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Going remote: Can flexible and remote working help employers to overcome tech skills shortages?
Across the UK, the tech sector is expanding, with many employers expecting to hire in 2019. The downside is that this demand – coupled with post-Brexit uncertainty – is adding to an already tight labour market. According to the recruiter Hays, three quarters of tech employers surveyed reported moderate to extreme skills shortages in 2018. Similarly, Tech City’s Tech Nation 2017 survey found that 55% of digital tech companies cited skills shortages as their single biggest business problem.
Skills shortages are a problem in East Anglia. The Digital Tech Skills Plan launched in 2017 by New Anglia (the local enterprise partnership for Norfolk and Suffolk) highlights the urgent need for a pipeline of skilled staff. The report notes the problem of skilled worker ‘migration’, with several thousand skilled tech workers commuting out of the area, increasing localised skills shortages. As the report points out, the region “loses a disproportionate amount of skilled workers to other areas impacting on the overall potential growth of the sector locally.”
The Digital Tech Skills plan is working with employers and educators to create a pipeline to fill the 10,000 tech roles (including new and replacement positions) that are predicted for the region by 2024. Although this work will begin to ease constraints, filling in-demand tech vacancies remains a challenge, particularly for smaller employers who can’t compete on salary alone. So, what can be done?
Meeting the demand for balance and flexibility
Offering a more flexible workplace is one way tech companies can attract the staff they need. The survey by Hays found that almost 40% of tech professionals were unhappy with their work-life balance; 26% said that getting greater balance was the single most important factor they considered when looking at a new role. Yet only 15% of tech employers said they promoted work-life balance as a way to attract staff.
So, being clear that your organisation values balance, and supports flexible working strategies such as part-time, compressed hours, shorter work weeks, job-share, or remote working, could help you stand out in a crowded hiring market. Offering returnships to support people back into the workforce after a career break is another strategy, and one that’s becoming more widely used in other sectors.
These strategies are already being used by some Tech East members. For example, Curveball Media, based near Ipswich, offer a six-hour work day, while gaming company Derivco promote flexible working on their careers page.
Making the case for remote working
Offering the freedom to work ‘remotely’, from home, is one way of offering greater flexibility. Working from home is often highly valued by staff, because it saves time and money spent commuting, and can reduce stress. Remote working fits well with family life, allowing parents to fit in the school run and be at their (home-based) desk by 9am. By contrast, commuting is closely linked to stress and job dissatisfaction. In fact, research by the University of the West of England found that an extra 20 minutes commuting time to-and-from work reduced job satisfaction by the same amount as a 20% pay cut.
Yet remote working isn’t just a nice perk for employees – it also offers a range of business benefits:
- Access to a much wider talent pool. That can be particularly helpful for companies looking for specialist skills, or struggling to compete with larger local employers with deeper pockets. After a tech giant opened a large office near-by, Elementary Digital, near Leeds, found they were struggling to hire skilled tech staff – until they began offering remote working, which allowed them to build a team based throughout the North and beyond.
- Reduced demand for office space. Introducing remote working can cut office costs; it also allows teams to expand without boosting office overheads, which can be a big help to fast-growing start-ups.
- Increased productivity, and reduced stress. Some managers worry that remote staff will be less productive and that teams will lose the creative buzz of working together face-to-face. However, a growing number of studies suggest that remote staff can be at least as productive as in-office colleagues – particularly for ‘high concentration’ jobs such as software development, where a noisy open-plan office can actually be a source of stress and distraction. For example, a survey by the US company Flex Jobs found that 76% of respondents preferred to do important work away from the office, citing less distractions and interruptions. A two-year Stanford study of Chinese firm Ctrip found that home-based employees were more productive, less likely to leave, and took less time off.
- Long-term loyalty. The same Flex Jobs survey found that 82% of respondents said they would be more loyal to an employer offering a flexible workplace.
- Greater diversity. Highlighting the fact that your company favours a good work-life balance and is friendly towards flexible working could help you reach highly skilled, diverse staff. For example, although flexible working is not an important factor for all women (or men) with families, it does have a significant appeal for some. For example, in a survey by Digital Mums, a digital skills training company, 64% of women with children reported taking a job that didn’t make the most of their skills, because it offered flexibility. In the Working Mums Annual Survey 2018, more than 70% of women reported that flexibility around hours and the ability to work from home were key indicators of a family-friendly company, and more important than enhanced parental pay.
- A greener footprint. Commuting accounts for 25% of the distance we travel by car. Less commuting means reduced carbon emissions, which can be helpful for companies trying to reduce their carbon footprint.
How to build a productive remote team
Of course, ensuring that a remote team remains productive is not without its problems. But the fact that a number of successful tech companies have gone fully remote – including Buffer, Doist and Automattic – suggests that the difficulties can be managed.
Over the last three years I’ve spent a lot of time talking with remote companies in the UK, US and beyond. The following five factors seem to be key to building a productive remote team:
- A pro-remote culture. That doesn’t mean everyone has to work remotely, but there needs to be a positive commitment from the management team, rather than a feeling that remote working is unusual, or a problem to be fixed.
- Well-planned communication strategies. Remote teams put considerable time and effort into thinking through how they communicate and work together. They make good use of tools such as Slack and Asana to keep in touch and manage work flows. They also rely on video conferencing for meetings – helped by the recent boom in low-cost video conferencing services such as appear.in, Zoom, and Webex.
- Hiring the right people – and then trusting them to get on with the job. Hiring self-motivated people who are likely to thrive on working remotely is key. Line-managers also need to focus on outcomes (is the person meeting targets and doing great work?) rather than focusing on hours spent in the office as a key performance indicator.
- A focus on practical issues. These range from data security, to health and safety. ACAS recommend having a specific home-working policy that covers all the bases (they have lots of resources and a template policy here.)
- Investment in face-to-face meet-ups. Companies with lots of remote staff still value getting together in person, both to work on projects and to spend some social time together, whether that’s through large-scale company retreats or more low-key get-togethers.
Offering remote and flexible working certainly has its challenges. But for employers open to making it work, it might be another way to attract – and keep – great people, both from inside the Eastern region and beyond.
By Lucy Elkin
Lucy is the Founder of myworkhive.com, a Suffolk-based social enterprise specialising in remote and flexible working. myworkhive is developing projects to promote returnships within the region, enabling parents, carers and others to return to work after a career gap. myworkhive also runs an online job board for skilled, remote vacancies, and provides free resources to help employers build remote and flexible teams. Get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org