2020 was one of the most challenging years for business and individuals across the world. Nothing can undo the difficulties we have all faced. However, struggle inevitably also leads to innovation. As we settle into the new year, there is an urgent need for British businesses and governments to capitalise on what we have learned and to harness the innovation of the last 12 months. It’s time to not just ‘return to normal’. It’s time to build a better, more diverse and resilient world.
A recent study from Microsoft and the University of London assesses UK business competitiveness. The results suggest that innovation will be vital to enable the UK to better compete on a global stage.
I believe one of the biggest innovations from this year could have the greatest potential to transform the way we all live and work and propel British businesses forward. This is remote and flexible working.
Use flexible working practices to drive innovation
The Tech Talent Charter has, since its inception, championed working practices that drive inclusion. In building a robust and representative tech workforce, we need to offer more equitable opportunities. UK tech suffers from a widely acknowledged skills shortage – a 2019 survey from CWJobs highlights that 45 percent of British companies are actively seeking staff with tech skills. But despite this, the tech industry in particular, lags when it comes to diversity of all kinds.
Many women say they are interested in a career in technology – Fawcett Society research in 2019 found that around 70 percent of young women would be interested, and 45 percent of working age women are willing to retrain for a technical role. However, female participation in tech hovers at around 17 percent, while other diversity measures tend to score even lower.
Part-time, flexible hours, or flexible working locations have long been recognised as key to attracting women to the tech workforce. Women tend to have more domestic responsibilities than men – a 2016 ONS survey found women shoulder 60 percent of ‘unpaid work’. This can mean a 9-5 office-based role can be impractical. By failing to offer flexible or remote working, women often feel they cannot align their career ambitions with the demands of the rest of their lives.
These are women who would otherwise return to the workplace with their many talents and experiences. They also bring that added dimension that drives innovation – diversity. This wasted talent is a significant loss to a business’s ability to compete and innovate.
The hybrid workplace
Until now, many companies have been reluctant to embrace remote and flexible working models. These decisions are often clouded by stereotypes or an outdated understanding of their employees’ expectations. Some have just been hesitant to innovate and embark on a major disruption to their working model.
2020 caused this to change.
Thousands of companies have had to enact a live trial of remote and flexible working, unplanned for, untested but utterly essential for their business continuity.
Even the most sceptical employer has learned that remote working not only works. They’ve discovered it is a vital part of their ability to competitively attract and retain the best talent. Microsoft’s research confirms this with 83 percent of UK managers revealing they expect to have more flexible and work from home policies moving forwards.
This shift holds immense potential for inclusion and diversity. Mounting research has demonstrated the impact of diversity on creativity and innovation (the World Economic Forum calls the business case for diversity ‘overwhelming’), and the UK’s economic growth will depend upon its ability to innovate and compete on a global stage.
Remote working is not without its challenges. But what we have seen is that is it possible to do many more jobs remotely than was previously thought. Also, productivity tends to increase and not decrease. What’s more, employees have rapidly come around to the many advantages of being able to be based where they choose and not have to commute. It is not just women who stand to benefit from this new working set up.
Research from Timewise in 2018 shows that while 91 percent of women want flexibility, so do 84 percent of men, 92 percent of 18–34 year-olds and 88 percent of 35-54 year-olds. This is a wake-up call and a significant opportunity for the industry.
Companies who adapt to these new rules of play have the potential to recruit the best talent, regardless of location or even available working hours. This is a win-win situation. It’s something that will prove fundamental to the UK tech industry’s ability to address the skills gap and compete on a global stage.
Building competitiveness and innovation
This competitiveness is currently not a given. Microsoft and University of London research shows that 46 percent of UK firms fall into the least competitive quadrant of competitiveness. Clearly, we are facing a skills gap, and UK businesses need to eliminate barriers to finding talent.
The UK must reinvent itself. If we could show we retain our competitiveness in terms of innovation, talent and technology. We need to start to offer a new definition of what work is, where and when it happens. Then, we can begin to redefine our productivity as a nation.
And that can drive competitiveness and economic recovery – with a potential cumulative economic boost of £48.2 billion. Doing the right thing is no longer just the right thing, it is the smart business thing. Embracing the benefits of remote work to find and retain the best, most diverse talent pool will make a positive impact on the bottom line. It will also benefit the economic recovery of the whole country.
There has never been a more important time for the UK to take action.
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About the author
Debbie Forster is an award-winning leader and a recognised figure in the areas of diversity, tech, innovation and education and was named by Computer Weekly as the Most Influential Woman in UK IT for 2019. She is co-founder and CEO for the Tech Talent Charter, an industry collective which aims to deliver greater inclusion and diversity in the UK tech workforce. As part of her wider portfolio, Debbie works as an executive coach and a consultant. She specialises in supporting start-ups, scale ups, SMEs and social enterprises. Debbie was awarded an MBE in January 2017 for ‘Services to Digital Technology and Tech Development’.
Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) named Debbie Woman of the Year for 2016. Her work for the TTC was recognised by Women in IT awards 2018 for Diversity Initiative of the Year. She was awarded Women in IT Awards Diversity Leader of the Year 2019. Computer Weekly also named her Most Influential Woman in UK IT for 2019.
After 20 years working within education, Debbie joined e-skills UK, the national IT Sector Skills Council. There, she heads up their educational programmes, liaising with both policy makers and leaders in the IT industry. Debbie then became the Co-CEO of Apps for Good, an award-winning education charity. Debbie joined Apps for Good in 2010 and took the organisation through a period of exponential growth, from two centres in London to almost 1000 schools around the world; reaching 75,000 young people in just five years, with 50 percent of its students and 40 percent of its tech mentors being female.