Pwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau - Y Bumed Senedd
Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee - Fifth Senedd09/12/2020
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Hefin David MS|
|Helen Mary Jones MS|
|Joyce Watson MS|
|Russell George MS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Suzy Davies MS|
|Vikki Howells MS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Dr Jane Parry||Ysgol Fusnes Southampton, Prifysgol Southampton|
|Southampton Business School, University of Southampton|
|Dr Llŷr ap Gareth||Uwch Gynghorydd Polisi, Ffederasiwn Busnesau Bach|
|Senior Policy Adviser, Federation of Small Businesses|
|Ian Price||Cyfarwyddwr Cymru, Cydffederasiwn Diwydiant Prydain (CBI) Cymru|
|Wales Director, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Wales|
|Paul Slevin||Llywydd, Siambrau Cymru|
|President, Chambers Wales|
|Professor Alan Felstead||Athro Ymchwil, Ysgol Gwyddorau Cymdeithas, Prifysgol Caerdydd|
|Research Professor, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Gareth David Thomas||Ymchwilydd|
|Robert Lloyd-Williams||Dirprwy Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:46.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 09:46.
Croeso, bawb, i'r Pwyllgor Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau.
Welcome, everyone, to the Economy, Infrastucture and Skills Committee.
I'd like to welcome Members to the last committee session of the term. Before we go any further, I'll just note that, as a result of the public pandemic, the public are excluded from this meeting, but they can watch on Senedd.tv of course, and that Joyce Watson, as previously agreed, will be Chair on a temporary basis, should there be any problem with my connection this morning.
Other than that, I move to item 1. There are no apologies this morning. Some Members will only appear on the screen when they're asking questions because of connectivity issues, so just be aware of that. We haven't got any substitutions, and if there are any declarations of interest, please say now.
In that case, I move to item 2, and there are a number of papers to note this morning. There is a letter from the Chair of Transport for Wales—sent from me, as the committee Chair, to Transport for Wales. That's 2.1. We've also written to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, as in the pack, on 2.2. And we've got a letter to the chair of the development bank, on 2.3. Those are in your public packs this morning, so, if Members are happy just to note those, no action is required. Thank you.
In that case, I will move to item 3, and this is the first session, actually, of our inquiry into the Welsh Government's remote working proposals. So, this is a subject that we've already taken some evidence on in previous work that we've been undertaking, but the committee felt that we needed to do a dedicated piece of work on this particular issue, and this is the first session today, of an hour. Further sessions will obviously be when we recommence in the new year.
So, with that, we have two panels today. We have a first panel of academics, and a second panel of business experts as well. So, I will ask our two witnesses this morning just to introduce themselves for the public record. Jane, you're up first on my screen. Do you want to just introduce yourself, please?
Well, thanks very much for inviting me. I'm very pleased to give evidence today. I think it's very interesting and exciting what's being done here. So, I'm a lecturer at Southampton Business School, and I'm the director for the centre for research on work and organisations there. I think probably why I've been invited is I'm leading an Economic and Social Research Council/UK Research and Innovation project called Work after Lockdown, and that's looking at how the way we've changed our work under lockdown is affecting the way people want to work in the future, and also what organisations are learning from this. One of our case studies is in Wales, and we've also got a national survey, which has gone out to all parts of the UK.
Thank you. Alan.
Bore da, bawb. Fy enw ydy Alan Felstead, ac athro ymchwil ydw i.
Good morning, everyone. My name is Alan Felstead, and I'm a reserach professor.
I'm going to say that again in English. Good morning. My name is Alan Felstead, and I'm research professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.
Thank you ever so much for your time, as well, for being with us this morning—it's greatly appreciated. So, thank you ever so much. The way our session is set out this morning, over the next hour, is really more of an informal discussion, if you like. So, rather than specific questions, we will just draw a discussion out, really. But if I can perhaps just generally ask an open question before Members, perhaps, dive in with further points: what scale of change in remote working is likely to happen in the future? So a very simple, straightforward question, but just to give us an overview of where you think we're heading in the future in regards to remote working. Who would like to go first on that one?
Well, I can go first. If you don't mind, I've got quite a few points under this heading, so, if I may, can I go through those four points? I have four points on that.
That's absolutely fine. It's a good start—[Inaudible.]
It's not going to be a short answer, I was going to say. If you ask an academic a question, it's never going to be a short answer.
We've learnt that previously in sessions. [Laughter.]
If I may, therefore, can I make my four points? The first one is that we shouldn't forget that, before the pandemic, homeworking was on a gradual, albeit slow, upward trajectory. So, it was relatively rare in 1981—this is a long time back—when only 2 per cent of those in employment in the UK reported working mainly at home. But by 2019, it had risen to 5 per cent. So, it had taken 40 years to rise by a mere three percentage points—so really slow but gradual change. However, of course, the UK lockdown turbo-charged that shift. So, survey evidence suggests that the proportion reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 6 per cent immediately before the lockdown to 43 per cent—43 per cent—in April 2020. In Wales, it rose from 4 per cent to 37 per cent. So here, in Wales, getting on for a tenfold increase.
Now, even though working at home has fallen since then—since the lockdown—it still remains high by historical standards. The latest estimates for the last week in November—so, this is hot off the press—suggest that working at home remained prevalent, with 39 per cent reporting that they had worked at home during the last seven days because of COVID-19. So, that's my first point.
The second point—and this gets to one of your questions—is about the potentiality for homeworking in Wales versus the rest of the UK. And here, my main point is that potentiality in Wales is lower than the rest of the UK. So, in the last week of October—that's during the Welsh firebreak, note that point—fewer adults in Wales were working at home than England; that's in the firebreak. The gap was 10 percentage points. Furthermore, well over half of those questioned in Wales said that they couldn't work at home, even if they wanted to. No English region came anywhere near that figure; the nearest was the East Midlands, at 44 per cent. The Wales figure was 56 per cent. So the potentiality for homeworking in Wales is more limited than elsewhere, but remember, we did reach 37 per cent in the first month of the UK lockdown. That's well in excess of the 30 per cent aim.
My third point is—
Do you mind, Alan, if I ask a question on point 2, just briefly?
You've given us the information, but I'm more interested in the 'whys' actually. Because you've given differences in figures between Wales and the UK—why is that? And why could fewer people work from home?
I think that's again—your other questions relate to this—it's about economic sectors; they relate to the economic sectors, basically. And so, if you look at where there's been the most rapid increase in working at home, it's in banking and insurance—there's a huge increase, rose to 63 per cent, massive. And of course, we have proportionally fewer people in Wales in that sector. On the other hand, we have more people working in public administration, health and education, where there was growth, but it wasn't as sharp. That's a short answer to your question—it's the kind of composition.
It's as I expected your answer to be.
It's the composition effect.
But my third point is that the aim—the 30 per cent aim—needs to be tracked. But, like many other labour market policy initiatives in this area, I'm afraid in Wales we lack adequate data infrastructure to evaluate and monitor this aim. Let me give you some examples. The evidence I've given you so far is drawn from what's known as the 'COVID-19 study'. Now, this was carried out in the UK national lockdown with a number of surveys every month, and there are ones planned for January and March 2021, but that will come to an end. That's one point.
The other point is the sample sizes for Wales are relatively small. In fact, 350 cases—around 350 cases. The Office for National Statistics surveys that I'm going to talk about in this session are even smaller still. So, that means that obviously the Welsh sample is smaller still—around 200 cases. So, we don't have a lot of robust data. We do have robust data, however, in terms of the labour force survey and the annual population survey, which are larger, have a long-term future, despite changes to how they're being carried out. So, that does enable us to track the percentage of jobs that are being done at home, which is part of the Welsh Government's aim; the social demographic characteristics of those involved; the type of jobs—some of the questions you've asked me before, Russell. We can use that.
However, official sources only allow us to go so far. They have blind spots. Their blind spots relate to the definition of 'fair work' in Wales. So, we won't have information about work intensity, because there's evidence that people working at home probably work harder, not less, and work-life balance. So, there are blind spots in those sources of data. So, I'm suggesting one way forward, and I'm urging the committee maybe to take this on as a recommendation maybe.
That's exactly what we want to hear on this committee.
Okay. Well, I think there's a way to plug the gap, and the way to plug the gap is we do have a survey in Wales, as you know, I'm sure, called the National Survey for Wales. Now, in May to September 2020, it morphed into a telephone version, because of the pandemic, of course, and it does ask questions about working at home. So, big tick there. However, the question is not quite right, from my point of view, because it asks: 'How much of your work can be done at home?' and it gives the options: 'none', 'some, 'most' or 'all'. It doesn't ask whether work is actually carried out at home, and that's really what we want to know. Not whether it can, but whether it is, and so the question is slightly off-beam, I would argue. So, that could be changed. But we could also go further, and ask other questions in that survey that get at some of the themes you're talking about in this inquiry: mental health, productivity—those kinds of outcomes. At the moment, it doesn't, but there's an opportunity to do so.
