exactly these opportunities, and how especially rural areas can benefit from the economic power behind remote work. I am also interested to hear what her essentials are for setting up a successful remote work hub, and our host Sandra most definitely wants to know what she would say to CEOs who want to move their employees back into the office and away from remote work.
With Rowena Hennigan, Founder of RoRemote
Sandra Redlich 01:24
Thanks for joining us today Rowena. Where are you joining us from today, actually?
Rowena Hennigan 01:28
Well, it's a pleasure to be here, a pleasure to record this with you Sandra, down under, it's fantastic. I'm based today in Zaragoza. I'm in my little podcast room in my small coworking that I share with a few colleagues here in Zaragoza and yes, nice to give a little bit of a shoutout to the coworkings. People are often working from home but I love to work from a coworking. And that's because my daughter's school is just down the road. So it's super handy to be out here.
Sandra Redlich 01:55
Perfect. Yeah, there you go. And yeah, I mean, we can dive right in. Maybe give our listeners a little bit of the background story. How did you end up in a coworking space? How did you end up in Zaragoza? What's your story? Because I know that is quite a fascinating one.
Rowena Hennigan 02:11
Thanks so much Sandra. So yeah, I'm originally from Galway on the west coast of Ireland. So some of you may know that part of Ireland, very rural, famous at the moment - Banshees of Inisherin - which is getting lots of coverage.
Sandra Redlich 02:25
It's on my watchlist!
Rowena Hennigan 02:28
Yeah, I could see that island from my house growing up. So great to see that part of our, this beautiful, beautiful part of Ireland getting the coverage it deserves. Beautiful scenery. So grew up there, speaking Gaelic Irish and English. And like many Irish, it was the 80s, so I ended up leaving in the late 80s early 90s, going to Scotland to study. And that was the start really of considering myself a global citizen. I've lived in 13 countries, Spain is the 13th country, Australia, New Zealand are on the list there as well, Thailand, a lot of places down your part of the world and I also have family in Indonesia, I have a sister and her family based down in Bali. So I consider myself not tied to one place and global mobility is a really important thing. And especially as a parent with a child, global mobility is very close to my heart. So the story of why we're in Spain is because when our daughter was born in Zaragoza, in Dublin, sorry, back in 2013. Unfortunately, she after about a year started to develop bad asthma because of the damp there Sandra, it's quite a damp place. And many people know that about Ireland. And it was quite chronic and myself and my partner really, really struggled to get sleep. And we thought it would, like many parents do, we just kept hoping it would get better. And it didn't. So we were living in quite a lot of trauma with lack of sleep for sort of two, two and a half years. And literally out of desperation, we moved country. And I've got remote work, we've got remote work, including my daughter, to thank for that because it assisted our global mobility as Europeans to move from Dublin to Zaragoza. Zaragoza is one of the driest places in Spain. So that's the answer because people go 'Why are you there'? Because it's not a very well known place, even though it's the fifth biggest city in Spain. But that's why we're here. That's why remote work and global mobility is very, very personal to me. Because as a woman in her 40s with an ill child, I literally was watching my career disappear from in front of me because I simply couldn't work. My partner's career suffered as well. Not maybe as much because as we know women are much more disadvantaged with small children, with basically trying to struggle through the nights where she wasn't sleeping. And by embracing remote work and saying what are we doing in Dublin, we can both work from home anywhere and basically getting on the plane and packing and moving country. The good news is yes, her health improved and life changed. And within a year of arriving here, in 2017, I set up my consultancy, RoRemote, my consultancy business, which I run as a solopreneur. And yeah, I've been obviously, then COVID happens and remote work accelerated and became much more prevalent than it was before that. But yeah, that explains a lot of my passion for global mobility and remote work.
Sandra Redlich 05:44
Yeah, first of all, let me say, I'm very glad to hear that it's gotten a lot better for your daughter and for your family life as well. And that you can live a happy life again, focus on your career, have careers, and health is definitely, it's the number one thing, the most important thing, so very glad to hear that that helped. And yeah, how do you manage your family life now with working remotely? You've mentioned a coworking space. You've mentioned having lived in other places all over the world, I'm pretty sure you've probably haven't stayed in just one place since 2013. Or ever since you moved to Spain. So what does work life look like for you now? And how do you manage that with your family?
