Even if I have hundreds of things to do, the disconnected feeling is still there because it is very hard to find a real purpose of life
– Ai Weiwei, displaced Chinese contemporary artist and activist
People want to work to live, not live to work... ultimately they will enjoy their job provided they trust the organisation and its leaders
– Sir Tom Farmer on ethics, ambition and enthusiasm
Lots and lots of us have already become well used to working from home in this Digital Era, if we are in work in the first place, that is. WFH, as it's become known, continues to accelerate in its popularity due to COVID-19. However, vulnerable folks' organisations and poverty action groups are pleading with society not to label the practice as 'remote', its other sobriquet. As no matter how tenuous it might be, retaining a connection with the workplace can be absolutely vital to the job-seeking individual, especially in these uncertain times.
It's something of an irony that in this Internet Age and so-called leisure society the 'ethos' of work has got stronger, as a series of smart technological aids lead to greater job satisfaction and with it often higher productivity. Flexiworking, as it's also become known, is central to what will, ultimately, become the post-pandemic era. Whenever that endgame happens to be. Conversely, to be unemployed can come with it a profound feeling of displacement with the rest of the community. Of not belonging.
The exact timing of what's become labelled as a 'new normal' does remain uncertain given the likely continued impact of a form of the virus into the autumn and beyond. Some say the spring of next year might finally indicate a respite. By then a 'hybrid' form of WFH will have established itself: physically going into the workplace two or three days, the rest of the week working at home.
Glasgow-based Poverty Alliance has called on the UK Department of Work and Pensions to carry out, as a matter of urgency, an assessment on the ultimate effect of the ending of the UK Job Retention scheme on the most at-risk people in society. It comes as a British Chambers of Commerce study carries with it a stark warning that one-in-five firms plan job cuts, equal to potentially thousands of redundancies in the weeks and months to come.
Unfortunately, this comes with a report by BreathHR of a rise in toxic workplace culture and increasing numbers of employees leaving their jobs, rising from 21% in 2020 to 27% this year. Instant Offices global head of HR and talent, Lucinda Pullinger, says it is more crucial than ever for organisations to work harder at creating an 'inclusive and empowering' environment for their employees.
One thing is clear. For those in a job or hoping to soon to be in gainful employment, flexible working is here to stay, says Scott McGlinchey, chief executive of digital solutions company, Exception. That working from home embracing the digital workplace is not just an add-on or 'nice to have' any more, as he warns it has become a strategic technological environment needing careful management. Approaching such a fundamental commercial change in behaviour must come with a positive mindset and belief.
The latter is especially important 'as we all come out of the worst pandemic in 100 years', he points out. The big picture is organisations, irrespective of size and sector in which they operate – whether it's a firm selling widgets, a corner cafe, a not-for-profit body or charity – are accelerating digital transformation initiatives in one form or another. Ultimately, for any organisation contemplating WFH, it comes down to investing in cloud-based solutions, especially towards providing an improved and more secure service to customers.
Back to COVID-19. What started out as a novelty 18 months ago, brought with it a new meaning to an old word – 'furlough' – used traditionally to mean leave of absence, usually granted to a member of the services, civil servant or a missionary.
From spring 2020, it came to represent temporary leave for employees depending on the particular needs of an organisation. To ensure people were not laid off, 80% of wages were covered by the state, subsequently reduced to 70% from 1 July, and to 60% covering the months of August and September only.
Now a perfect storm of financial pain is on the way. The furlough scheme closes at the end of this month. But not the virus. Also, the UK Government plans to cut the £20-per-week Universal Credit (UC) uplift around the same time. Almost two-thirds of Scots are calling on the additional UC sum to stay in place, at least until the economy improves, according to a YouGov survey.
Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) reports that the uplift supports half-a-million people in Scotland, with CAS social justice spokeswoman, Nina Ballantyne, stressing that a clear majority support keeping the increase until at least we have recovered from the pandemic – and with furlough winding down in the autumn and a real risk of job losses, that recovery will not be overnight. 'There is still time to cancel this cut.'
The more enlightened employers realise that, when it comes to balancing personal and working lives, 'one size does not fit all'. However, there are always the less so minded bosses, one declaring the other day: 'If you can go into a restaurant... you can come into the office'. The inference being, if you're not at your desk, you're skiving. Google plus an unnamed UK Cabinet minister both think tech workers and civil servants respectively should take a pay-cut if they opt not to return to the workplace following the pandemic. HMRC is more realistic, offering two days of homeworking each week in a standard contract.
There are always going to be Scrooge-like employers pressuring staff to work well over scheduled hours. Autonomy has described an 'epidemic of hidden overtime', calling for amendments to the Employment Rights Act 1996 to ensure workers have the right to fully switch off from all work communications. Modern workplaces and homes are now 'digital spaces' where we are able to send and receive messages, emails and online content 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A downside is that it's increasingly hard to disconnect and develop a healthy work-life balance.
Nevertheless, McKinsey research reveals 80% of employees surveyed say that they enjoy working from home and being liberated from often long commutes. Organisations, already enjoying significantly reduced office lease and rental costs, are seeing wider benefits including accessing new pools of talent with fewer locational constraints. Geraldine Higgins from Flexibility Works told a Scottish Business Gateway webinar that a pre-Covid YouGov poll revealed 75% of workers in Scotland either had, or wanted, flexible working. This has since risen to 90% working flexibly and saying it has had a positive effect on their wellbeing.
A difference in opinion over WFH is to be expected but a danger exists for those employers resisting the working-from-home trend. They're likely to find themselves out of touch with such a shift in workplace attitudes, coupled with a growing ability of the internet and mobile channels to fill creative gaps and maintain productivity of those choosing flexiworking. Also losing out on key digitally-equipped talent that chooses to go elsewhere.
Mark Gibson, managing director of Capito IT services and solutions expert, cautions that we should beware 'sloppy practices' when it comes to WFH. Especially as we're all being increasingly exposed to unnecessary risks compounded by a new behavioural complacency around data security. He points out that last year's overnight mass exodus from the workplace, with little warning, resulted in many companies sending staff home with poor training around data security and access to core systems.
Such a 'make do and carry on' attitude towards communicating with customers, partners and colleagues resulted in lots of us being ill-prepared and where corners were cut involving, for example, a reduced investment in training, in a situation where organisations must ensure the typical UK home network doesn't become an 'easy target' to a wide range of cyber attacks, he warns.
Hopefully, the Scottish Government's new 'Fair Work First' strikes a chord with employers, public and private and across the sectors, to prioritise secure and flexible, family friendly and stable employment. The scheme is focused on driving high-quality and fair work across the labour market, applying criteria associated with public sector grants and procurements. The scheme is central to Scotland's economic recovery from COVID-19 and comes into effect next month, with the emphasis on employment paying a proper wage while affording staff the flexibility to balance their work and personal life.
Also timely is the government's £25 million Digital Boost Fund to help medium-sized businesses utilise technologies and enhance workforce skills, on a 50-50 investment basis worth between £2,500 and £20,000. It has already helped more than 2,200 firms from all sectors across Scotland investing in hardware, business management, software, e-commerce and data analytics, plus accessing expert advice on adopting tech and skills needed to increase their competitiveness, productivity and resilience.
So, plenty of activity all round – with a cautionary note from the highly laudable campaign based on the 'right to disconnect' digitally from work outside of normal hours. Just spare a thought for those folks who earnestly want to connect with a workplace. Let's avoid them feeling remote, displaced even ostracised, in their job-seeking endeavours.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'