Watch the webinar
During the Covid-19 pandemic, every workplace has had to adapt to huge changes in their working environment. In today’s webinar, we spoke to Matt Brittin, President, EMEA Business & Operations at Google about how they have managed it and how they’re helping other companies to do the same. Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director at the CBI, was his co-panellist for this wide-ranging discussion.
Here's what was covered:
- New data and updates from the government
- Prepare to work from home for a while
- How can we make remote working better?
- Diversity and inclusion in a home working world
- Digital skills and infrastructure.
New data and updates from the government
Over the last 24 hours we’ve had “a few important developments,” said Matthew Fell. New data on the various business loan schemes shows that £27.5 billion has been lent so far. However, the numbers on approval rates show that the larger schemes – particularly the CLBILS – are having lower take-up. Matthew said that this showed a potential hitch with state aid rules: the government may be setting the bar too high for these larger loans.
Matthew said to expect news today on the job retention scheme (JRS), with information from the government about the start date for the partial furlough scheme. He has “fingers crossed” that the start-date for that scheme could be brought forward from August, something the CBI has been pushing for over the last few weeks.
In England and Scotland the “test and trace” system has gone live. Matthew hopes there might be “a benefit to that” as it will allow for the lockdown measures to move from a UK-wide response to a more localised one, with stricter measures in hotspot areas and looser restrictions elsewhere.
Prepare to work from home for a while
Getting companies that can operate remotely up and running on working from home was easier for some than others, said Matthew Fell. Getting the right technology and the right security in place quickly was a challenge for businesses that need extra layers of data protection, financial services and call centres for example.
Even as more sections of the economy open up over the next few weeks and months, office workers should still be expecting to work from home for some time to come. “People are increasingly thinking this is going to be a long-haul activity,” said Matthew. He explained that because many offices are concentrated in urban centres with more reliance on public transport they will not be able to return as quickly.
To support continued working from home, companies will need to invest in the equipment and technology employees require to work comfortably and productively. “You can hunch over a laptop at the dining room table for a weeks, but if we’re in this for a number of months that probably requires a little bit more support and kit.”
How can we make remote working better?
Working from home has been surprisingly successful and productive for many people. Matthew Fell cited data showing that 3 in 4 people are having a positive experience of working from home. They are enjoying the flexibility and the additional time spent with family, as well as the opportunities to exercise around their work. Matt Brittin of Google noted that some companies and workers he is speaking to are finding working from home more productive. They do not face the same interruptions that they experience in the office.
However, work from home isn’t always easy, with challenges for parents who are home schooling, issues around the blurring of work and home life, and the impacts of isolation from colleagues on mental health.
“We are seeing a few areas where really good practice is super important,” said Matthew. Employee engagement is chief among them. Managers need to have a good understanding of people’s individual circumstances and to have a handle on the workloads of their staff.
Matt Brittin explained how Google is thinking about the next few months of working from home. Wellbeing is top of the list and Google is allowing staff to expense better work from home kit to promote that. The company has also introduced welfare policies for homeschooling and is trying to think of ways to digitally replicate the experiences of Google’s office culture that are critical for creativity.
Diversity and inclusion in a home working world
In some ways, working from home has shown us that employers can be more flexible in the future. “An increase in flexible working on balance opens up more opportunities for more people,” said Matthew Fell. Expanded opportunities for remote working will be beneficial for the inclusion of working parents and people with caring responsibilities, particularly women, he explained.
However, he noted that there are some areas where working from home poses challenges to diversity and inclusion, for example those with mental health problems and some hidden disabilities.
Entry to the workforce and progression for the young will also be an issue if remote working continues for a long period of time. Networking and advancing up the career ladder will be challenging, said Matthew. Matt Brittin pointed out that the slow down on hiring we are seeing across the economy will potentially have a significant impact on diversity and representation.
Digital skills and infrastructure
The Covid-19 crisis has shown how critical digital tools and skills are to our economy. They have been a lifeline for huge numbers of businesses, families and communities. As we move towards a restart, they will be even more critical. “Economic recovery will be accelerated by digital tech tools and skills,” said Matt Brittin.
He explained how fast sectors such as e-commerce have grown and the opportunities that they present for expansion. At present, e-commerce represents around 30% of our economy in the UK. As more and more people around the country and the world go online, investing in a digital presence and staff skills will be critical for business growth moving forward, he said.
Both Matthew Fell and Matt Brittin agreed that technology will be one of the biggest growth areas in our economy. Government investment in digital infrastructure will be crucial to supporting that growth. They also concurred that expanding digital skill sets will be a key way for people to prepare for the jobs of the future. As we build back better, we need to be investing in these skills and capacities.
Key questions we answered:
- Matthew, for many firms, working from home is the new normal. What are you hearing from members about how this has worked so far?
- Technology and innovation played a huge role in enabling businesses to continue operating and teams to function effectively.
- Partnership and communication is essential, and businesses need to focus on flexibility, consulting employees, and developing solutions collaboratively.
