WFH? Think about the bigger picture

I’m cross with myself for even sitting down to write this, there are so many important things that I could or should be worrying about, that getting dragged into a debate about where people work seems indulgent and frivolous. Yet the consequences of not speaking out, seem staggeringly dangerous to our culture, society and economy. Less than 40% of the UK workforce can actually WFH, yet their actions have a greater reach and impact then is regularly part of the debate.

In making the arguments that I’m going to put forward, the obvious, simple rebuttal is to say – well you would say that wouldn’t you? You’re the establishment, a person of power, a vested interest. The great irony, however, is that because of all of these very attributes I could be seen as one of the people that could personally benefit from the freedom to work anywhere – I could buy a big house by the sea, live part of the year abroad, move to one of the most beautiful parts of our country and avoid the slog of the daily commute.

And yet I don’t. Not as a point of principle, not through some dogmatic belief, but simply because as leaders our obligation should be to make decisions for the greater good of society, never more so than when it goes against our personal self interest. I don’t have megalomaniac desires to oversee the every movement of my workforce either – this isn’t some Taylorian obsession. So why do I think the arguments being put forward for remote working are such a bad thing for us all?

The wages argument

There have been countless headlines about employees willing to take a pay cut in order to work remotely and maybe that’s true. But it is one thing saying it and it is another when it comes to be. Most of us that work in the profession of HR have a broad understanding of how compensation packages are developed and that takes into account the local market conditions. But what do we mean by market conditions, the town the city, the country, the continent, or the world? Don’t believe that business won’t have recognised the opportunity to put downward pressure on pay, even if they aren’t going to do so now, they absolutely will. In the same way that so many that have made declarations of flexibility have also been easing themselves out of their real estate obligations to aid their ailing bottom lines. These aren’t Machiavellian tendencies, they’re just the reality of business.

The outsourcing argument

Some people will have the skills that mean they can work at the very top of their profession, anywhere. But not many of us or in fact the vast majority of us. And without exclusive skills, our competitive advantage in the labour market is driven by either availability or by price. If I want to hire an accountant in Louth, there are a limited number in that market with the skills and that determines the price. But in the whole of the world? If location isn’t a factor, then I can broaden my labour market, reducing the cost and effectively outsource the work. No office overheads, maybe cheaper labour market terms and a greater pool of skills. If the only contact is via video conference, what does it matter? The choice then is to obtain exclusive skills, or compete in a pricing race to the bottom with people in countries that have significantly lower overheads.

The housing argument

One of the biggest arguments you hear by the proponents of change is the ability to live in cheaper and nicer areas of the country. Notwithstanding the point about wages – being paid a City salary but choosing to live in the highlands of Scotland is a temporary situation- there is a greater point about cost and availability of housing. The data already points to significant changes in the market, as availability of housing stock in some of the most sought after rural areas diminishes and prices increase exponentially. But what about the people that are born and raised in those areas, that chose to work locally maybe as a nurse, a teacher or in one of the 60% of roles that can’t work remotely? What happens when they can’t afford to buy a house locally and every planning application for affordable housing is rejected because of complaints from the new influx of residents?

The fairness argument

As I’ve said before, at the heart of this is fairness. The last year has amplified the unfairness that exists in the workplace, with women, young people and ethnic minorities more likely to have had their employment or income impacted by the pandemic. Those that have seen less impact have been those in industries less touched by the economic impact and with the ability to work from home. They’re disproportionately located in the affluent south of the UK. The mantra that working from home is de facto more inclusive just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny under pressure. Is this one factor going to remove all the bias and prejudice that exists in our employment practices? We’re kidding ourselves if we think so.

The infrastructure argument

Whether we like it or not, our national infrastructure is built around the geographical make up of our population over hundreds of years. The transport, education, health, utility networks are all designed to meet the needs of the population as they stand today. And we know that sometimes, even with the best intent, they can be creaking at the seams to do that. With train travel at its lowest level in 150 years and TfL on its knees, the Government has stepped in to ensure that services continue, but that can’t and won’t happen indefinitely. All of these things could be corrected over time, but that takes thought, planning, investment and significant management. In the meantime, when you want to pop from your rural retreat back into London to go for dinner, the restaurants are going to be shut, there will be no cabs and don’t even think about going to the theatre. And that’s before we talk about school places, the quality of roads or hospital capacity in sought after areas.