Okay. Thank you, Alan. Sorry, was that your last point there?
Could I just say one—?
You've given us a long answer. I think you've given us so much information, but if you can just be brief on this next point, because I'm just conscious we're getting through the meeting quite quickly, but, yes, absolutely.
Sorry—I have a lot to say. Sorry about that. It's something I'm passionate about. I've been in this business—. I have to say, I'm not new to this business. I started doing this 25 years ago, when homeworking was not what it's considered now. It was considered then to—.
We absolutely want to get as much information from you as we can, so that's absolutely fine.
The fourth point, the quick one, is what do we mean by 'working at home'? And that's not just an academic point, it's a point, in terms of tracking and evaluating, we need to be clear as to what is meant by 'working at home'. And I'm not sure, in the Welsh Government's statement, I fully appreciate what they actually mean. So, more precision.
Okay, that's really helpful and clear. Helen, I'll bring you in in a moment. Jane, did you want to make any opening comments? As briefly as you can, if that's possible.
Okay. So, I agree with Alan and I think our evidence is going to complement each other nicely, because he's taking the broad perspective and I'm going to complement it with primary research.
We're in the middle of some broader work, but we've just done a local government survey with over 1,000 people and we're going to report in January, so I can add to this evidence with our survey with the legal sector later. I'll also join on all the interviews we've done in four case study organisations to local government and to law firms.
So, the messages that are coming out strongly are that it seems inevitable that remote working is going to be raised above COVID levels now that both employees and employers have seen the personal benefits and the productivity benefits that it can bring. But the configuration of this within organisations is a fairly open question and something that organisations are wrestling with at the moment.
In our case studies, everyone was, 'Yes, we're going to be engaged with remote working more', but they were at different stages. Some of them were still all working from home as much as possible; some were experimenting with different kinds of hybrid working, so some in the office, some at home, and people in the office on different combinations around project issues. Clearly, organisations vary in the degree of white-collar workers—formerly office-based workers—they have. So, that brings challenges around how easily different kinds of work can be adapted to a remote working model. So, you're going to have to adopt a central approach.
As Alan said, about 30 per cent of people, the Office for National Statistics estimated, were working from home at least some of the time prior to lockdown. So, the 30 per cent is definitely achievable and I think you could be more ambitious should you want to. And there are things about how you monitor this. So, it's going to be vital that high-quality evidence is collected, if this is a policy going forward. So, organisations are very often tracking this at the moment themselves. They're having organisational surveys; they've been very good around this. But definitions of what is remote working and the degree to which it's going on—it varies quite a lot. So, taking a steer on definitions there would be really useful so that comparisons can be made systematically across the Welsh labour market.
The important factors to be measuring around remote working will include gender, sector, levels of remote working over time and occupational categories within organisations. Also, measures of productivity, well-being and equalities data are going to be really key to evaluating the success of remote working. That's pretty much it.
Thank you, Jane. Before I bring Hefin David in next, can you just both—are you happy for me or for Members to interrupt you if you're not quite getting to the question? Thank you for that permission. I'm very grateful. Hefin David.
I just wanted to ask both Jane and Alan, just before we move on to all the other questions, which are very much focused towards the future: can I just understand the culture of Government and has Government been keen to legislate in the past with regards to flexible working? As I understand it, family-flexible hours have been legislated for, but beyond that, Government hasn't really involved itself in the world of flexible working. Is that correct? And if so, are we moving into, therefore, a new era of Government involvement in workplace employment relations?
Alan, do you want to come in?
Okay. I think, when you say 'Government' there, Hefin—I mean, obviously, you're talking about UK Government. Obviously, Welsh Government, as, clearly, you will know—we don't have rights to legislate in areas of employment, industrial relations and the like, so we're talking here about UK Government.
I think that's probably a little unfair. I don't necessarily want to defend the UK Government, but I might do here. We do have right-to-request-flexible-working legislation, introduced in 2014. So, it is there, and certainly working at home is one of those forms of flexible working that employees can request. What's interesting and probably gets on to some of your questions later on about international comparisons—. The thing I would note though, however, is that the UK has been relatively slow in moving in this area. Finland, for example, was there 20 years ago—25 years ago in 1996, it had the working hours Act, which ushered in greater flexibility. Hence why Finland is one of the countries where working at home is much, much higher and the switch to working at home during the pandemic has been much stronger. And this is born out of legislation that has been on the books for far longer.
There we are. Thank you. And, Jane, did you want to come in on that?
It's interesting that it's come on to the agenda again, because it was in the Queen's Speech in December 2019—a consultation on making flexible work the default. But that's obviously been put on the back burner by COVID. Our recommendation would be that right to request doesn't go far enough, and I think it was the way that Government was moving anyway, and that flexible work should be available to employees from day one. That would have a huge impact in making it accessible to everyone, and to closing the disability earnings gap, and to helping people with caring responsibilities.
Can I also make an additional point? I think it's quite interesting that, of course, when the legislation was framed, it was talk about flexible working, i.e. people moving from working in the traditional office to working some of the time at home. We're now in a position where it might be the reverse situation—where people might want to return back to the office and not be at home. And if you look at the legislation, the way it's framed, flexible working—yes, okay, Hefin, you've put your hand up—is about the switch to working at home, rather than now, in this situation, maybe the switch back from working at home, which I think is one of your other questions: what do we do about those people who want to move back? And I don't think the legislation's about the switch back—it's the switch to.
Thank you. At this point, I'll bring in Suzy Davies. Are you on mute? There we are. Sorry for misquoting.
I'm waiting. Here it is, I've unmuted. Thank you, everybody—lovely to see you. Shall we start off with the negative aspect of this? Because as Jane said, this is quite an exciting development during COVID. What are your thoughts on that? What are the downsides of all this, particularly for specific sectors—urban centres being an obvious one, but actually rural areas with no broadband will probably come into your answer?
We're now in the position where we'll have to be a little bit quicker, or shorter answers, I'm sorry—jut to get through everything we want, not that we don't want to hear you. So, who wants to go first on that? Jane.
Okay. I'll come on to mental health a bit later, because I think that's a question later on. Definitely, hybrid working is going to prompt organisational discussions around work spaces, and that is going to inevitably have an effect upon urban centres. Whether it's a positive or a negative thing, I think, depends upon how creative we are in those discussions. It certainly seems like satellite workspaces, or third spaces of work, so helping employees co-work in spaces that are neither the home or the office, are going to play a greater part in the way organisations operate in the future. This discussion can feed in a lot in how we recover from COVID in a way that's not carbon heavy—so fewer people travelling to work, and obviously that's got environmental benefits for communities. So the Welsh Government can play an important role there, in modelling and monitoring new working models, different kinds of traffic flows, as well as engaging in a more sustained analysis of the consequences of shifting energy consumption from centres to more home-based environments.
And until a vaccine is rolled out, it seems that fewer people are going to be actively seeking to use public transport to access urban centres. But, in a post-COVID environment, and where there's a bit more flexibility about whether people are working in offices or at home, they might reassess their transportation strategies. And this is perhaps somewhere where the Welsh Government could be trying to incentivise public transport use some more. So, I think homeworking and its reduction in commuting—. Sorry.
Sorry. Suzy, did you want to come in?
No, I was just hoping—on your instruction, really, Chair—that you could cut to the chase on this a little bit. Basically, who is going to be going into urban centres if retail has gone, if offices are going to be smaller or used less frequently? The hospitality businesses that serve those people usually will close because there's nobody going to them.
I think it looks like the office is not going to die. There's very much evidence that there are people who want to be in offices, who haven't fared well in working from home—and we'll come on to that a bit later. So, the challenge for organisations is managing that, so that they can configure people in offices at the same time when it's most useful to them to be working on projects and getting the kind of work-based sociability that people have missed. So, there is a future, but in a different way. And perhaps if people are more enthused about going into the office because they're getting that sociability, then they'll be more enthused about using their local amenities.
Alan, I'm happy for you to come in, but if there's nothing particular to add, then please leave it there, but if you've got something pressing, then please say it.
I think just the one thing I would say is the effect it's having on the high street—retail in particular. And some of the figures I've recently looked at here in Wales are quite, well, mind-boggling. The fall—the increase in vacancy rates in shops and so forth has got to be prompted to some extent by obviously office workers not returning to work. So, I think we need to be reimagining the city, maybe—I think that's one of the things. For example, if you look at the Broadmarsh Centre in Nottingham—sorry, not in Wales—it's a shopping centre, a 1960s shopping centre, that's been demolished and the council has used it as a green space. I just think it really highlights the fact that we might need to reimagine our city centres.