Rowena Hennigan 06:25
Great question. So yes, settling was interesting, because we really needed to recover. Both of us, the whole family, for about a year and a half. So we literally rested. So anyone listening that that resonates with, rest was the most important part of our integration in the first year, year and a half in Spain. So we literally slept, we rested. We tried to learn a bit of Spanish. And we were just settling in, finding our feet. I had started my business and started working. I was working very little, but I started working with the rhythm again, as I was recovering and feeling better and COVID hit. So it's really interesting you asked that question because suddenly our mobility was taken off us again Sandra, everyone was locked down. And that really was the resounding message then that we had this ability to move was so precious. So what we've done since then, is even though our daughter attends Spanish school, she attends a Spanish public school. She has almost four and a half months holidays every year. So we go away for sort of four to five months as a family, three, four or five months as a family. I obviously travel with my work, I'm really passionate about getting the message out there by remote work. And even during the lockdowns, we were able actually twice to get out during local restrictions, and move because we weren't tied to a physical location for work. So we did some homeschooling from Tarragona in the Mediterranean. At one point, we went to Gran Canaria for another few months, and did some homeschooling too. So we've really grasped on to that concept of global mobility. And for us, it's part time, as I said, I mean, maybe for me, it's more like, you know, almost half of the year of traveling, the calendar year, but for my daughter and my partner, it's about three to four months, and we call ourselves part time digital nomads, we have conversations about leaving, again, if we needed to, when there was some other threats of COVID, we talked about being located in another totally different place if we needed to, if we have to go to Ireland for reasons or whatever. So I think that attitude of, we're not fixed to a place, that mindset is really, really powerful. And even our daughter who obviously might change as she gets older, but for the moment, she really values that and she understands that we can embrace that as global citizens, and we can move around. And we're very privileged as well, because we have passports and careers and jobs. So that's also why I see remote work for other communities of interest, for other communities that might not be as privileged in the world. Or really, it can really change the world Sandra. That's what I'm saying. And we're the really kind of easy example of it. But for others it can really, really have influence. And I'm passionate about that.
Sandra Redlich 09:14
Yeah, that's a perfect segue into the overarching topic of this conversation that I want to have with you today, which is how remote work can help remote areas in the world to thrive and help build a new economy and attract workers from all over the world. So we've seen that, for example, in Croatia, we've seen it in Estonia, you have a digital nomad visa or an online visa that allows a lot of people to come and live and work from Estonia for a certain amount of time. And it's different areas. I mean, we've always had these hubs for digital nomads. I'm thinking of, as you mentioned, Bali. I'm thinking of places in Mexico where people, you know, gather together. It has good weather, stable internet. It's always the number one thing. But it's more and more becoming apparent that there's other regions in the world that are seeing this as the opportunity that it is. So yeah, what is your experience with that? Because I know we've had a conversation before we hit record about something that just recently has been published. And I know you're very passionate about this topic.
