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Work is changing. It’s time for the government to catch-up.

by Shannon Walsh


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The election is behind us, the dust is settling and a new government, of a kind, has been formed. I think it’s fair to say that there's been a major shift in the political environment in the UK and with the country entering Brexit negotiations, we’re undoubtedly beginning another period of economic and political uncertainty. But the truth is that volatility and uncertainty of this kind has been the situation for many years now. One counter measure to uncertainty is agility and flexibility - the ability to alter course, renew focus and adapt quickly to changes in the business environment. So, as the need for agility becomes an increasing focus for modern organisations, workforce models in turn, will be required to deliver greater flexibility and agility. I believe that the ability to build these agile workforces must be allowed to play a continuing role in giving UK business, and UK government for that matter, a competitive advantage.

Independent and strong

Those in the independent workforce - whether gig workers, independent contractors, skilled professionals or interim managers - add a huge amount to both the economy and the businesses they support. Our independent workforce:

  • helps businesses to cope with peaks and troughs in demand or with any unexpected challenges

  • provides objectivity afforded by a level of independence from clients

  • consists of those willing to take on risk on behalf of clients in a way that employees don’t

  • offers access to new talents and emerging skills that are underrepresented in many parts of the permanent workforce

  • can add diversity and have a positive impact on organisational culture

  • enables the semi-retired, working parents, carers and many others requiring flexibility to continue to offer their skills and experience adding value to the economy in doing so

  • allows businesses to grow during times of economic uncertainty

Changing attitudes

It’s positive that we’ve seen a number of the largest employers in the UK coming together in the Agile Future Forum to advance thinking and practice around agile workforces. The business case for flexibility is growing. CIPD Research has shown that “flexible working is linked to higher levels of employee engagement and wellbeing, which in turn has been proven to have a positive impact on workplace productivity. What’s more, it enables organisations to attract and retain talent from more diverse backgrounds, with a greater variety of skills and experience and therefore better equipped to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse customer base.”

Speaking at the recent Public Sector People Managers Association (PPMA) Annual Seminar which I attended, CIPD Chief Executive, Peter Cheese went further, encouraging HR leaders to embrace independent workers and recognise the benefits that they offer.

There is a societal, structural shift toward independent work with a growth in self-employment since 2001 of 47% which now represents 15% of the UK workforce. Recent ONS Labour Market Statistics show our growing self-employed workforce at 4.8m is now almost equal to our permanent public sector workforce (5.42m) which continues to shrink. Policy now needs to follow suit.

My wishlist for the government

I would like to call on the government to:

Develop more policies that allow workers to thrive in other ways than through patronage to one employer. Current policies seem to be tied to an outdated 20th Century model of traditional, full-time and permanent employment and need to be modernised.

Encourage and trial new workforce and incentive models that incorporate the independent workforce and don’t inhibit or disadvantage it. Recently, in the U.S., legislation has been put forward to test and evaluate innovative portable benefit models for the independent workforce offering any number of work-related benefits and protections such as pensions, life or disability insurance, sick leave, training and  educational benefits, health insurance and more. Perhaps the basic safety net is wider here in the UK but these are important factors that can ensure that the independent workforce aren’t disadvantaged by the choice of self-employment.

Act on the findings of the Taylor Review into ‘Modern Employment Practices’ ensuring that regulations reflect modern working practices and remain proportionate. Both IPSE and REC in recent manifestos have called for the findings of the Taylor Review to be implemented in a way that ensures that self-employment remains a positive choice for all.

Out of the Taylor Review, provide an appropriate and workable definition of self-employment. Matthew Taylor has said,There is no reason why you can’t have both a flexible form of employment and have worker based entitlements”. Of course, it’s important to protect the most vulnerable in society from adverse impacts of technological change, automation and the rapid changes in workforce dynamics. However, it is also important that those workers that genuinely have control over their work process, such as interim managers and independent consultants, should be able to retain a self-employed classification.

Create an environment where those going it alone are supported and not villainised. Greater recognition of the healthy role that independent workers play in our economy is needed. Whether it’s contractors offering supplemental, flexible labour or interim managers and independent consultants offering fresh ideas and perspectives and providing skills and knowledge “as a service”. We need to embrace and encourage this essential element of our workforce.

As the Chief Executive of my previous employer would say, living in VUCA times has become the new normal. And the role that our independent workforce can play in allowing organisations to thrive in uncertain times can’t be underestimated.

David Weir, June 2017

David Weir is Director and Founder of Tile Hill. Leadership That Delivers. Every Time.

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