Okay. Suzy, did you want to come back on anything at all?
Just to say thank you to you both, and I really appreciate this evidence. Thank you.
Thank you. Vikki Howells.
Thank you, Chair. I was just waiting patiently to be unmuted there. Good morning to you both. What I'm interested in is if there's any evidence, any data, that you're aware of about the impact of increased remote working over the pandemic on workforce productivity, and what steps businesses are taking in order to address that.
Who'd like to go first? Alan.
I'll go first if you want. I mean, again, I have the kind of macro—. This is drawn from a large survey, a representative survey of 7,000 or so employees. It suggests that it's not had a detrimental effect. The key point is that it's not had a detrimental effect. And the fear was that it would have a detrimental effect. That's the evidence from employees—that's their reports of what they were doing and their productivity—and also from employers, I must say, as well, and you can see it echoed in data from the Institute of Directors, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the ONS. They all point in the same direction: it's not had a detrimental effect on productivity.
However, there's evidence to suggest that people, when they work at home, tend to work longer hours. So, they work longer than they were doing when they were working in the office, probably substituting their commuting time and so forth. So, it's a tick for an employer, but for the mental health of employees, not so much. Also, they work harder, more intensively—less distractions and so forth. So, again, there are negatives, and that has consequences for mental well-being. But the short answer is that it doesn't seem to have detrimentally affected productivity. And that's echoed time and time again.
So, to turn the question on its head then: are there benefits that have arisen that businesses need to capture or are capturing, and in what way? And also to look at how to promote good working-from-home practice among staff as well.
I think the answer to that question is what I found particularly striking in the data that I was looking at, which was that when you looked at those who—when we asked whether they wanted to work at home in the future or not, nine out of 10 said they wanted to. Half of them said they wanted to work all of the time or often—so, a big appetite for working at home. But when you couple that with productivity, those who said they wanted to work at home in the future were among the most productive. Those who were less productive wanted to go back to the office. So, there's a selection effect here. So, I would argue, from an employer's point of view: let your workers work at home if they want to—it has business benefits. If they don't, bring them back to the office because they're saying they're less productive relatively to their—. So, there's a business case for working at home.
Hefin, did you want to come in on this point?
Yes, I did. I just wanted to explore a little bit more the point that Professor Felstead made there with regard to employer-employee relationships and the power relationship will always be—almost always be—with the employer. And if we move to more working from home, are we looking at a need for some way of regulating working hours, so that the potential exploitation of employees is in some way controlled? You said we went from 4 per cent to 37 per cent working from home. Surely there's a danger there and it needs some kind of management. And also Professor Parry as well, if you want to come in too.
Absolutely, I would agree, but whether Welsh Government has the powers to do that, I doubt. So, yes. I don't think the Welsh Government has the powers to do so, but it could collect evidence and data on that. At the moment we don't.
So, there's a very real danger that, if Welsh Government goes down the route it's currently going down regarding encouragement, if there isn't a parallel employment rights legislation from the UK Government in place to support that, there's a very real danger of exploitation.
I think there's a danger of exploitation, absolutely, but I would dovetail this with Welsh Government's definition of fair work. We should be using that as a lever to get more evidence on these kinds of things. But, yes, there's a danger, but Welsh Government don't have the powers.
And what about from a UK perspective? To Jane, sorry.
Okay. One of the useful pieces of evidence here is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development did a review of all the evidence around work and well-being and around productivity, and they found that there are productivity gains, but worker well-being is key to that. So, that is a really good selling point to businesses—convincing them that there's a business case that they need to promote worker well-being or the productivity gains will be lost over the long term.
Now, our data in our survey at the moment with local government employees found that nine out of 10 of them feel like they're getting as much or more done as they did previously. Obviously, that's self-reported productivity, but we're not seeing anything contradicting that from organisations at the moment. That said, there are a number of recommendations we would make to ensure that this kind of productivity gain is maintained.
First of all, line managers have really borne the brunt of this. What we've really learned from the pandemic is workers have very complex needs, and those need to be carefully managed. Line managers have kind of absorbed this and haven't had any of their workload taken off. So, there's a lot of practical support that could be done around adjusting output expectations of line managers, giving them guidance around managing flexible working, rewarding their performance, and also greater recognition from leaders.
There's also an important point around strategic investment in digital technologies that we would make as a recommendation, supporting emergent forms of working. So, the organisations that fared better were the ones who had made some of those investments. So, for example, if staff already had laptops, they could adjust fairly quickly. But that needs to be very much an ongoing process.
Organisations will need to revisit training and recruitment processes. So, if we know that remote working is going to be something that there's much more of in the future, then recruitment processes need to be able to recognise competencies in remote working. And also to get better at recruiting on a remote basis, and training processes, particularly around induction—so, learning the kind of organisational knowledge to be successful and to be retained in a job—and also new starts. There is a very strong message that new starts are suffering at the moment, that observational, problem-solving, face-to-face contact was difficult to replicate on a remote basis, and there needs to be more work around how that can be done, going forward. And also who is suffering in terms of training? Who isn't engaging with remote training processes and might be falling behind because they preferred the in-person discussion when they don't understand something? So, it's very much line managers that are picking up on that at the moment.
And one final point: the re-engagement with flexible work is absolutely essential to enable us to align differences around location with differences in schedule, of aligning the very different needs people have around remote working—you know, parents with young children are very different to parents with teenagers, are very different to people living on their own. So, that will really add something to organisations' and managers' toolkits in getting much more efficient at working with remote working.
Can I ask, then—? What you're talking about is enabling it and making practical measures within organisations to make it happen. But do you have any concerns about the power imbalance that is inherent in this move—the expectation that people will work harder for the same pay at home?
Well, I think, going forward, we need to to get much more intelligence about flexibility. People have invested huge amounts of energy in making sure organisations get through this difficult period, and now it's time to give something back to the workforce, which we could do through more systematic flexible working arrangements.
Can I also say, on that, I think the pandemic has meant that we've moved to a position of enforced homeworking? We're in this situation, which is not voluntary, but, before the pandemic, it was people volunteering and requesting to work at home. In the pandemic, we've moved to a totally different position of it being enforced. There's no choice. In fact, Governments—Welsh Government included, of course—have said, 'Work at home if you can.' That's the message. So, it's very different. The power imbalance is actually evident in political statements, not just employers. I think the question is: what will happen after, when people want to go back to? Will they still be forced to remain at home? I think that's an issue, and I don't know the answer, but I think that's an interesting issue.
Okay. So, I'm just checking if there are Members who want to come in on these points. Joyce Watson.
Right, I think I'm unmuted, finally.
Anyway, I want to look at the equality impact assessments, which Government have to make, in my opinion, when we're talking about increased remote working, on the different groups, and that's all the different groups. And I want to look specifically at the fact that—. We all know business works on a profit, a balance sheet, if you like, so I want to take it somewhere else. What sort of thinking do you have around the expectations on the individual to pay for their workspace as opposed to, currently, the workspace is provided by the employer? So, everything you need is in the office, but it won't be at home. So, if I can give some examples of where my thinking is: more improved broadband width, because, clearly you're going to need that within a household, so you're not impacting on everybody else in that household and what they might want to do, for example. The fact that you're going to have to put your heat on longer, whereas you might not have had it on, simply because you were in the office, so you could switch it off all day. That's the sort of thing that I'm thinking about. And just to add another thought into this: I've heard the argument, 'Well, people aren't travelling any more, so there's no cost there, so we can balance is out.' But lots of people actually have free travel.
Who would like to come in on that?
Well, that's a very interesting point. I would have the same concerns, basically. It's a bit like Hefin's point, pushing costs and some of the responsibilities on to employees. The employers are powerful and can do that. There needs to be much more effort, of course, to readdress that; at the moment, I don't think we are. I don't think it's going to—. We're in crisis mode, aren't we? So, long term—and that was your starting question, Russell, I think—if it's a long-term aim for Welsh Government to have 30 per cent, there needs to be more thought put into that, so that there are reimbursements to workers who are paying the costs that they would otherwise not have to incur. I'm not sure how Welsh Government would do that. I think it should—I'm not sure how it could do that, but it certainly should.
Can I just throw another—? I just want to throw another curve ball into that. If people claim for expenses, they would be probably liable for tax on it. So, this isn't easy; that's why I wanted to ask it. But it's about things that you have to think about, because it's going to be the employer, and it is following on from where Hefin left off. It's about my fear, and those people who are not in well-paid jobs, even though they're working from home—they might be on very low or just below average pay.