Rowena Hennigan 10:22
Yeah, I think even our little personal example of arriving here in Zaragoza and finding that there wasn't that many expats or a small community of tech workers here. We brought our Irishness, our family, we brought, you know, it's sort of, I'm employing as a solopreneur. I've got various staff as well that freelance and support my business. So I could see that I was providing to the local economy input by living here most of the year. So I started to open my mind even back then, I started to research and read about rural regeneration. And I visited various places. So I'm going to focus particularly on rural regeneration because it's a real topic of interest. So we look back to my place of birth. Ireland is famous for an organization called Grow Remote and Grow Remote really look at building remote work communities around Ireland in the rural areas, because like many, many countries, like even Australia, Germany, we've got these hubs of tech hubs. We've got hubs of business in major urban areas. And what we want to do is spread out the world. It's as simple as that. And if we can enable the remote work infrastructure, if we can help someone find in a rural part of Australia, or rural West coast of Ireland and Donegal, for example, away from those hubs, those known cities, we can help them find employment and remote work, then they can contribute to that local community. They keep that local shop open, the post office, Sandra, they keep their child in the school, we can start to list those things. So when I got to Spain, I was really fascinated to find that the oldest coliving and coworking space in Europe is actually in Galicia, it's called Sendy. We'll put it in the notes for people, sende.co. And I managed to go there for a couple of weeks during COVID and do some research and understand how the amazing couple there, Edo and Maria, had the forethought many many years ago that this little village in Galicia could be repopulated by bringing remote workers to come there. Mainly on the creative side. They're focusing on creative remote workers, and therefore the village has rejuvenated, it's repopulated, there has been new building there. There's new input of life. And that's been a theme for a lot of my research and events over the last few years that I've attended. So I went to Madeira as well, to Gonçalo Hall, amazing. It's an amazing project on Madeira Island, I spent some weeks there, 2-3 years ago, to meet the nomads and understand how Madeira was contributing to the digital nomad movement, but also what the locals were doing to support and how that integration can happen. So at a very basic level, I think what we need to really realize, and I'm keeping it really, really simple, is that if you as a remote worker, as an individual, choose to live in a different area, that you should be talking about how that impacts that different area away from the urban hubs that we hear about. Because, especially if you're based there most of the time, you know, so many weeks, a month or whatever, as I said, you're keeping that shop open, you're contributing to the local economy, you're essentially spreading the wealth out. And that's one of the things that's a really fundamental understanding of that regional development piece. And then therefore, if you do that, you can start to advocate and influence maybe a local council Sondra, at local community groups, and anyone you meet that might be interested in remote work and start to see how it has these amazing benefits that we don't see maybe in media. This is one of the problems that doesn't get covered, the fight of office and remote gets covered. And you know, a lot of things get covered, whereas those macro economic benefits, and many of this, by the way, many of these things regional development, meet the SDGs the sustainable development goals of the UN. They tick a lot of those boxes as well Sandra, so it's a really interesting way to look at remote work and its benefits.
Sandra Redlich 14:41
You mentioned local councils. What are the infrastructures that people would need in the first place? What comes to mind? I know we always talk about the stereotypical coworking spaces, but I know there's other companies now that have come up from the ground that are focusing on different areas for example. But if you're a nomad or a remote worker with a family, there are companies now that are helping these people and supporting. We're thinking about visa services. You know, it's not just the coworking space to provide internet and a table. What other infrastructure would the local council have to look into to get more people into rural areas?
Rowena Hennigan 15:20
So it's really good to look at the countries that are successful at this, and I'm gonna nod over to Croatia, across the Adriatic, because I've seen them do amazing things, just like in Madeira as well. Madeira, in their project, they had a helpline. They have people that could help the nomad settle in terms of finding accomondation, integration, tax, local meetings with administration, all of that. They streamline that the same way Croatia has done for their digital nomad visa on a country level. And also, they've got a helpline for you, a call center, that people can ring and get questions asked about that. So as a nomad, if you're interested in going, if you're interested in moving and finding out, you can lean into that support. The same thing would work on a smaller level, not just the coworkings. And coworkings really matter Sandra, they're really important because they provide that hub. Cafes that are equipped with fast internet, community meeting spaces. But to mention Grow Remote again, they organize chapters, so they have little committees in these different rural areas where there's a group of people that might be just simply on a messaging group or Whatsapp group. And they'll answer questions, they'll meet with you for a coffee, they'll welcome you to the area. So it's that type of simple things that a local council can start to look at. I've done a lot of assessment around the world as I've traveled and at these different projects of what good remote work infrastructure really looks like. So it is a no brainer that you have to have a certain quality with a service level agreement of internet connection, right. So I have to say that now, because I've been approached by many, many regions and countries and when I started to do the analysis with them, if they simply haven't got the feed through of the fiber or the broadband or whatever it is they need. Technically, they can't get into the mix. Because what will happen, I mean, even for us today recording this, we need a certain level of bandwidth, and it often gets forgotten. So that's