Ian Woodbyrne, Account Manager, analyses how remote working has been considered by stakeholders and policymakers across a range of themes. 

 

At the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing in November, Nicola Sturgeon was asked whether she would match the Welsh Government’s target for 30% of its workforce to be working remotely. The First Minister suggested a “new normal” offered the opportunity to strike greater work balances and resolve societal inequalities within the current system. Three months later, during a lockdown which imposed a statutory requirement for staff to work from home, Nicola Sturgeon appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s COVID-19 Committee and noted that people’s enthusiasm for home working appeared to be waning.

Considering I’ve only worked at Newsdirect remotely and have now spent more time working from home than in an office, I’ve taken an interest in monitoring the range of policy considerations for future work practices. As the lockdown’s ‘stay at home’ message is replaced by one of stay local, employers will inevitably be doing the same.

 

Employer Responsibility

Throughout the pandemic, the EHRC has updated guidance for employers, urging them not to bypass employees when making decisions on working practices. Research from the Fraser of Allander Institute considered these employer decisions and showed that 28% had decided to reduce their office footprint in favour of remote working, despite concerns about staff productivity. From the employee perspective, a recent STUC survey has noted increases in staff reporting mental ill health while solely working from home and reported 78% of respondents favoured a blended working system, with two days or less spent in the office.

Remote working concerns during lockdown led many MSPs to demand more legislative support for staff. Beatrice Wishart and Colin Beattie asked about employers not acting responsibly with home-working discretion for their staff, with the ministerial responses reiterating the importance of employers abiding by statutory lockdown requirements. In terms of policy once the restrictions have eased, the Scottish Government’s Fair Work annual report referenced home working in relation to its mental health transition and recovery plan. The plan recognised concerns about exacerbating inequality and pledged to work with relevant stakeholders to mitigate negative impacts of home working.

Working Spaces

A potential solution to avoid exacerbating inequalities would be to introduce more co-working spaces. In parliament, Rhoda Grant and Bill Kidd referenced gendered harms where women were predominantly responsible for childcare or incapable of seeking refuge from domestic abuse. The availability of an office for respite or support could prevent people from being emotionally isolated, while party manifesto commitments to improve childcare and social care provision should also allow caring decisions to be a choice, rather than an at-home obligation.

The Scottish Government has highlighted how an increase in workspaces across the country could also support repopulation strategies for Scotland’s rural areas; as outlined in its national performance framework and population strategy reports. If such drastic population shifts are to be encouraged, infrastructure planning will need to be in place to develop rural areas and restructure urban centres. The Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy & Fair Work Committee inquiry held an evidence session in November which stressed the importance of outlining clear plans for urban economies and supporting businesses which depend on footfall spending.

The Law Society of Scotland has also blogged on the legal significance for workplace protections if people begin operating from a range of different working environments, so this may also require consideration in the next parliament amid ongoing debates about reserved employment powers.

Green Recovery

Kevin Stewart and Kate Forbes have both acknowledged the increased energy costs while working from home, so accessing local co-working spaces may be essential for maintaining reduced commuting and contributing to carbon emission reduction targets. Zero Waste Scotland blogged on the role remote working could play in reducing carbon emissions, while the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee’s green recovery inquiry report in November emphasised the development of 20-minute neighbourhoods to support climate-positive working practices. 20-minute neighbourhoods, which feature in the SNP and Green manifestos, enable equitable access to community amenities within walking or active travel distances.

Michael Matheson appeared before the Rural Economy & Connectivity Committee to outline the need for transport to align with working demand levels; an idea further considered within The Economist’s ‘The World Ahead’ podcast. The transport secretary’s committee appearance followed the Scottish Government’s update to the climate change plan 2018-2032. The update itself, and a response from the Rural Economy & Connectivity Committee, highlighted the need to develop digital infrastructure for the future of remote working. However, the ONS has highlighted that much of Scotland was below the UK average for remote working so the feasibility of such investments will need to be demand-led and developed through structured planning.

 

I mentioned earlier that in two years since graduating university, I’ve now worked remotely longer than I had worked in an office. I’ve experienced its benefits, in terms of working flexibility and money saved, but there are definitely elements of the office environment that I’d like to return to at some point. Meeting new colleagues in person for a start! Restructuring working practices for a more equitable and sustainable system will need to try and balance what works in the remote working system, with what worked in the physical office space, to ensure that future planning decisions are fit for purpose.