Can I come in on that? That's true, but actually the evidence is very strong in terms of the recent growth in homeworking has not been amongst those that are poorly paid—in fact, quite the reverse. It's been amazingly strong and a huge surge in the better educated, the higher skilled, the higher paid, who can shoulder these extra costs—shouldn't, but they can. So, it's not a case of—getting back to my earlier point, when I was doing homeworking in the 1990s and it was outworkers, low-paid workers, often very, very, very low-paid workers. We're not really in that situation now, so I'm not saying that what you're saying is wrong, but I think that the segment of the labour market we're talking about is very different—it's the high paid, generally.
Okay. So, I want to go on to the equalities bit, because there's an assumption there—
Oh, just—. Sorry, Joyce.
—that everybody's equal, and they're not.
I was just going to say—Helen Mary, is your point on the first segment? Do you want to come in?
Let Joyce ask her question first—
Absolutely. Fine, I'll bring you in after.
—her answers may mean I don't need to ask my supplementary.
No problem at all. Joyce. Sorry.
So, in terms of equality—and we're talking about the equality of the space that you live in as well; you might not have an office, it might be your bedroom or under the stairs or somewhere like that. So, talking about equality impact assessments, and thinking around what is—and, again, it follows through from Hefin's question: what is a working space, and how do we manage that?
Can I take all those points together?
I think that you're right: there's a danger that new inequalities are opening up among this, and we've found it's a combination of protected characteristics with people's circumstances. So, some of the groups who were more vulnerable during this period of enforced homeworking were young people, who, as you rightly say, particularly if they're in shared accommodation, don't have ready-to-go home offices. So, they might be having to homework in their bedrooms, they might be having to work across the dining room table with their flatmates, who they may barely know, trying to negotiate taking phone calls and so on. So, they've missed out on the beginning of their career and the experiential learning that they were anticipating, during the pandemic. They've put a lot of this on hold. Also people living alone managers were flagging to us as an at-risk group, and one that might be quite hard to spot, because, through Zoom, it might look like they had a nice relaxed working space, whereas, actually, they're really missing the social contact at the office. They might be switching their cameras off, and that might be a flag. So, that was something for managers to be watching out around. So, it all comes back to hybrid working again—getting the combinations that fit employees as well as organisations and their different needs. So, a lot of work design comes into this, and the Welsh Government could usefully be providing centralised support around work design, because that's something organisations have lacked.
There's also a big gender issue. There's a growing body of evidence that women have borne the burden of domestic work during lockdown, and that can have a longer term detrimental effect on women's careers. Now, obviously, it's difficult for Government to get involved in household dynamics, but they could provide more legislative support around flexible working entitlements, which could nudge different decisions being made around remote working in the future, which then might, in turn, shift household dynamics. So, at minimum, that would include flexible working being made available from the start of contracts. The proposals might also have equality implications around age, given that organisations' induction and training programmes have in large been designed around in-person contact, in the future. So, there needs to be work developing ones that don't disadvantage young people in their careers over the longer term.
And, yes, equality impact assessments—if there was anything that could be done to incentivise the private sector to play a much more active part in those, that would be really valuable to tackle these inequalities before they become more entrenched.
Thank you, Chair. I'll address this to Jane to begin with, but Alan may want to come in as well. You mentioned, obviously, that there are issues around people's mental health and their well-being when it comes to working from home, and for some people it seems that that's been something really positive, and for other people it really, really hasn't. So, have you got any suggestions for us as to how you think the Welsh Government should support employers to support their employees, and also to support employees in relation to the potential impacts of increased remote working? I'm thinking, obviously, here of what could be done to address the negative impacts. The Welsh Government is embracing this agenda quite enthusiastically, so, obviously, they're wanting to make it possible for people who enjoy working from home to do it, but what could they do, working with employers and with employees, to help mitigate the negative effects?
There's a definite tension around remote working, in that while people—[Inaudible.]—they want to have a lot more options to work remotely in the future, there are some mental health issues, definitely. So, part of this is that remote working has led to a reduction in workforce sociability, the kind of informal contacts, talking in kitchens, in between meetings, in which people build up a lot of their organisational knowledge and confidence in their roles and so on. So, that can provide a really valuable benefit in people's careers, particularly at the start, or when people are working very intensively—an almost proxy for leisure—and also some people, as I said, have become much more isolated working from home, and that might not be evident. So, remote working for some people has exacerbated anxiety, stress and isolation.
Now, our local government survey showed that our mental well-being was generally low. On the World Health Organization indicator 5, it scored at 47.5 out of 100, which is significantly lower than average. It was better for people who had certain workplace conditions—so, where they were more satisfied in their jobs, where they had more frequent contact with their line managers and where they were working their contracted hours. So, there are definitely things that organisations can do—
Okay, well, I'd just ask you on that—sorry to cut across—in terms of people's mental health and well-being being low, were they identifying that as caused by them working from home, or was it—?Because, obviously, a lot of people's mental health and well-being isn't great because of the overall situation. Were you able to tease that out at all?
Not at this stage, but we will be able to when we go back six months and people are not in the kind of crisis-driven working from home. So, that will be a very interesting point.
There are obvious things Government could do. Like, for example, only 40 per cent of people in our survey had had a health and safety assessment, which is surprising—so, that could be enforced relatively easily—and just trying to enforce a more robust approach being taken to occupational health. That said, mental health and well-being was generally quite high on organisations' agendas, and they were trying to do lots of proactive things, both from a preventative point of view and a responsive point of view.
Line managers are often at the front line of this, spotting anxiety issues where people are struggling more amongst their staff, but, obviously, disclosure is going to be an issue around mental health—people fearing, if redundancies are coming up, that could put them on the firing line. So, line managers have a really important role to play in terms of deepening that organisational understanding around mental health and helping people negotiate flexible working arrangements that better help them to deal with the challenges they're facing, a lot of which are related to work intensification.
Practical things that are being done in organisations: employee assistance programmes, but they're generally not well accessed—so, only 36 per cent of people reported having access to one of these, and 59 per cent of people just didn't know whether they had one; so, Government could look at setting up alternative support forums where organisations are struggling to step in here—free employee helplines; seminars on topics such as sleep, exercise and time management, backed up by lots of e-mails offering tips and signposting; leadership example is really important—we don't want this to become a piecemeal pilates and fruit sort of thing; it needs to be very real in organisational support.
And another area of shortfall is connected to the intensification of work. So, people very often are not taking their annual leave, and leadership examples and perhaps some enforcement could help to get the message across that people need a break from work, even if they can't take the usual holidays, just for their mental well-being and to address the longer term issue of overwork.
Thank you. Did you want to add anything to that, Alan?
The only thing is about mental health. In the survey I'm reporting, yes, we found the same thing in terms of low levels of mental health in lockdown, as you were implying there, Helen Mary—not unexpected; everybody's mental health was down. But you asked whether it was connected to working at home. What we've found is that, early on, there was a connection. So, those working at home had even lower levels of mental health than those who weren't, in the first two months of the UK national lockdown, not in the third. So, there was a shrinkage. Now, I interpret that as people getting accustomed to working in this way. It's a shock. There's a shock effect, and people got accustomed to it. That's the evidence so far. Also, we could say that, as the lockdown continued, those who found it most difficult actually returned to work. So, those were voting with their feet. So the evidence, really, is—. I'm not sure there's strong evidence for homeworking itself having an effect on mental well-being. That's from my evidence.
Thank you. That's helpful. Anything else either of you want to add about what you think specifically we could recommend the Welsh Government do around this? Jane, you made some suggestions that were very helpful. Is there anything else you want to add?
I think I would just add that, unlike the other areas we've talked about, obviously health is a devolved matter. So, the Welsh Government does have the basis on which to intervene here, under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the fact that we want to promote a healthy Wales. So there is a basis on which to make interventions.
Alan Felstead has already touched on international comparisons—I think Finland was mentioned—but are there any others? Perhaps you could flesh that out a bit and talk about any other international comparisons that we might draw on as examples of good practice.
Well, in terms of percentages and so forth, if you look at the league table, so to speak, in 2018 across the European Union, it was 5 per cent. That was the average. Top of the league was the Netherlands at 14 per cent, and then came Finland at 13 per cent, Luxembourg at 11 per cent, Austria at 10 per cent. So, there's variation across the European Union. That's the point. At that time, the UK was around 4.4 per cent. So, around average.
So, there are lessons to be learned. That was one of your questions: what lessons can we learn from other countries? Clearly, Finland is one of the strong performers in this regard. And, as I said before, that was borne out, to some extent, from legislation, the working hours Act that was introduced in 1996. Also, Finland, if you look at trust, whether they trust their fellow citizens, trust levels are much higher in Finland. So, the idea of people working at home was more acceptable. I don't know what we can do about changing attitudes and so forth. I probably think not a lot. But they are two factors that are often cited for Finland's performance.
