Senedd’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee warns Welsh Government, whilst there are many benefits, permanent remote working will have serious impacts on the economy, businesses and the workforce.
Following the Welsh Government announcing (September 2020) a long-term ambition of 30% of people working remotely on a regular basis, the Committee launched an inquiry and commissioned experts from Wales and across Europe, to assess the long-term impacts this could have on a range of areas, including:
- The economy and business;
- Town and city centres;
- The workforce and skills;
- Health (physical and mental) and wellbeing;
- Inequalities between different groups and different parts of Wales (including those areas with poor connectivity);
- The environment; and
- The transport network and infrastructure.
There are potentially significant positive and negative equality impacts of remote working – the Committee believes that the Welsh Government must mainstream equality into its policy for ‘remote working’ and ‘flexible working’ more generally so that no one is left behind.
The Committee is concerned that the highly skilled and highly paid are likely to benefit most from this policy so there is a real risk of creating further economic inequality - the Welsh Government must look at the wider socio-economic impacts of the remote working policy.
For the policy to benefit everyone, the Committee is also calling on the next Senedd to scrutinise the Welsh Government’s plans to close the digital divide and support individuals and communities with digital connectivity and digital skills to adapt to the ‘new normal’.
Protecting the Workforce
The Committee heard evidence about many advantages for workers of the flexibility of remote working.
There’s a widespread hope and expectation that a healthier ‘hybrid’ model of flexible working will emerge, where people sometimes work in the office and sometimes at home or in a co-working space for the rest of the time. There is plenty for Wales to learn from international best practice - the Committee heard evidence from experts in Finland and the Netherlands showing the positive benefits of increased remote and flexible working practices.
The Committee heard that homeworking has been a “game changer” for some disabled workers, but trade unions told the Committee that a lot of work is needed by the Welsh Government to protect all workers’ rights, ensure managers have the right skills to support healthy remote working, and prevent a “two tier” workforce.
Towns and Cities
The Committee heard how urban centres are likely to lose if people work remotely, however this could advantage ‘left behind’ town centres and local neighbourhoods.
The Committee is calling on the next Welsh Government to develop a plan to maximise those gains and ‘reimagine’ town and city centres as part of its COVID-19 recovery plans – the Committee believes a coordinated effort is needed across government, to include plans to support retail, community cohesion, transport and other infrastructure.
Remote Working Hubs
The Welsh Government is piloting new ‘community hubs’ for people to work from, but the Committee is concerned that there are gaps in evidence about the existing network of co-working spaces in Wales. The Committee believes the Welsh Government should map out existing network of hubs
The Committee believes ‘community hubs’ should support local communities and high streets as well as supporting innovation and collaboration. Plans must be in place for adequate facilities to ensure success for the scheme, looking at childcare, public transport and active travel, retail and hospitality.
Transport and Decarbonisation
In its evidence to the Committee, the Welsh Government made it clear that the need to decarbonise the transport network, address congestion and pollution and achieve ambitious climate change targets are key policy drivers in this area.
But the Committee heard how the impact of the 30% target on congestion and overcrowding on Wales’ public transport network would be “negligible”, as over-capacity was already an issue before COVID-19.
Russell George MS, Chair of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee:
“The office isn’t dead but remote working is here to stay, and it comes with risks. The “Great Homeworking Experiment” has busted myths and demonstrated huge environmental benefits. But the Welsh Government’s ambition for 30% of workers to continue working ‘at or close to home’ has far-reaching implications.
“The widespread hope and expectation is that a healthier hybrid model of flexible working will emerge, and that this will be a good thing. However, a lot of work is needed by the Welsh Government to maximise the potential benefits of remote working. It will need to address risks by supporting communities though the transition, protecting all workers’ rights, ensuring that managers have the right skills to support healthy remote working, and preventing the development of a “two tier” workforce.
“It seems clear that a 30% ambition is achievable, but as well as obvious environmental gains, the wider impacts must be measured and mitigated. There must be a plan to deal with the move of economic activity out of city centres and to ensure the benefit is felt by local communities. Higher skilled, better paid workers will benefit most, and the implications of this for the rest of the workforce, and for public funding, need to be considered.
“There are obvious benefits to remote working, and there are obvious concerns, it’s vital that as we recover from COVID-19 that we get the balance right for our communities and that no one is left behind.”
Professor Alan Felstead, based at Cardiff University's School of Social Sciences:
"Coronavirus will have a long-lasting effect on the way we work, with an explosion in the prevalence of homeworking. Even when social restrictions are fully lifted, it is unlikely there will be a full return to the traditional office setting. Instead, the last twelve months has revealed a strong appetite for homeworking among employees and has proved to employers that flexible working can bring business benefits.
“However, these changes are not going to be straightforward. We will need to rethink and reimagine our notions of home and work, the nature of our towns and cities, and assess whether our transport and telecommunications infrastructure is fit for purpose. By setting a target for remote working and launching an inquiry into the phenomenon, Welsh Government and the Senedd are leading the way. Today’s report marks the start not the end of that process.”