really, really important. And that could be the first place. Some regions and countries, for example Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been focusing on this. Madeira put in a fast access point as well, actually across the water, under the water coming into Madeira. And so it just shows you that that's where you need to start. Then you build on those different things. And depending on who you're trying to attract Sandra, you start to say, what do we need? Let's get people together. Let's start to create community. And what's really interesting is most places, unless it's super, super rural, you'll find there's already a community of remote workers, it's probably already a handful of people or more working remotely. And bringing them together through meetups, through initiatives can be the start of building that infrastructure, because it's them that know what was needed. And again Sandra, I mean, you'll know from a marketing perspective on who you're trying to focus on, if you're trying to focus on middle aged adults, young people, families, then you might look at these amazing examples globally. Boundless life is one that I've been involved with. And myself and my family have spent time with them in Portugal at one of their locations in Sintra, and they've got locations in Tuscany as well. And in Greece, in Syros. And they have gone into these locations with the good WiFi, they've done all that due diligence. First, they've provided coworking spaces, and an amazing education service, and provision for families of nomads. So it's all set up. So when a family arrives, they can tap into all those things. They've worked with local council, they've worked with regions as well as they've built out their offering. So boundless life is a good example coming from the private sector of where they've seen, and what the public sector can learn from is watch what the private sector has done, as well and observe and do better research, just top research and it will really help advise their work on this.
Sandra Redlich 19:23
It's really funny to think about the fact that there's so much research out there that showcases the benefits and the opportunities, and the many, many great outcomes of remote work and giving people flexibility. And, you know, even I know there's a lot of challenges that come with that as well that there is a growing economy around this. There's opportunity for rural regions, for local councils, to revive the region's. There's opportunity for companies to, you know, start something that caters to those needs. And yet there's still a lot of people who try to make the move back into the office and think, you know, COVID, that was a special time, it's over. Let's move back into the office. Let's take that flexibility away. Again, I'm thinking about, you know, the news reports that came out a couple of months ago about Tesla. And there's other big companies that have kind of made it clear that they want their employees to come back into the office. Why do you think that is? And what would you say to them, if you get the chance, if you had the chance to give them a piece of your of your mind?
Rowena Hennigan 20:25
Well, the thing is that ultimately, for any leader, any organization making a decision, and again, that can be a group of leaders together, as we know, we need to try and understand why they're making that decision. And there's multiple reasons: Real estate contracts, commitment and other contracts to investors, or whatever it may be. Yes, there will, of course, be an element of bias there. Because research has shown that many of the leaders feel, whether it's valid or not is a different thing, that they have more control and more influence in a physical office. Going remote first, Sandra, also is not easy. It's not easy, it takes effort. So given that we've got the recovery from the pandemic, I do empathize. And I do have compassion. I do understand, because I work with people like this weekly, why they may be resistant, it is a lot of effort. And they could be fighting a battle in terms of the more strategic decisions that are being made by boards are above their head. So I think if I had time with them, I would try and understand why. Because when I understand why, their main drivers, if I could find out what the 2, 3 main reasons were, maybe I could contract with my good Irish debating hat on. The reasons why they should be considering: We're in a very short term world, people are really thinking about short to medium term because of the pandemic. Surviving. So I also get that they're not thinking longer strategically, many of them because they're just trying to survive often with economic challenges. So I think what you need to do is listen, and then as I said, if you can understand where you can have a more resonant conversation or conversation that resonates with them on the various points, then you can talk about return on investment, you can talk about global and analytics, teleworking, calculator states by Kate Lister, that shows the ROI of teleworking and remote working. You can show the cost savings, you need to hopefully provide them with the information so that when they're ready, their brain will go hang on a minute, I am now ready to maybe start investigating this. Make an argument on my side, in understanding the benefits. That's the only thing that I think will work. Then I do believe and it's a lot of what my content marketing strategy is about, that individual workers can really not just vote with their feet, Sandra, but perhaps saying, Well, I'm not going to work here. If they don't, that's what I want as an individual. Therefore, I'm going to move position or I'm going to change or whatever. Vote with their feet, we call it in my world. But if that's the case, fine, but not just that. A little bit to my earlier point, you and I have a privilege of remote work. It's a privilege that people with passport restrictions, displaced people, refugees, disabled people, there's a list that could go on there, particularly for women returning to the workforce, remote work can mean a career for them. So I think we also have a certain responsibility, if we're passionate remote workers that care about the future of this way of working, that we are aware, and that we are articulate in representing communities that don't have a voice. And that's something I take very seriously. And that's where I take a quote, personally and with passion, I pride in doing because I really, I've been there myself. It wasn't a permanent situation. It was temporary, thankfully. But I therefore feel that it's very important that individuals realize the power of remote work and realize that they can have a voice for these communities that don't have a voice.