For the Netherlands, their performance is put down to good and stable internet connections, and they top the list in terms of internet speeds. So, that was the basis on which they were able to take off. When you look at Wales and how we perform with internet connectivity, it's not so good, in terms of comparisons with elsewhere in the UK. So, that's something maybe this committee could look at, infrastructure and internet speeds, to facilitate the prevalence of working at home, given that in the Netherlands it's credited as one of the reasons for its topping the league table.
It's not really very realistic, is it, for the Welsh Government to say that they can sustain 30 per cent of people working from home post pandemic.
It depends what you mean. I'm sorry, the devil is in the detail. I can give you statistics until the cows come home that will give you a massive figure and a low figure, and it all depends on how you define it. So, I come back to the point I made right at the beginning: I think this committee should make a strong recommendation about measurement and press Welsh Government to what it means by 30 per cent, because it's incredibly vague, I can tell you. I've looked at the statistics for a number of years, and we need much more precision on what they mean. Because, yes, it's achievable if you get the right definition.
Yes. So, if you're talking about community hubs and things like that. You're not talking about home.
Exactly. Absolutely, Hefin. You're absolutely right. So, the bee in my bonnet is on—. The phrase that is often used now is 'working from home'. It ain't working 'from' home, it's working 'at' home. 'At' means physically at your place, at your home. 'From' means: I could be a plumber working in my home and going to and from. That's not what we're talking about, and at the moment, the whole literature is 'working from home'. I don't like that term, because at the moment, it's 'at'. But I think Welsh Government is talking about 'from'. So, I know I'm going on about the 'at' and 'from', but there's a real big difference.
We've used the term 'remote working' for this inquiry.
That's okay, but 'remote' could mean me working in a coffee shop, or a motorway service station, not at my home. So, there is a big difference between 'at' and 'from'.
So, we need to pin down this definition; that's one thing. The purpose of my rather headline-grabbing question was: Finland, you said, is a shining example, but they've only made 10 per cent. But you think if you can pin down this definition, you could improve on that.
Well, again, I'm quoting at you figures that don't use the same definition, that's the problem. So, one of the issues is that you've got to be careful what you're looking at. So, I can give you a big figure if you want, or I can give you a small figure if you want. They're both robust, but the definition is different. So, it's not an academic point, actually; it's quite substantive.
Yes. And I think that's something that we could certainly drill through in our report and in any debate that's held. Chair, would you mind if I asked one more question?
Yes, we've got time for one more, absolutely.
What's come out of the discussion today that slightly concerns me is this duality of legislative power. So, you've got the Welsh Government with the kind of soft powers, at least in this field, to move towards that defined target—hopefully defined target—but also, you've got the UK Government with these hard powers that control regulation and protection of workers. Is there not a real danger now that these things could move forward out of step, and we could actually be advocating something that is quite exploitative?
Quite exploitative. I think I would say—
I'm a politician here speaking; I'm not an academic, so—.
Yes, 'quite exploitative'. I think we need to move to a position, from my point of view, where we allow people who want to go back to work to go back to work, to go back to the office, and it shouldn't be enforced that they remain at home. At the moment, we're in a situation, I think, where there's a lot of pressure to work at home, whether people like it or not, and some people like it, but some people do not like it at all. And I think we need to allow those the right to go back, so that does fly in the face of the target of 30 per cent. We shouldn't be forcing people to remain at home who don't want to. I would say my evidence suggests that that makes bad business anyway, so go with what workers want.
So, really, a 30 per cent target is too high, even if you get the definition pinned down.
I don't think I'd say that, because, again, it's all in the definition, Hefin. It's all in the definition. For example, the ONS has a statistic in its labour force survey about 'sometimes working at home'. I really don't like that, because 'sometimes' could mean, well, 'way back when?' It's so imprecise, and I could use that and give you a very big figure.
There we are. Just to check—
You're far too fair, Professor Felstead. You're far too fair.
Just to check, Alan, though, what's your understanding of the Welsh Government's definition? Perhaps you've already answered that question. I don't know if we're going around in circles, but what's your—?
Well, it says 'from'. Very interestingly, it's very convoluted, actually. I can't quote it—it's not here in front of me—but it said 'works from' and 'near from home', I think it was. So, that seems to, I think, try to capture, maybe, these urban centres that are talked about. But that isn't working at home, is it? Usually, what working from home means is your shed, in your garden, or on your property, not actually—. How many miles away is this urban centre I'm going to be working from?
Off the top of my head, I don't know. I don't know if there is a definition.
I don't know. So, that's imprecision. For me, we shouldn't have imprecision, because we can't hold politicians to account with imprecision.
So, is a target good without that?
Is having a target appropriate without having that precision?
I think it's not. I think we should have precision. Precision, and then we can call politicians to account, and also all these actions we're talking about can be driven towards that target.
That's really clear, thank you for that. Dr Jane, did you have anything you wanted to add at all to what's been said so far?
Yes. I think we've been through a sea change now, and now is the time to do something, because there have been so many mindset shifts around this. Seven out of 10 of our respondents said that they wanted to work from home at least some of the time in the future, and organisations have this huge mass of evidence about the jobs that they thought couldn't be done from home that can be done from home. The personal assistant is the classic example of that. So, that is not going to go away, and there's going to be a lot of pressure for people to work differently in future, not all the time from home, but at least some of the time from home. A policy context to watch is going to be Germany, where they're pursuing a mobile work Act at the moment that would give employees legal entitlement to 24 days of remote work per year, which is a start. It would give employment regulation around remote working in the same way that organisationally based work has had.
Looking at third spaces as well, I think, is going to be an important part of this discussion going forward. Then we can look at things like, in Sweden, they have Hoffice, which is a self-organising network, and look at the evidence that's been building around third spaces of work.
I'm so sorry that our time is up. I think I and other members of the committee would have preferred to carry this session on, because it's really a fascinating session, and you've been so clear with your thoughts and evidence to us—great contributions from you both. Thanks ever so much for your time this morning. I do want to give you the opportunity—if there are any brief, 10-second bullet points that you want to make that you don't think have been covered, by all means, bring them across now before we finish.
I think there's just been a huge amount of organisational learning around diverse workforces, and that can now be used to the benefit of both employees and businesses going forward.
I'd just like to say, I think the genie is out of the bottle, just to use an idiom, and I think it won't be put back. As Jane said, I think a hybrid form, absolutely, yes, but the genie is out of the bottle. Those who previously couldn't or weren't permitted to work from home have successfully worked from home, and some of them want to carry on doing so. I think the pressure for them to do so is so great, but there are clearly dangers, as we've outlined in this session.
I think that phrase, 'the genie's out of the bottle', has got to make its way into our report somewhere. I'd be surprised if it's not. So, thank you both for your time.
We'll send you a transcript of proceedings, and please review it. If you want to add to anything that you said, or you think there's something further that's appropriate, then please do. We're actually going to be coming back to this now in January. We've got a big break over the Christmas period, but if you want to continue watching our work, and you have further comments, you're very welcome to contact us to add further comments as other witnesses provide evidence as well. We'd certainly welcome that. But diolch yn fawr, and thank you for your time this morning.
We will take a break, but can I ask Members just to hang on for a moment? Then we'll go for a break. But if we can end our public session here, we'll be back at 11 o'clock for the start of our next session. So, thank you.
Thank you very much.
Diolch yn fawr.
I look forward to the report.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:50 a 11:03.
The meeting adjourned between 10:50 and 11:03.
Croeso, bawb. Welcome back to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee. We are on item 4 now in regard to our inquiry on remote working and implications for Wales, and this morning we have, in our second panel, a line-up of business experts that can provide us with evidence and their views this morning to help our piece of work. If I could ask the witnesses to introduce themselves, please, just for the public record.
Good morning. My name is Paul Slevin, and I represent Chambers Wales. I am their president, Chair, and lead on Welsh Government engagement.
Good morning. I'm Ian Price. I'm the director of the Confederation of British Industry Wales.
Helo. Fi ydy Dr Llŷr ap Gareth, uwch gynghorydd polisi, Ffederasiwn Busnesau Bach.
Good morning. I'm Dr Llŷr ap Gareth, senior policy adviser with the Federation of Small Businesses.
I'm Dr Llŷr ap Gareth, senior policy adviser with the Federation of Small Businesses.
Can I thank you all ever so much for being with us? I appreciate it's a busy time for you all, so I'm so grateful that you've found time to be with us this morning to help our work. Perhaps—. Members have got a series of questions over the next 50 minutes, but it's more of a free-flowing discussion, so please do take it as that and come in as you feel appropriate to bring in points. We want to draw information from you. But if I could ask you, initially, just how businesses have responded to the pandemic in terms of homeworking, and what you think the future holds for us—a very open, wide question, so it almost allows you to expand on any other opening contributions you want to make as well. Is there anybody who'd particularly like to go first on that?