So what?

The thing is, and this is the one thing I’d like you to take away, work is a part of the fabric of our society. It does not and cannot exist in isolation and significant changes to work have consequences, often unintended, on society. That’s why zero hours contracts and the uberfication of the workforce where so passionately debated, but this time the people holding the decision making sway are some of those that are most likely to benefit themselves – at least in the short term. I could make countless arguments about productivity, creativity, innovation, collaboration and team work. But those things are about organisational performance and I’m not going to try and run your organisations for you – well not without a decent fee. What brings us together should be the interests of the country, for now, for tomorrow and the longer term. As I’ve argued for a long time, the most sustainable answer to this issue is to move work across the country so people can live and work locally, affordably and the broader community feel the benefits too, but that also takes time.

Finally, I want to talk again about the concept of choice. I’ve seen a number of companies talk about the neoliberal flavour du jour – that of personal choice in their decision making. It has a wonderful appeal, doesn’t it? What has less appeal is consequences that are often not built into the original equation. And the issue with individual choice is that sometimes the consequences are felt by the person themselves, sometimes they’re felt by the wider community. This last year or so has, in many ways, been an existential debate about individual choice versus collective responsibility. Remember staying at home to save lives and protect the NHS, mask wearing, foreign travel? Maybe it is hopeful to think we might hold onto something from that debate when personal self interest once again comes to call, but one thing I do know, choice is a theme that has a track record of only playing out well for the fortunate few.

How the levy could tackle youth unemployment

Coronavirus is a no win game, that goes without saying. One of the losing groups that worries me most is the young, particularly those finishing education this year and entering the world of work.

Not only are we seeing a significant rise in those that are out of work and claiming benefits, we are also seeing the number of job vacancies fall to the lowest level on record. At the same time, more and more employers are reducing their apprenticeship entry as the focus more on maintaining existing jobs. That’s a grim environment to come into the world of work, for even the most optimistic.

In response the TUC have drawn up proposals for a job guarantee scheme to support employers in creating roles for at least six months. Whilst it is a nice idea, there is something much simpler and closer to hand. The apprenticeship levy.

Employers have, for a number of years, repeatedly asked for the ability to allocate some or part of salaries against the levy in order to increase the number of apprenticeships they can offer. Governments have been reluctant to adopt this approach, for some understandable reasons, but if I’m honest, others that sound more like obfuscated fiscal management. At a time when we are facing into such significant issue, all previous rules should be put to one side.

A fixed term scheme that allowed a percentage of apprenticeship salaries to be allocated against the levy as long as it was used to create additional apprenticeship roles would have a number of key benefits:

  • it is simple, easy and quick to deploy. The money is already with employers anyway, so it could be stood up by September
  • it provides young people (and others) with an average of two years employment and training, building skills, obtaining qualifications and learning about the world of work
  • it provides a future workforce, ready to deploy into the economy as things slowly start to improve and rebalance
  • apprenticeships standards are monitored and approved, ensuring that the quality of education is maintained for all
  • it is regionally agnostic, wherever there are employers with the ability to employ, there are opportunities for young people
  • it creates jobs in the short term and puts money back into the economy through wages

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t issues that would need to be worked out, how we ensure that employers don’t play fast and loose with funding, how we make sure that the apprenticeships created are beneficial to the economy after recovery and of course how we make sure that the young people get the quality of experience that is beneficial to them in the long term.

But at a time when we are faced with challenges beyond our experience, we need ideas, schemes that bring creativity, ambition and hope. An employer driven recovery, focused on skills and qualifications for the young? It has to be worth a shot.

Increasing the divide

A few years ago I was debating the issue of unpaid internships and the effect of this on social mobility.  The common theme at the time was that paying for internships would solve the problem. It was a compelling argument because of it’s simplicity, but fundamentally wrong.