Sandra Redlich 24:15
You were mentioning again before we started recording that you will share your voice and you will speak on these topics in some upcoming or on on some upcoming events that are going to happen in the remote workspace. Can you share a little bit about what's coming up for you?
Rowena Hennigan 24:32
Definitely! So in April I'll be at Running Remote in Lisbon. I'll actually be focusing, for the moment anyways, I believe the topic on that is more looking at when remote work companies or remote first companies are looking to support their teams that travel, so as, you know, as we're traveling more, how they can stay focused and productive, how they can have fruitful travel. So that's probably the topic for that one. It looks like I'm going to be in Turkey with Viva network as well, in May. And that will be for solopreneurs and remote work individuals who are looking to find a more conscious way of living, a more sustainable way in and along with all the tech advantages of web three and evolving pieces on that. So I'll be there on a future of work panel and hopefully running workshops as well. And also going into the summer, I'm hoping to be over in Italy as well on a couple of projects, but I'll share my link tree and you can see the different event pieces there. But to your point on a lot of virtual events, I do get asked to speak on those, this macro economics piece, the secondary benefits of remote work, the SDGs. And it's an area I'm really, really interested in. And I mentioned that piece of research from the Migration Institute as well, we'll share that, on how it's helping to support displaced people remote work. Even the current war in Ukraine, there's also a lot of evidence coming out that a lot of Ukrainians are staying in work via remote work, albeit under trauma. But again, these are the pieces that we don't hear in the media as much Sandra. So I really want to amplify this so that people are able to talk about them, if it comes up and they have the opportunity to speak about it, because I think this will be part of our drivers for this way of working going forward.
Sandra Redlich 26:30
Yeah, absolutely. I think education in so many areas is the number one thing that we need to focus on. And yeah, we need to educate the leaders and the people as well, about the opportunities that come with remote work and the empowerment that it can bring to the table. So do you have any further tips maybe for people who want to educate themselves a little bit more on the ROI and on the different things that you can do personally, individually, but also as a company?
Rowena Hennigan 27:00
Totally, I think that especially senior leaders and listening or anyone who's seen or heard arguments against remote work, that I think it would be really good to sit down. This is a little writing exercise, and write down the pros and cons on a piece of paper. And on a personal level, because we're all very personal. And you can hear my passion is because my story is personal and my experience is personal, which is why I noticed then the information that comes out, the statistics about how geographic inclusion can be aided by remote work, particularly on the gender side, particularly on the disability. So I noticed those things coming through on my feet, and I grabbed them. And that will be the same for anyone listening. So if you do that exercise, and you write down environmental sustainability, reducing commutes, etc, etc DEI. If you write out innovation, if that's something that interests you, if you write down process improvement, operational improvements, if that's something that interests you, highlight those two or three areas that really sing to you, and then look for the research that can really, really support that. Keep your eyes open. And it means that going forward then, that's my example, because there's a long list there of the benefits, and any good remote worker because they can often come up with well, this statistic says this, and this statistic says that on the counter side. Be curious as well, because people challenge you about collaboration, they challenge you about productivity. So just make sure that because we all care about that as remote workers that want to be effective. So just be sure that you've explored a little bit how can I improve? What could I be doing more? Say no to meetings, for example, Sandra, that's a hot topic at the moment. And I was just featured in a nice article about that. So we'll share that in the notes as well, that leans into calendar management, which for me is one of the key skills. Really good calendar management is a really good part of it, you know, it's a really important part of being a good remote worker. So these kinds of things, how are you optimizing your day? How are you contributing to your team? How are you collaborating better, and again, as well as being an advocate, you can always be improving as a remote worker. And I hope this resonates with people listening because the research shows that generally remote workers are very conscientious, self directed, self motivated, and therefore, I'm sure they always want to be improving. I'm sure it's something that crosses their mind, you know that if I can do a better six hours today, I'll go to the gym later. Flick and focus now. I'll spend time with my family or friends later and that's our motivation as remote workers. We generally embrace autonomy and independence.