- Businesses found providing multiple platforms to communicate with each other yielded positive results. Not every worker wants to communicate in the same way.
- Where workers have been furloughed, many employers have continued to communicate with them.
- Many firms at had to quickly move their operations to remote platforms to enable staff to continue working. The scale of challenge for some firms should not be understated.
- Firms are very aware their duty of care continues while people work from home, and many have built upon existing their health and wellbeing processes or introduced new ones to help support workers.
- In addition to mental health and wellbeing, firms must also think about the physical wellbeing of workers, both in terms of equipment and workspaces, and look to provide support where possible to help them work effectively.
- Matthew, what differences have you seen across sectors in terms of businesses being able to shift their employees to working from home?
- We found that social distancing could have the biggest impact in health, retail, transport, hospitality, some utilities, and entertainment & leisure.
- We expect it to have the least impact on manufacturing, professional, scientific, and technical services, information and communications, and agriculture.
- For some, the costs of social distancing could be mitigated by remote working.
- Education, professional, scientific, and technical services, and finance & insurance have the highest potential for remote working, while accommodation and food services, and agriculture have the lowest potential.
- Many firms have recognised this flexibility does not necessarily come with trade-offs in terms of engagement or productivity, as they had previously feared.
- And many are planning to incorporate remote working into their normal business models. We have also heard that firms are thinking about the way that less commuting could help to support their ‘green strategies’.
- Matt, how has Google responded to the pandemic?
- We understood that this crisis was going to be significant in February, and we began to take decisions quite rapidly. We are lucky to have the ability to work from home.
- We have always encouraged flexible working, but not at this scale. We have told our employees to expect to work from home for the rest of the year.
- We have tried to look at how, as an organisation, we can encourage those coincidental conversations where ideas can be generated. We are also putting a lot of thought into how we can improve our employees wellbeing while working from home.
- We are also developing welfare policies around home-schooling for parents.
- The technology has worked well but improvements will need to be made as we go forward.
- Matthew, for diversity and inclusion, will the effect of working from home be positive or negative?
- It’ll probably be both. An increase in flexible working, on balance, probably means it opens up more opportunities for more people, lending itself to more diversity and inclusion.
- But there are challenges around mental health issues. And regarding hidden disabilities, it can be harder to identify when people are struggling.
- Overall, if working from home goes hand in hand with greater flexibility, then that should hopefully open doors to greater inclusion.
- It’s important to remember that D&I isn’t just about the entry into work but is also about the progression through companies and working from home can make that more challenging.
- Many companies could also slow down hiring so the chances to improve representation could be hampered.
- Matt, what has Google have learned from people’s online searches during this period?
- At the beginning of the crisis, people were searching for things like ‘persistent cough’ and ‘underlying health condition’. As people have become more educated on the issue, their searches shifted towards things like ‘antibody testing’.
- We saw people researching employment-related issues such as furloughing and redundancies. We also saw huge searches for home office equipment, home cleaning equipment, working out at home, learning languages and meditation.
- We have also seen parents searching for things specific to home-schooling and when schools are reopening.
- In many cases, this creates economic opportunity for companies who provide those services.
- We’ve also used this time to address misinformation. For example, being responsive to taking down videos about the 5G conspiracy.
- What is the ‘big picture’ on digital skills?
- We are going to face significant restructurings after this crisis has subsided, and the UK will face a significantly different labour market. So making sure people have the skills for the jobs of the future will be hugely important.
- Innovation and digital will be growth industries of the future. Similarly, you can expect to see those sectors growing in the context of low carbon and green technologies.
- While the technology sector in the UK is growing very quickly, this is about every business being a digital business. Everybody can grow more and be more productive by going online.
- The EU regularly produce an annual ranking of countries regarding digital skills, infrastructure, and consumer behaviour. The UK is one of the world leaders in e-commerce.
- We have just passed the point where half of the planet is now online. This is what Sir Tim Berners-Lee called the “50-50 moment”. So, if you’re in the UK and you make products and services, you can now reach half of the planet. In the next five years, you will be able to reach nearly the whole planet. That is a huge opportunity we want to unlock.
- Matt, what have we learned about the UK’s digital infrastructure?
- Credit has to be given to the telecommunications companies who have provided the capacity needed for this period.
- However, we have to be alert to the long-term challenge of connectivity, because if you are working from home and you lose your connection, you cannot do anything productive.
- We have to be clear that the UK is well off the pace on broadband connectivity.
- What lessons can Google and other businesses learn from this period?
- Big companies are finding this period challenging given the complexity and range of issues they have had to adapt to.
- The capacity of workforces to work from home has surprised many.
- Employers are reporting increased productivity within their workforce, primarily because they don’t have as many interruptions during their working day.
- We have leapt forward in the structural trends we were already seeing. For example, as consumers, we have done more online research and shopping than ever before.
- The economic recovery will be accelerated by digital tools, technology and skills.