Ninety per cent of staff at Western Isles Council want to move to a ‘blended’ working model following the impact of COVID-19, according to workforce surveys.
Malcolm Burr, Chief Executive of the local authority, which has a population of 26,800 people spanning the isles of Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra – told a Holyrood committee that remote working “will stay” after lockdown.
Mr Burr, speaking at the Local Government & Communities at the Scottish Parliament, said: “It was a revelation to me how quickly information technology enabled us to move to full home working.
“Because of a lack of broadband connectivity in some areas, it is not a universal option, but we were able to move quickly to home-based working for large sections of our workforce, and that model will stay. We do not want to lose the learning and social side of work, but our staff surveys have shown that 90 per cent would like to move to a blended working model. That builds on our other strategies of reducing the number of buildings that we occupy and sharing them with other public sector bodies.”
He added: “With regard to preparation, we were already working on a hub and satellite model, particularly using schools and other public buildings. In areas such as ours, schools are often the only public building in council ownership, so that built on a model that was already there and we hope to develop that as much as broadband connectivity will allow. Despite the age demographic, our population seem to have adapted well to the use of digital technology, so there are encouraging signs there.”
Western Isles council recently revealed the outline of its revised corporate strategy, which will focus on connecting islanders to full fibre gigabit, ‘beyond the scope’ of the national R100 broadband programme.
The council wants digital connectivity to be at the heart of its economic renewal, as it acknowledged the challenges and opportunities of the pandemic to remote communities.
MSPs were taking evidence from local authorities across Scotland on the impact of COVID-19 on councils in the wider context of the long-term financial sustainability of local government.
Councillor Gail Macgregor, Resources Spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), added: “The workforce has been incredible at adapting to a difficult working environment. Many of them have had to continue working in their normal space in what are incredibly challenging times, but a large cohort of the workforce have had to completely adapt to working from home.
“Arrangements have been good at the local level, too, although that does not mean that there have not been problems. It is very challenging for people to work from home. It is isolating and lonely, and they do not necessarily have the right equipment—or they certainly did not have the equipment when we went into that fast-moving lockdown phase. It has been hugely challenging for councils to get their workforce mobilised to work from home.”
She added: “Certainly, in councils’ plans, we are looking at a better digital approach. We are carrying out a national digital refresh, which is intended in part to support a different way of working. There are a lot of challenges, but councils have been proactive in trying to support their workforce and working constructively with the joint trade unions, which is pivotal.”
Asked whether home working would become a “permanent feature” for some local government staff, she said: “I think that it will be essential. There are very few positives to take from the crisis, but one is that it has shifted the digital agenda forward by about two years in about three months. We now realise that there are huge benefits. However, we have to ensure that people have face to face contact, because working from home is isolating. Our human resources processes have to be supportive of what members of staff want. We cannot insist that anybody continues to work from home indefinitely but, if it works for them, we need to work with them to ensure that it is facilitated.”