19th February 2018
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SIC remote working on the rise despite frustrations

Commuting 20 miles to and from Lerwick for five days every week can set workers back thousands of pounds and cost them hundreds of hours of leisure time each year, as well as spewing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

But that habit could soon become a thing of the past for many SIC employees as the local authority strives to pursue a more flexible working culture. More than 30 staff already spend a day or more working from home each week, a number which is expected to rise significantly in the months and years ahead.

Officials point out that anybody who has a council laptop and whose job does not involve, say, driving a ferry or teaching in a classroom theoretically ought to be able to do more work outwith the local author­ity’s jumble of Lerwick offices. Not least due to stratospheric fuel price increases, there is strong political will behind efforts to let more staff work within their own communities. That could well lead to office “hubs” being dotted throughout the isles.

There is, however, some frustra­tion among councillors at the lack of tangible progress on an idea which has been bandied about for several years now. During last Thursday’s audit and standards committee meet­ing, North Isles councillor Laura Baisley said plans for remote work­ing seemed “so vague” and she was “beginning to get a bit depressed and fed up at the lack of movement”.

Mrs Baisley views letting staff work outwith the town as “absolutely critical in the current financial clim­ate” and called for immediate action on a measure which would also cut carbon emissions, help sustain vulnerable rural areas and stem the powerful tide of cent­rali­sation. Creating the conditions to allow staff to work remotely is “fairly bog standard stuff”, she said, adding: “I want to see it being treat­ed urgently. We’re not reinvent­ing the wheel here.”

Chief executive Alistair Buchan has repeatedly expressed his belief in the idea. A project aimed at de­centralising and dispersing the workforce is the only component of the SIC’s corporate improvement plan not to have been directly promp­ted by the local authority’s savaging from the Accounts Com­mission last September.

Officials are “working very hard” on the project, Mr Buchan said this week, and more concrete ideas should be forthcoming soon. It was “too early” to speculate on what proportion of the workforce could be working remotely in the future.

“I know the council has talked about it for a long time,” he said. “I’ve begun to look at it in the past year and I think it’s a huge oppor­tunity for Shetland. We are absol­utely committed to this, it is council policy and it will happen.”

However, it is unlikely there will be a repeat of attempts to shift an entire department outside of town after the abortive experiment of moving social workers to Brae in the 1990s. Mr Buchan wants an “organic and pragmatic” approach to capital­ise on the desire of staff to avoid the daily commute, rather than an “arti­ficial and divisive” forceful reloca­tion of individuals or whole sections of the workforce.

Many organisations are reluctant to give staff too much latitude for fear that, with no managers around to keep an eye on them, the tempta­tion of skiving off will be too great to resist. Mr Buchan wants to ensure proper controls are in place so that there are “no abuses of the system”. He said: “I am much more comfortable with the concept of people working remotely from hubs than I am people working at home.”

Head of organisational develop­ment John Smith pointed to multiple benefits including workers wasting much less time driving around and allowing many staff to work the hours best suited to them. He accept­ed some will be better suited psycho­logically to working under their own steam than others.

In a document entitled “Work is not the place you go, it’s the things you do”, officials identify that pro­ductivity can rise by up to 30 per cent when employees switch to more flexible working patterns. A big proportion of that is believed to result from stripping out the amount of time spent chatting with col­leagues in an office.

Remote office “hubs” could be created to allow staff to do their jobs in or nearer the community they live in, perhaps sharing an office space with other public sector bodies and private firms. It is possible existing council property, perhaps including a portion of the soon-to-shut second­ary department at Scalloway School, could be used in such a way.

A successful example of such a “hub” already exists at Sellafirth, Yell. It is operated by the Bluemull Development Company and used by the SIC and other workers. Develop­ment worker Karen Hannay said recently it had taken time to convince employers that staff could get through “as much, if not more, work”.

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One comment

  1. It is such a shame that SIC Staff will have to now live in the real world of working outside the little bubble called Lerwick. It must be awful for the Town Folk to realise that there are such places called Whalsay, unst and Yell. People here travel every day to work in Lerwick which is crazy as they could easily work for the Council if buildings were used in Whalsay, Unst and Yell. Common sense seems to be an issue with the SIC. Why not just rename Shetland and call it Lerwick because thats the way we are heading if we do not start to address this problem of decreased population in the Outer islands.

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