Is Shetland Islands Council’s remote working policy still as remote as ever?

There are growing fears that the council’s once trumpeted policy of decentralising and dispersing jobs around the isles is in danger of being left behind amid current financial pressures.

In June 2011, Alistair Buchan – then SIC chief executive – described decentralisation as “a huge oppor­tunity for Shetland”, and made assurances that the authority was “absolutely committed” to the idea. “It is council policy,” he said, “and it will happen”. But less than two years on, there is little sign of progress on the issue.

At a meeting of the full council last week, Shetland Central represen­tative Davie Sandison questioned whether the policy – which forms part of the authority’s ‘corporate improvement plan’ – had “gone down the pecking order in terms of priorities”. And speaking to The Shetland Times this week, Mr Sandison repeated that concern.

“When I came into the council,” he said, “one of the first things I asked people was where are we at with this policy – what’s the prog­ress? And I didn’t get the impression that anything dramatic was hap­pening or was likely to happen.

“What I was aware of were things like improving broadband connec­tions – major improvements in making our communications better. I’m very pleased to hear all this stuff – I mean I fundamentally believe that if you want to have good, sound development policies then you have to have all that support in place.”

But, he added, “if you really do have a desire to be less centralised, to support the more peripheral areas of Shetland, to look at how you can be more efficient about how people work for the council – in other words, less travelling and more doing – then the way to do that, in my mind, is to be able to support more dispersed working arrange­ments, whatever that might be.”

The idea of providing remote offices and ‘hot desks’ for council staff around the islands has been raised often, and suggested as a plausible way of decentralising the authority’s workforce. So the recent announcement that Bluemull Devel­opment Company (BDC) in Yell is to close will have rung warning bells for all proponents of the initiative.

The not-for-profit enterprise has operated in the North Isles for three years, providing business support services to clients including Promote Shetland, the Centre for Creative Industries and North Isles Childcare. Crucially, it also offers a hot desk service to help enable remote working for council staff and others. The closure of the centre means not only a loss of three jobs in Yell; it is also a blow to the whole idea of decentralised working in Shetland.

North Isles councillor Steven Coutts acknowledged this week that, while cuts in funding to other groups that used BDC’s services may have marked the end for the company, providing facilities for remote workers had never been as successful as originally hoped.

He said: “A large part of the Blue­mull Development Company’s plan was the remote working and the hot desks and I think … that’s the elem­ent of the business plan that fell down.”

“They [BDC] were more or less self-sufficient in terms of the other work that they’d managed to attract and the services that they were providing, but it was the remote working that didn’t work.”

He said the technology was there – the centre was attached to the council network and the Cable and Wireless Pathfinder network – and the intention was there. “So why weren’t more council staff able to use it?”

The fact is, he explained, technol­ogy can only ever be “part of the solution”.

“Management techniques and willingness to allow folk to work remotely is potentially the bigger barrier, in terms of managers want­ing to see somebody sitting across from them in a room – it’s much easier to control and influence your staff that way. But I don’t know. I’ve worked remotely for years and never had a problem with it.”

According to Mr Sandison, decentralisation should not be seen as a problem. Instead, the council should embrace the opportunity to help outlying communities become more sustainable. The benefits could well outweigh the challenges.

He said: “If you’re wanting to get rid of some of the logjams we’ve got at commuting hours on some of the ferries, one of the ways to do that is to have fewer people coming out of the islands in the first place.

“If you’re supporting jobs in Yell, Unst, Fetlar, Whalsay, etc, then per­haps the pressure on some of the ferries, at eight o’clock in the morn­ing or five o’clock at night, would be reduced.”

Mr Coutts agreed with the sentiment. “The more we can do to live and work closer together, to make it more sustainable”, he said, “the better.”
“It’s a solution where, to my mind, everyone benefits other than the oil companies, of course.”

As concerns are voiced with increasing regularity about the growing divide between town and country, this is not a subject likely to disappear anytime soon.

The council needs to recognise that it is a crucial issue, said Mr Sandison, and something to which the authority must do more than “just pay lip service”.

“It’s all very well having a policy,” he said, “but you have to then go out and implement it. You know, people can write policies till the cows come home, but you’ve actually got to have some action. You’ve got to have something that actually delivers, even if it’s only in small increments.

“I don’t expect things to turn around overnight, but over the length of this council I’d certainly expect to see some movement on it.”

A council spokeswoman this week refused to answer any ques­tions on remote working, saying that it would be “inappropriate” to do so. The issue would be discussed again by councillors, she said, and no comment would be forthcoming before that time.


Add Your Comment
  • Jane Young

    • March 2nd, 2013 16:40

    The opportunity for SIC decentralisation extends well beyond hot-desking. Remote working should be viewed as one component of a wider strategy that looks to decrease council operating costs while improving service levels – all while creating a more engaged, motivated, effective workforce.

    To achieve this, as your article says, it isn’t just about technology – that’s just one of three key components of the journey, the other two being i) culture (behaviour, roles, sense of purpose etc) and ii) process (the workflow, i.e. how stuff gets done).

    All organisations are facing this journey, not just councils. In my experience it takes no more than twelve weeks to take an organisation four times larger than the SIC to the point of having a clear roadmap everyone buys into that outlines all the activities which need to happen in order to see the tangible benefits. It isn’t clear that the tangible benefits to the SIC have even been defined, so it’s little wonder that without knowing where you’re going and without knowing why, you’ll have trouble getting there.

    The thing is, to work in a more autonomous way, two things are necessary:

    Trust (management need to trust staff to get on with their work unsupervised)
    Information (staff need access to information in order to make good decisions)

    Most organisations fritter away 10% of salary cost just on people looking for the information they need to do their job.