One of the biggest issues with internships is the availability and transparency of opportunity. When opportunities are only available to those that are in the know, that are connected, or that are referred, paying rather than solving the problem of access just exacerbates it. This isn’t to say that internships should be unpaid, far from it, but that it needs to be combined with other systemic changes.

There is a similar argument to be played out in relation to university fees. The simple argument goes that by charging for university you restrict the number of entrants from lower social classes. Again, it is a compelling one. But one that isn’t backed up by data. Simply, there is nothing that would suggest that free education, without means testing, would do anything that subsidise the dominant middle classes.

In 2015, when the idea was mooted, a total cost of £10bn per annum was suggested to introduce this measure, equivalent to 11.5% of the UK education budget. Which begs the question what could be achieved by investing this money in primary and secondary education in areas with the lowest social mobility?

If you are an 18 year old in London and the South East you are more likely to go to university than if you are an 18 year old in any other part of the UK, by quite a significant margin. In fact, when you start to look at the entrants by parliamentary constituency, there is significant correlation with the areas of the greater social mobility highlighted by the Social Mobility Commission.

Assuming there is a finite amount of money available to government, the evidence clearly suggests that the best bet for improving social mobility is investment in the compulsory education system in those areas where the outcomes of young people are the lowest. That’s before we consider the alternative routes into the labour market other than university, such as apprenticeships.

The idea of free university is an appealing one, but unless significant changes are made to the education outcomes of those in the social mobility cold spots, it will do little to benefit social change. Instead, it will disproportionately benefit those who already have better outcomes and continue to widen the social divide.

There is much to take from The Taylor Review

Last week saw the publication of the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. Inevitably it made headlines and drew attention to a number of high-profile ongoing debates – not least the “gig economy” and the challenge of flexibility. Perhaps unsurprisingly it also managed to draw criticism from both the trade unions and some within the business community – I generally think anything that fails to appease two potentially opposing groups must have something interesting and progressive about it.

The debate about work, the future of work and the working practices that we want to encourage in the UK is one that weaves a tricky path between those that argue for deep legislative protection for employees and those that argue for total liberalisation of the employment market. The answer almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle and navigating the world of compromise and pragmatic outcomes is always harder than taking a simplistic, dogmatic position. It is always much easier to highlight the issues that aren’t solved, than to look at the solutions that are actually proposed.

The report is over 100 pages and yet most of the reporting focused on relatively small sections and all in all there is much to be commended in the review. It provides one of the most balanced, thoughtful and helpful assessments of the challenges of developing an economy whilst maintaining good work and working lives – particularly in a world post membership of the European Union.

The definition and scoping of “good work” aims to take the debate beyond simple wage growth or contractual status – but without suggesting that they’re not important. Like the political manifestos of all major parties, it recognises the importance of employee voice and participation within the workplace and discusses the importance of work life balance and working conditions.

The section on learning and skills and employability is one that has had perhaps the least attention but is perhaps one of the strongest. Let me give you three direct excerpts:

On education policy: “Government should use its convening power to bring together employers and the education sector to develop a consistent strategic approach to employability and lifelong learning. This should cover formal vocational training, ‘on the job’ learning and development, lifelong learning and informal learning outside work. It could be linked to the longer-term development of life-time digital individual learning records. As part of this, the Government should seek to develop a uni ed framework of employability skills and encourage stakeholders to use this framework.”

On careers education: “In developing a national careers strategy, the Government should pay particular attention to how those in low paid and atypical work are supported to progress. It should take a well-rounded approach, promoting the role of high-quality work experience and encounters at different education stages.”

On unpaid internships: “The Government should ensure that exploitative unpaid internships, which damage social mobility in the UK, are stamped out. The Government should do this by clarifying the interpretation of the law and encouraging enforcement action taken by HMRC in this area.”

The Taylor Review doesn’t answer every question on the future of work, but it provides an incredibly helpful, thoughtful and balanced starting point. It is beholden on all of us associated with and interested in the UK economy, productivity and good work to take the outputs of the review and to build on them to develop our country’s approach to work. There is much good within the review and much to consider, we mustn’t lose this amongst the faff and nonsense of special interest groups concerned with looking after their own, increasingly dated agendas.