When the headquarters of Scottish Natural Heritage was moved from Edinburgh to Inverness in 2003, there was opposition from staff (many of whom refused to transfer) and senior civil servants, and the cost to the public purse was estimated at £20 million. This was despite the fact that there was strong logic behind having SNH in the Highlands.
As that example demonstrated, moving entire departments or bodies is both difficult and costly. So chief executive Alistair Buchan is right to rule out transferring SIC departments wholesale outwith Lerwick at a time when discussions have returned to the dire warning first made by the then deputy chief executive Hazel Sutherland last year about the need for the authority to save up to £18 million in 2012/13.
But remote working on an individual level is an idea whose time has come. The combination of cheap and effective computer technology, high fuel prices and the need to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions makes it irresistable. Mr Buchan worries about staff working from home, rather than at so-called “hubs” in islands and outlying areas, but Britain leads the way in this sort of work, with surveys suggesting around 15 per cent of the population operate remotely. As long as a system of incentives and checks, accompanied by good management, is in place, productivity should be high, as research by his own officials suggests. Some staff will not find it suitable, but a flexible working culture should be able to accommodate them.
Paradoxically, the excellent road and ferry connections in Shetland may have weakened many communities over the years by enabling people to travel to work every day. In an era of high travel costs, those communities are further weakened as people unable to cope financially move out. It would be nice to think that a renaissance in working culture might help some of those areas to flourish once more.