The tide of depopulation from the Hebrides might just be turning thanks to the rise of teleworking, writes Emma Vandore
High-flyers working from granny's heilan' hame
Deep inside the croft houses scattered across the windswept Western Isles, a quiet revolution it taking place. The islanders have invested heavily in new telecommunications technologies, which are providing them with a way of working that has opened up the boundaries of the office. Now the workplace - or parts of it - can be situated anywhere there are computers and communications facilities, even somewhere as remote as the Outer Hebrides.
With little in the way of local careers, it has brought employment to a highly motivated and highly skilled workforce who would otherwise be unable to find work.
Rochelle Macleod, 32, originally from South Africa, has been living on Lewis since 1994. She began teleworking in 1998, shortly after she and her husband found the money to buy a computer. "I got my first interview within a few days of setting up the computer," she said.
When she first came to the islands, Rochelle thought she wouldn't be able to stay for long but now she says she won't move. "The quality of life here is so great, but people will keep on leaving the islands if they can't find work. There are so many young people who have to leave unless they are prepared to work in the Co-op, and some of them are a little bit more ambitious."
The mother-of-two says teleworking is an ideal occupation for her situation. Working from home allows her to take care of her children, both under six. She enjoys the hi-tech nature of the work, and she says it also impresses the tourists. "It shows them we're not just a bunch of crofters looking after their sheep." She earns twice as much as the only other office-based employment she managed to find locally, for which she also needed a childminder.
Incorporating teleworking practices has enabled some islanders to further their careers, without having to spend most of their time on the mainland, away from their homes and families. John Macleod, 45, is an architectural draughtsman, specialising in computer aided structural design. He is currently working for Dundee City Council, e-mailing his designs from the comfort of his own croft.
"I have been living in Harris for the last 20 years and for quite a lot of that 20 years I have had to work on the mainland because of a lack of work here." He says, "This electronic way of working has opened up a whole new demand for me. I work for the same clients but I can work from home. Because I'm working from home my expenses are lower so I can be more competitive. The last few months I have had difficulty in keeping up with everything, I have had so much work."
John credits one man with bringing this technological revolution to the Western Isles. "I would say the equipment and the environment we have up here is quite advanced. A lot of this has to do with the efforts of Donnie Morrison."
Donnie, a 50-year old former salesman, left a well-paid job as marketing director of MicroAge Business Systems in Dundee to return to his native island of Lewis at the behest of the far-sighted local enterprise council. They were looking for an opportunity to create jobs and wanted Donnie to investigate the possibilities of teleworking.
He chose to return to the islands on a meager postgraduate salary ("It was all they could afford") partly because he felt he was "burning-out, working all the hours under the sun", and partly because he believed teleworking could make a real difference.
Like most islanders with ambition he had left for the mainland to find work, but when he returned he saw the top-level academic qualifications of his contemporaries who'd chosen to stay "just rotting away". The Western Isles boasts one of the highest number of graduates per capita in the UK, but these hard-earned qualifications amount to nothing without suitable employment.
"People would tell me they felt they were going mad because they had no access to work," said Donnie.
The idea to bring teleworking to the Western Isles was spawned in the early 1990s when Donnie attended a Compaq conference in Marbella where they were promoting working from home. The conference presenter made an off the cuff remark about home-based working being perfect for people who wanted to live on the fringes of the golf course of St Andrews or in the Western Isles.
"It immediately caught my ear because I am from the Western Isles and I was living within 10 miles of the golf course in St Andrews at the time. I couldn't get it out of my mind and I began to investigate its potential."
He discussed the possibilities with the Western Isles Enterprise, who awarded him a one-year contract in 1993 to conduct a feasibility study. In true teleworker style, he set up his ICT (Information & Communications Technology) advisory service in his mother's croft house in Pairc.
Immediately he began touring the islands, putting notices up in village halls and organising community meetings. He asked people if they would be interested if he was to attract work on their behalf, and invited them to add their names to a skills register. As a result of his first foray, he produced a database of 160 names. This register and the high levels of qualifications he found, have become the vital ingredients of what he sells.
The next task was to identify and attract potential employers. Just six months after starting Donnie won his first contract with an American company. He said: "We won the contract on Christmas Eve and we had to be operational by January 3rd. We didn't have any equipment or people trained, so that was a busy Christmas"
They began training 12 people, but soon realised it was not enough. It also became apparent that the trainers they had brought in were not up to scratch. "Eventually we contacted the client and persuaded them to send some trainers over to the Western Isles, and we've never looked back. We've still got the contract today."
However, teleworking was an unknown and untrusted concept in the early 1990s, and the reality was that most corporate clients were a long way from being persuaded that it was a good idea. "It seemed that they'd rather have all their workers in the same place where they could keep any eye on them."
The concept of working from home was also difficult for the islanders to accept, and neighbours found it hard to believe that their friends really were working. "Some people had to put signs on their doors saying 'at work' to stop people coming in for cups of tea."
Donnie's advisory service, WIICTAS, quickly saw that marketing teleworking was not going to be the solution, so they began to focus on the quality and cost effective solutions. "Now we are regularly being contacted by companies all over the world."
Today there are over 100 teleworkers on the Western Isles who "can work as many hours as they want." Their activities range from compiling databases of police forensic records to transferring music encyclopaedias to CD-ROM.
Some people are even choosing to return to the islands. "What you see is people coming back to the islands because they have a job here that is competitive with a job anywhere else."
WIICTAS has become an example for the rest of Europe, and Donnie is often being asked to advise other rural areas in Europe. The Western Isles has received visitors from as far away as Lapland, and recently won an award at the European Telework Awards Ceremony in Brussels. "We're paying back the investment they made in us," says Donnie.