It's a huge question. We're all in first. Let me kick off by saying it's not often I get in ahead of Ian. It's a huge question, and I think what we've witnessed over the last eight or nine months is a massive transition in work behaviour. So, if you just try and break that down into manageable chunks, there are those people who, in the economy, cannot work from home, and they are predominantly in the manufacturing space—they are required to be line side, they are required to be part of a process, and therefore working from home is not a concept that they can enjoy. There are those businesses who have been able to deploy most if not all of their staff at home, particularly those companies in the service sector, and they have adapted extraordinarily well. I think credit is due to those businesses where, in the professional sector, the accountants, the lawyers et cetera have functioned business as normal. I guess the biggest credit probably should go to people like the banks, including our own Development Bank of Wales, who managed to move from office-based transactions to working from home in bulk at a time of peak activity, while they continued to provide financial support to businesses across Wales.
Our analysis shows that, at the early part of the lockdown, many businesses had deployed part or all of their staff at home, and that accounted for about 70 per cent of the workforce. We've just done some analysis, actually, with one of the big infrastructural companies, so this inquiry coincides with that nicely. The expected working from home going forward is that 30 per cent of people will continue to work from home, and 40 per cent of people, in addition to that, will work from a mixed location of either home or hub, and only 6 per cent of people will work exclusively in an office environment. So, let me leave it at that point and maybe ask Ian to come in.
Yes, any additional points to what Paul's made, Ian?
Yes. Interestingly enough, the CBI also surveyed recently with Ipsos MORI and I was going to provide all the people on the call with a copy of that report afterwards, so that will give you quite a bit of the information that—
We would welcome that, yes, thank you.
—Paul's provided you with. So, I'll ensure that after the call you all get a copy of the report. I pretty much concur with what Paul has said. I think there was far more enthusiasm for working from home at the start of the pandemic than there probably is now, and, if you'd polled people at the beginning, I think everybody—there was an element of novelty to it, and the people who could work from home were quite excited about the fact they could do so.
What we've found over time, certainly—avoiding repeating what Paul has said—is that definitely the impact of mental health on people has been huge over the eight or nine months, and I think people that originally thought that working from home was the future for them now view it somewhat differently, and I think, going back to Paul's point, you'll see a growth in hub working. I think you'll see hybrid working as well, which is something that people mention a lot of now, which is people going to work maybe two or three days a week, as opposed to five days a week.
So, I think, rather than a large number of people working from home and a large number of people going into the workplace, as Paul mentioned, through manufacturing, what you're going to see is you're going to see people going to work on different days of the week. Now, there's a positive uptick to that, quite obviously, because it'll mean that, potentially, we won't see the levels of congestion we used to see prior to COVID. I think that's helpful. I think it's good for the environment. I think it's also really helpful for some of the smaller towns in Wales as well, because all roads won't lead to Cardiff after this, which is really positive, and I think you'll see towns like Treorchy, towns like Maesteg, potentially, Llanelli, areas like that—. You'll see them—. They now have an opportunity to provide a service for people who previously travelled into Cardiff. So, if you can provide this hub office space, there's a real potential to boost some of the towns in Wales as a consequence of this. So, there are opportunities, but, again, I'll hand over to Llŷr for an FSB perspective. But I think it's an interesting challenge for us all.
Thanks, Ian. Llŷr, yes, over to you in terms of how business has responded and what the future holds.
Yes, I think it's important to note that businesses have responded very tactically to a crisis, at the time doing their best to mend and make do, almost. So, I think it's quite important to note that what's happened in 2020 is a particularly strange and abnormal situation, so it's important that we take into account, when looking at whatever we call the new normal, that this situation isn't, in fact, going to be, hopefully, replicated for that long in the future. So, I think it's important to note that.
A lot of the things that have been happening in terms of the work practices are often things that were in train already and, much like many other things in COVID, it feels like they've been accelerated a lot. There are a lot of opportunities for our members, because, like with other things, such as click and collect and helping out in the community, they have shifted their work practices, where they possibly have been able to, to fit in with working-from-home mandates. I think what's also important to note here is that these are new processes and practices that they now have direct experience of, have managed, albeit having to mend and make do at the time. So, that practical experience is something that they have for the future. So, now, these processes and practices are things that are now in their list of managerial responses, or ways of managing a company, that weren't there before. So, I think that's useful.
And I think the final point here is to note that we are often talking about homeworking this year, and it is a mandated homeworking, essentially, albeit, you know, 'if you can'. So, for those companies that can do so, they have basically said—all their employees have had to work from home. I think there's a little bit of a danger here that, much as we look at the information from 2020 as being a model for the future when it's actually very strange, an outlier if you like, that we look at working from home as the same as remote working. One of the interesting things that you have—I was looking at the agenda in Welsh and it says 'gweithio o bell', which can be translated as 'working from afar', which, actually, in a way, gives you much more of a wider policy response. Because, if we’re looking at just working from home, you're not going to get some of the economic benefits that I think Ian discussed there in terms of hubs in towns and so on. But rather that you're looking at what's the whole panoply of infrastructure that's needed to support these different ways of working and that support flexible ways of working, really. Because we tend to use these terms 'remote' and 'home' working interchangeably, whereas homeworking is really just a sub-species of remote working, albeit very important for many people and very useful in terms of people with childcare responsibilities and so on. So, it's just a plea, really, that we do look at remote working as well, not just focusing on homeworking, and looking at the benefits and possibilities of that.
That’s interesting, thank you, Llŷr. Helen Mary wanted to come in.
Thank you. I'm still not quite sure whether I'm unmuting myself, or waiting for the host to unmute me—I do apologise. You'd think after all these months, we'd have got used to it, wouldn't you?
I just wanted to ask you all a very practical question, if you've got any take on this, as to whether your members have been able, as companies, to undertake health and safety assessments on their workers' workspaces working from home. To what extent—? Llŷr, I think, mentioned new processes and practices, so to what extent has that happened? And to seek your views, really, about how important that is for those people who do end up—. I think, if we end up with people working from remote hubs, it will be a different thing, because there will be an easy way to assess those, but, with people working from their own homes, to what extent have your members been able to undertake health and safety assessments? If they haven't, is that a concern for them? And have you got any suggestions about how that might be addressed going forward?
I’ll bring Ian in first, but I was just going to say, Helen Mary, as you asked the question, I thought, even in some of the hubs, there might health and safety implications there, because who's responsible? Is it the employer or is it the person running the hub, as well, I suppose, thinking about it as you asked the question? Ian.
Yes, I think that was something that came up quite quickly, actually, with regard to working from home or remote working. There's a Welsh business called Alcumus, which is based in Treforest and was offering a free risk assessment to businesses with respect to that almost from the start. So, they saw it as a commercial opportunity. But, I think it was something that everybody was acutely aware of, because, quite clearly, everybody's working environment is somewhat different. You've got some people who are fortunate to have a nice house with a spare room where they can go and they can do their work, but, unfortunately, you had stories of people working off their ironing boards and things like that, you know, in homes. So, it was something that I think employers were very keen to ensure—that people had a safe working environment from the start. Then, they used that as their decision-making process when bringing people back to work, because Admiral looked at people's work environments and brought people back whose work conditions didn't meet the standards. It's something that everybody's been aware of and has been looking at from the start, so it wasn't a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'. I think employers were conscious of that and I think a lot of good work has been done in that space.
As we move forward, I'd suggest a lot more work needs to be done. I'd go back to Llŷr's point that we were in a pandemic and we pretty much went ahead and did things very, very quickly, and I'm sure that where we end up is going to be a far better place than where we are at the moment, but I think we need to learn the lessons of, certainly, how we went to do it in the first instance. But, there is some good work being done with regard to risk assessment.
I'll bring Hefin David in. If Llŷr or Paul want to make points on Helen Mary's point as well, then please do so after Hefin's question.
I just want to raise a very quick question that's come through on Twitter from a guy called Chris Dawson-Morris, who describes himself as an NHS worker, and it isn't covered in the economic discussion that's coming later. The point he makes is that where there's homeworking, there's an impact on the economics of where people live and the economics of place, and he feels that, for example, Cardiff residents might find it more attractive now to move out into larger, cheaper housing in places like Merthyr, with access to the Brecon Beacons, pushing up house prices in those areas and making it less economically viable for people who live there to buy houses in those areas. Have you considered that that might be an impact?
So, Llŷr or Paul, either on the health and safety point or Hefin's point—Llŷr.