    According to a Shetland Times article this time last year, the top 131 staff members at the SIC were earning over £50,000. That means we could estimate – perhaps conservatively (given some salaries were more than double that amount) – that the SIC many have wasted £655,000 on just those 131 people searching for information. That’s before we get started on the 16,000 (or however many) other employees. Hmmm.

    And what about meeting reduction? Ever suspect there might be rather a few meetings going on at SIC Towers? I doubt many people would argue with my assumptions that about half of time spent in meetings is wasted, for one reason or another. Say the Shetland public sector has 16,000 workers (someone please correct me, as I don’t know the number), taking an average salary of say £30k, having on average 20 meetings a month (the average professional has 60, so this isn’t unreasonable)… this equates to a whopping waste in the region of £28.8 million – more than double the £12.4 million budget cut reported about a week ago in the Shetland Times, that’s freaking everyone out with slashed music lessons, schools closures and other senseless, destructive service reductions.

    Meanwhile, these days there are countless cheap, instantly deployable collaboration tools that enable people to work from anywhere and make it much easier to find the information you need, instantly.

    There are also proven methods and processes for steering large groups of people through these changes. As I said, every organisation is trying to do it, out of necessity.

    It seems the missing links to galvanise the troops in the case of the SIC is trust in their employees and an understanding of the process that takes them from ‘now’ to the destination (which they haven’t set, as far as I can see). The former is the trickiest problem to resolve, as management tends to suffer from the control delusion. Tight, centralised control mechanisms are super attractive to cruising, comfort-seeking folk. The trouble is, they aren’t working.

    The tougher the times, the stronger the compulsion to issue reams of rules, legislation, gung-ho cuts and policy. Just look at the state of politics, drinking and drug laws; and long-winded employee handbooks nobody ever reads.

    Arse-covering document production lures us into a false sense of security, skews our priorities and often demolishes common sense. We focus on empty words and numbers, lazily neglecting to change people’s behaviour and instigate true culture change beneath the surface. Back offices grow, coal face shrinks (sound familiar SIC?!) and leaders cover their ears as their people grow distracted, mindless and even corrupt – manipulating old school systems by hitting targets at all cost; and producing results that are often the opposite of what was intended.

    Just look at the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, created as a result of the MPs’ expenses scandal, at a cost of £6.6m – six times the amount the MPs were forced to repay (not to mention the 80 staff and £6m per year needed to keep it going).

    The pace of change in the world around us keeps accelerating. The council is slow as hell.

    If the SIC isn’t investing in developing a loose culture and decentralised structure, they’re probably going to wake up one morning soon, buried knee-deep in data, wondering what the hell happened.

    In fact are we already there?

    A flat, decentralised, trust-based, collaborative, loosely networked approach will win.

    Clarity of purpose is important too, to serve as a centre of gravity that pulls a bunch of distributed, autonomous workers in a unified direction. The only thing that’s clear about the SIC’s purpose – or in other words their ‘vision’ – is that it’s unclear and uninspiring, hence the sense of disillusionment felt by so many staff and members of the public.

    And I haven’t even got onto the travel reduction potential yet…

  • Maureen Bell

    • March 4th, 2013 11:07

    Who is Jane Young? What a very sensible lady! I just hope SIC really listens to what she is saying.

  • Johan Adamson

    • March 4th, 2013 12:10

    There is so much potential here to support local communities – especially shops and schools and save costs in terms of fuel and family time. Please support this

  • Dave Lister

    • March 5th, 2013 11:06

    The sentiments here and the reasons that remote working are beneficial to people, families, communities etc. etc. can go on and on and can be backed up by countless studies.
    However, and I hate to play the devils advocate here, but the only places I have seen remote working successfully, have been in young, bright, dynamic, friendly working environments where work and effort is valued, and staff and management are motivated to be working for achievable goals.
    The SIC on the other hand…well I doubt I will see it in my lifetime.

  • Les Sinclair

    • March 6th, 2013 1:10

    Ms Young is clearly a well educated, intelligent, articulate woman, whoever she may be.
    It seems to me that if Shetland had more people who were willing to express their views as she has done, no matter what those views were, then it would be a much better place as a result of the debate that would almost certainly ensue.
    It would appear that there is now a nucleus of Councillors who are showing a willingness to question the flawed orthodoxy of the past forty years that is still enthusiastically peddled by many Council Officers, some of whom have spent their entire working lives with SIC.
    Perhaps if people with abilities and attitudes similar to Ms Young’s were to develop networks with that nucleus then the level of public debate and scrutiny might rise to the level where decisions and actions of the SIC were subjected to much needed questioning?

  • Jane Young

    • March 6th, 2013 11:43

    Since I left that comment a bit mysteriously (!) just thought I’d let you know why I have a strong view… I’m a Shetlander, living in London at the moment. I run my own business, doing a lot of work with large organisations, helping them understand how the world is changing and how they need to change to keep up. I’ve seen remote working and what I call ‘social business’ (the bigger picture of how today’s real-time communications and changes in culture impact every area of an organisation) working very successful in big, old, bureaucratic orgs as well as young and funky ones. Yes people need to be bright too, but I’d like to think that’s a given, otherwise you shouldn’t hire them in the first place, let alone retain them! 21st century working practices, including remote working, demand a degree of accountability that maybe doesn’t exist throughout the SIC at the moment. You have to be prepared to a) train people properly; b) fire people who consistently abuse the system; and c) recruit the right people in the first place. The latter is achieved by hiring on attitude, over and above qualifications. I’m not sure if the SIC are prepared to do all those things? Particularly b)!


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