By Dr Liz Cameron OBE, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce
“Better bend than break” is a proverb that transcends languages and cultures. It comes from the story about the reeds that bend in the wind to withstand a hurricane that fells a mighty oak. Their flexibility means they are likely to survive no matter how hard the storm.
There’s no doubt businesses in Scotland have faced some fierce weather of late and the forecast is calling for yet more tough conditions. For businesses in tourism and hospitality, the clouds are lowering as the UK’s furlough scheme comes to an end next month. Meanwhile the increased risk of disruption caused by Brexit is on the horizon and we are racing towards it at speed.
In this maelstrom, some but not all businesses in Scotland are still locked out of their premises. Those companies which are deemed “non-essential” are still waiting to find out when they can start operating safely under what most are calling the “new normal”.
Casting aside the problematic description of “non-essential” – can our society function without, say, professionals like lawyers and accountants? How about web developers or any other player in the services sector, which is the Scottish economy’s largest contributor to gross domestic product? And let’s not forget the manufacturers, the science and technology labs, to name but few.
Arguably these companies are actually quite essential to the functioning of our society not to mention having huge significance as employers that are stimulating both growth and protecting livelihoods.
If there have been any silver linings in the dark days of the pandemic, it has been how companies have embraced flexibility. In terms of enabling working from home, employers and employees have made huge efforts in transforming the way business is done and transacted.
Most agree that working flexibly is likely to be embedded into normal business practice long after the pandemic has passed. It has been proved it can be done. Likewise, flexible working will continue to be necessary once restrictions on workplaces are further eased in Scotland to allow for safe distancing and hygiene.
However, while it can be done, businesses need to be able to start working more normally as soon as it is safe to do so. For every worker who relishes undertaking a day’s work in a smart shirt and pyjama bottoms, there are people for whom home working is cramped, uncomfortable or even dangerous. Prolonged isolation risks taking a toll on mental health and is a barrier to training and bringing on board the next generation of talent.
What we don’t know yet is what impact “WFH” will have on the fabric of our cities, from the high street and the urban business district to the industrial and office parks.
There is also a huge question-mark over the sustainability and vibrancy of our city and town centres without the footfall of people who work there. In turn they bring with them activity and investment which underpins much-needed regeneration and rejuvenation.
There is no doubt that flexibility will be key if we are going to return to anything like normal, old, new or otherwise. Ensuring trust and collaborative working will also be essential.
In this regard, Scottish Chambers of Commerce will lead a small, focused action group to develop and review a plan to enable offices to reopen and inform the route map review decision due on October 1.
Vigilance will be required in order to prevent issues that have caused some setbacks in terms of transmission of the virus in some environments. However the vast majority of workplaces that have continued to operate as the lockdown has eased show it is possible to work safely while keeping the spread of coronavirus at bay.