I know the FSB has done, particularly, work on the economics of place, so I think Llŷr, particularly, might want to—
Yes, to be honest, Hefin, I think it's probably going too far in the future and there are too many variables for us to answer 'yes' or 'no' to that, but, clearly, depending on the scale of the change, or how many places are actually doing working from afar, remote working or whatever, that will have knock-on effects elsewhere. Now, from a firm's perspective, for example, you could imagine that your pool of talent for a skilled worker is now much bigger, potentially, if you were looking for a skilled worker somewhere and your company was based somewhere rural or away from the urban centres, such as Cardiff. Similarly, it works the other way—that you could live in a rural area and then work in, potentially, London, New York or anywhere in actual fact. So, for those workers in that situation, then the question does become a question of where are the areas that are most attractive to live in. Now, one of the sides to that is housing—how affordable it is and all of that sort of stuff. In a way, there are knock-on effects that need to be taken into account, and I think housing, in that sense, is one of them. But it's quite a leap to go from where we are now to jumping to the idea of house prices jumping up straight away now, but there are long-term things that probably need to be thought of.
Another one here is that, yes, you've got some, as we were discussing now, small towns gaining, which is certainly a possibility, and decentralisation of where the economic benefits are is a good thing. On the other hand, if you're in one of the urban centres and have a business there, and your footfall is falling because people are working from home, the value of the property isn't going to change any time soon. Your business rates are still going to be high and your margins are going to be affected by footfall. So, there is a question here, in that sense also, about the value of the business premises in those areas, and is it because we are actually talking about five-year valuations there, and, in practical terms, it's been seven years now? Well, if the footfall changes dramatically because we're pushing remote working for the next year or so, that value isn't going to change. So, the business rates are not going to change. I know I'm talking as Federation of Small Businesses, and you'd expect me to talk about business rates, but there is a question there about the lag time behind issues around footfall, the viability of businesses and those business margins, and the actual value of those places changing. So, in its own way, there's a similar question around valuation over the long term, I think, and these are things that—. We can't predict now what's going to happen, but these are parts of any remote working strategy that needs to think about those things, and also in terms of what office premises, community hubs, and so on, are needed in those areas in order to facilitate the places that gain the most, and for the places that perhaps are losing out a little, and what things are possible to mitigate those effects over the short to medium term, as well.
I'm not sure if that answers your question, Hefin, but it sort of—
I think you made the point at the beginning that it's very difficult to answer at this point in time.
I should have left it at that.
I'm just looking at Paul, if he wants to come in. Paul, yes, you indicated you wanted to come in.
Yes, thank you. Can I just come in on two points there? One is to Helen Mary's point. I think there's a practical and material issue around where people work in the home, and their desk, and their computer, and whether they've got headsets and all that sort of stuff. I think that's relatively easy to assess, and we are aware that many businesses have done that very successfully, and Ian's made reference to a company that will help in that process. But I think the other side of it is the fact that—and this links back to the future generations Act as well—sometimes it is the younger generation that struggles the most with working from home, and many of those people who may be in shared accommodation, who may be sharing houses with people, end up working from their bedroom. And we've all seen the cartoon sketches around on Twitter about the person who just gets out of bed and jumps to their desk and then jumps back into bed at the end of the day. That, for many people, is an issue, and I think we need to consider the impact on the younger generation here who maybe do not have the same resources as those folk who are slightly older, who have the bigger houses, and their engagement in the workplace, because, for them—and I think Minister Skates made a comment in a meeting that certainly he and I were at very recently—how do we convert the workplace to be the safe place to be? It used to be that home was the safe place to be, but maybe, actually, it's the workplace that needs to be the safe place. So, I just think there's an impact there in respect of the extremities of age bands, for the youth in engaging in the workplace and benefiting from that, but also we need to keep in mind there's an older generation that may feel isolated by the fact that they're now working from home and fail to engage as well.
And then, I think, back to Hefin's point, if I may, which is economic cycles work in longer terms than just the length of a 12 or 14-month pandemic. And I think Llŷr's point is very valid, that, yes, we've seen a spike in housing crisis in remote areas. If you look at the decentralisation of residences in London out to the home counties, we've seen a massive spike of something up to 25 per cent in that area. But that's a short-run item for me, and I'm not sure that that's a long-run economic indicator that we can actually make policy on at this stage. I think we need to have a look at what the fundamental behavioural science is in the medium to long run before we start to assess what the economic effect of that will be.
Okay. Thank you, Paul. Vikki Howells.
Thank you, Chair. Building on the discussion that you've had already, really, and going straight into workplace productivity, what impact do you think remote working has had on workforce productivity, and what steps are businesses taking to maximise this?
Who would like to address that?
I will. It was interesting, with regard to productivity, again going back to the very beginning of the pandemic, we were hearing from people that it was having no impact whatsoever on the productivity of the businesses. That has changed somewhat over time, and it does appear now that, in some instances, it's having a negative impact. So, it's interesting. Some of this can be caused by a number of reasons, but, again, as I said, we've all made the point about young people and the situation and the impact on them and the environments that they're working in. I think that's definitely played very much in the productivity. But equally, it's got in the way of development as well. We've had lots of reports where people are struggling to develop—whether it's to personally develop or to develop a product, develop systems. And it's got in the way there as well. So, it's not just in productivity. Quite clearly, if you're not looking at new ways of doing things and such like, that's going to impact on your productivity as well.
So, there are areas—and it goes back to the point that we've all made—where we're learning as we go along with regard to this. And I think, when we do get to the stage where we have a strategy about how this will work, going forward, maybe we can challenge and address some of these things. Again, I come back to the hub working, because we won't be dragging everybody into the same place, but there may be opportunities to get small groups of people into small areas in certain places, just to work together as teams. It is impacting on team working and, as a consequence, that's impacting on productivity.
Also, what some businesses have found is that, particularly people who are customer facing, it's become very, very wearing on people who are making difficult calls on a daily basis, in a variety of sectors. I think Paul mentioned the banks earlier. You imagine, you're taking calls from people in distress on a daily basis, and you're there alone in whichever room in the house you're working—that's taking its toll. As a consequence, again, the impact that remote working is having on some people is an impact on their mental health. And we all know that, when it impacts on your mental health, it impacts on productivity. So, I think that's definitely feeding through as well. It's a number of reasons, but it isn't the positive story it was at the beginning.
Llŷr, you wanted to come in.
That's very interesting actually, Ian, because it's different to the evidence that we've taken previously. So, just to clarify, you're quite convinced, from the evidence that you're seeing, that workforce productivity is being affected negatively by working from home during the pandemic.
For some businesses over others, yes. And I think, yes, the indications to start with were there was no impact. But certainly we're seeing with some people, and I can give you business names—I won't put them out on this call, but I'm happy for you to speak to them directly—as I know businesses now where it is impacting on their productivity.
Ian, we don't want you to name the businesses, but what kinds of sectors are they in, for example?
They're generally in—. Financial services is an area where it definitely appears. I'm not talking about the large banks here, but certainly there are some institutions within Wales where it's impacting. Interestingly—and I'm sure Principality won't mind me mentioning their name—it hasn't impacted on Principality. But, certainly, other organisations have struggled to a certain extent with regard to homeworking, and they're in areas people are having to deal with challenging calls on a daily basis. So, they quite like the idea of bringing people back into an environment where they can share their experiences with others, and there's the general concern around that. So, it depends on the nature of what people are doing, in truth.
Thank you. I'm ever so sorry, but we're going to have to speed up because we've got lots more questions to get through and we have to finish by 12 p.m. I'd love to go on forever because it's a fascinating subject. Llŷr.
I'll try and be quick. I think Ian's point seems to make sense to me, but we don't have evidence as such on the same thing because our members are slightly dispersed on this. But I think it's important to note the same question here, the same problem I noted at the start—that there is difficulty in capturing evidence on what productivity means in this regard objectively, especially as the management skills needed for decentralised models of working are often very different in terms of well-being and looking after your staff, as compared to being in the office. The discussions around these different ways of management were occurring before COVID. And that question around team working and where innovation might happen over the long term, where you need to bounce ideas off and where you need cross-fertilisation of ideas, these are the sorts of things that could have issues over the longer term, which probably need to be thought through a little bit. So, I'd just note that these are the sorts of problems that are already being discussed in terms of management skills and how you deal with them in a decentralised workforce environment. In a system where we're looking more at remote working generally, we should be looking also at the skills needed for new types of line management in that regard.
Vikki, did you have any other questions before I bring Paul in?
No, thank you.
Thank you. Paul.
Just very quickly on Vikki's point, I think it's still very early in the pandemic to identify what the medium to long-term trends are here. There's a piece of analysis that was done by Southampton university where they called 6,000 businesses three times and 41 per cent of those businesses said that productivity was equal to pre-pandemic levels; 29 per cent said they were getting more done. So, that would indicate that, actually, 70 per cent were as productive as they were before. But I think you need to look at it away from a crisis-type environment and you need to look at it by sector. Because if you were to look at a law firm that has just had an intake of graduates, their productivity from the graduate level will be lower because there is no osmosis effect in respect of being able to train those graduates. It's very complex just to generalise. It needs to be looked at by sector, it needs to be looked at by discipline, and it needs to be looked at in the medium to long run.
