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”.