Sandra Redlich 29:56
Yeah, definitely. All right, well, last question, which is a big one. We always ask this. And especially in this circumstance, very interesting, I'm very interested to hear what you have to say. Will we all work remotely in 10 years, or AKA, what's the future of work? How will this work movement develop in the future? What are your thoughts on this? What are kind of other trends that you see for the state of work?
Rowena Hennigan 30:24
I see, I see it happen, I see the grassroots rising more. I see more awareness of all the things we've spoken about. The people that are the workers that are empowered, the refugees, the displaced, the disabled, all those people may not have advantages in their communities or a voice in their communities coming through. And I see that becoming more of a talking point. And regardless of what the media does, because we can't always control that, I think that's going to start to drive changes in organization. So I see that as a change. In the next 10 years, I'm going to do a shameless plug here, as well for myself. So it's shameless, because one of the pieces and news I have is I started to secure board membership on various companies and organizations, with a remote first view, and apart from being a female on the board, which is something that we need more and more. It's also very, very important that from a strategic, from all these reasons, from an operational perspective, that remote is as a way an operational model of working is given more focus. So I'm delighted to say that I will be taking up some board positions. And I think that's one of the ways, so when we talk the grassroots up, we'll also have coming down the way were boards will start to be more representative of this new way of working, these new operational models. And with that in mind, they will actually start to have people with the knowledge on their boards that can start to influence companies more to either transition or be started as remote first and continue as remote first. So I think that's the second thing that's about to happen. The third thing is the freelance revolution Sandra, and how that's already a massive, massive part of the future of work that doesn't get enough coverage, and in my opinion, and starts coming out of America, really say and really lean into that we need to realize that there is no such thing as a job for life, a company is not your family, they may lay you off. And for certain people listening, this is going to be the change this year of 2023, 2024. People are going to say, I'm going to take the control back, I'm going to be my own best advocate, my own boss. And for some, it's scary, I hear that, but I really see the rhetoric changing on that. And I really feel that that's going to be a massive influence on the future of work. And for any companies listening, how are you utilizing freelancing solopreneur talent? How are you accommodating them in your business models, contractors versus employees, etc? And how are you serving that market is a question I would be asking at a strategic level. Because it's fascinating. It's really, really fascinating. So that's what I'd like to finish on there. I think there's enough there.
Sandra Redlich 33:26
Yeah, definitely. Well, you've definitely got me riled up now. I'm pretty excited now. Yeah, congratulations on, you know, making these steps and very tremendously important steps to as you said, put the grassroots and support them to grow, and to keep pushing the message. And yeah, just to showcase how positive this can be, and what good it can do for communities all over the world. So yeah, very exciting news. And I think a very exciting time to come in the future. Thank you for talking with us today. Thanks for sharing your expertise, your experience. We will be watching closely, I'm very sure. And yeah, as you know by now, all the links will be in our show notes. There's some great further reading for you out there. That will include as well obviously the contact details to you. So for anyone having any further questions, there will be a link in the show notes to your LinkedIn and to your website as well.
Rowena Hennigan 34:24
Perfect. Thanks so much for your time Sandra, it's been a pleasure.
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