Thank you, Paul. Hefin David.
Just to reflect on the productivity angle, the general research would suggest that those workers who work flexibly work harder and longer hours than those who don't, and that was supported by the evidence given to us by the academics we spoke to previously. So, is there a danger here that, as we move to working from home, you might be actually getting people to work harder and longer hours for the same pay?
You're right; in terms of self-assessment, people have been saying that they have been working harder and longer hours. I'd reflect that that is also an issue around management of it, and that's also around—. So, for example, for years, I've been doing quite a lot of working from home and I can tell you that, at the start, I was definitely doing it wrong; you never know when you finish, you know? And there's a learning process there, both for line management, but also for staff, about where you stop—how you cut things into 'when you're home' and 'when you're working from home'. So, I think there's a lot of stuff happening in that discussion. There are questions around the intensity of that work and the productivity and you always feel like you need to catch up. So, I think there's an element of that. That's a matter that's also around the management of the firm and leadership to make sure that you support your workers properly and their well-being. Because, frankly, for all businesses, burnout isn't good for the staff. Our members generally know their staff quite well. Anecdotally, I know they've been very much concerned about their staff and that they are able to work and are safe at work and well at work, given the circumstances. So, I think it's important to note that there's an element here of people needing to adapt to new ways of working as well, and probably also being told which ways are good and bad ways of working from home, because working too long hours is not going to be good for anybody in the long run.
Hefin, I think you've only got to look at the impact of mental health to see how it impacts on productivity, hence the reason, probably, some businesses have been challenged by this. I think there is a real danger around people working too long hours and working too hard. I think, if we're all being perfectly honest with ourselves, we've probably all done a bit of this over the pandemic—looking at our e-mails at 9 or 10 o'clock at night, leaving our laptops on. I think employers are trying, as Llŷr pointed out, to avoid this where they can, because burnout isn't good. And when people are working remotely, there is that fear that you don't have that day-to-day contact with them, so you're concerned for their welfare. So, I think employers are desperately trying hard to stop people working too hard, but, again, it's a really challenging environment, and I think there needs to be some sort of code of conduct in the future regarding remote working, which people can work to to understand, because I think some of the problem is not necessarily the employers—it's the employees not switching off. Unfortunately, when they're not in a shared working environment, it's very hard to control.
Do you think that there should be a right for workers to not work from home, and a right for workers to say, 'I'm not working from home—I don't want to'?
Yes, absolutely. People should be able to go to work if they choose to go to work, and I don't think imposing working from home on anybody is the way forward.
The way that the Welsh Government would do it would be through incentivising it. What methods do you think the Welsh Government—? What can the Welsh Government do to incentivise? Bearing in mind they haven't got the employment relations hard tools at their disposal, because they're not devolved. So, what can the Welsh Government do to incentivise and make attractive working from home?
I think it's the choice. You'll find from this, when it plays out, that there will be a number of people that will choose to work from home, and there will be a number of people that choose to go back to the workplace. I think it has to be a personal choice. I don't think imposition is going to work in any way, shape or form.
The danger with it being a personal choice is that the Welsh Government aren't going to get near that 30 per cent target.
I wouldn't say that. The problem is, it depends how you cut the 30 per cent target, because, quite clearly, if we go to hybrid working, and a number of people spend three days a week in work and two days at home—it really depends. When you cut this, you'll probably find that you will get somewhere near that 30 per cent target. But it won't mean that 30 per cent of the workforce stay at home all the time. So, you'll have to calculate it differently. That's what I would say. But the days of people working five days a week and travelling in is something of the past. Some people will choose not to go to work certain days of the week.
Llŷr and Paul wanted to come in. Llŷr.
Sorry, just as I put my hand up, a sign came saying my internet is unstable, so just carry on if I drop out. The ironies abound, I know.
I think that that's the main point, really—I think how you cut the 30 per cent makes a big difference, as Ian made the point. But it's also not just academic. If you say it's full time, five days a week, working from home, your figures are going to be much lower. You can always reach that 30 per cent target one way or another, I'm fairly certain of it. But there are questions here. Whether that means that it would not be achieved, whatever way you cut it, is a different question, I think. I think we were moving towards remote working already. This will have pushed processes and procedures to make it more acceptable. We know that some of the issues that were around stopping it happening were often middle-management ideas of, 'I can't control my workers if they're working from home', but—
Can I just stop you a second there, Llŷr? The evidence we received was there was a huge leap from 4 per cent to 37 per cent working from home. So, there wasn't a massive movement prior to the pandemic.
Well, we were moving towards more remote means of working is what I meant. There's an acceleration effect that removes a lot of those barriers, if you like. Okay, I'll take the point that it might have done a massive jump. Whether 40 per cent or so is actually the level that it should be for working from home is a wholly different question, I think. What we're looking at is what would be the number between 4 per cent and 40 per cent that would end up being okay. What we do know is that people are used to those processes and the management styles needed. I've spoken to a few people, actually in the public sector as it happens, where they were expecting that productivity would go down, as we mentioned earlier, and that they couldn't watch their staff and make sure that they were working, and finding that, actually, the work was being done. So, all those sorts of barriers that we would have thought that were actually cultural-norm barriers rather than technological barriers—although we do have them as well—a lot of those have gone by the wayside, and those are often the ones that actually do stop change happening. So, my argument there is that I think we're quite likely to reach a 30 per cent-ish target with things moving as they are, in many respects, because a lot of the barriers to moving towards that new way of working have disappeared due to COVID.
Paul, you wanted to come in.
Yes, just on Hefin's point. We've just literally finished a 100-company survey, interviewing those companies for about an hour, on behalf of one of our partners. And it's coincidental—let me put it down to being coincidental, Hefin—but 30 per cent of those businesses say that they'll be working from home going forward. So, I think it's wrong for the Welsh Government to abandon the target; I think an indicative target is good, and I think, as Ian and Llŷr have both said, it is achievable.
Thank you. We've got about 15 minutes left and we've got three different subject areas—from Suzy, Joyce and then Helen Mary—so there's about five minutes for each block of subject areas to take us up to 11:55. Suzy Davies.
Thank you, all. You'll be glad to know that my questions have been touched on already, so what I'm after is some development, and that's on the negative consequences of homeworking on urban centres in particular, but if you can bring in rural areas with poor broadband, that'd be quite helpful. My essential question is: with retail already dropping in our town centres, lots of plans are being drawn up by local authorities to bring office space back into town centres in order to create footfall for businesses around those offices. If those offices aren't either going to happen now or they're going to be empty, what's going to happen to our urban centres? I have to say, I think there is likely to be—it might take a little bit of time—an effect on property prices.
I just want to go back from that question with the idea of the community hubs. I guess we're using the word 'hubs' a lot for a lot of our members, actually, but we know that small and medium-sized enterprise had trouble finding premises that are suitable before the pandemic. So, I think we should probably also be aware that when we're discussing hubs, there are also businesses that need office spaces still. That would remain and possibly be more the case if there is a decentralisation of the workforce across Wales. Those town centres may need to look at office spaces for that reason alone.
I think it's important, therefore—. So, one of the things we probably need is a property strategy in general on this, and we've called for this quite a lot over the years, really. The idea of remote working shouldn't be seen as merely homeworking or community hubs; there are areas where offices will still be needed. And the idea of how remote working might work within that might be a useful spur towards a property strategy. Those property strategies around whatever community hubs, whatever local town offices are needed, will need to have planning in place at those more decentralised levels, so that the office spaces, the community hubs, whatever, fit with what that community needs and what that community's working patterns need. So, I think there is room here to look at developing what a property strategy would look like under remote working as well, and what is the office infrastructure and community hubs infrastructure stuff that's needed to underpin it.
There are questions around community hubs as well, just quickly, around how do we use them to have the cross-fertilisation of ideas. We have been discussing councils moving there and public sector bodies moving there. We need to make sure that, if what we're looking at is cross-fertilisation with universities, business, Government and that sort of thing, that the models for developing those fit that, and that businesses are welcome into them and are able to come into them flexibly, which is, actually, quite a bit of a challenge.
Can I ask you very briefly on that, then: are you saying that you can imagine some public sector space being made available to the private sector, small businesses, start-ups, that sort of thing—a kind of combination of indie hub and council offices?
I think if you were thinking in the abstract, it would be a pretty good thing to have Government, anchor institutions and businesses in those places, because you're losing cross-fertilisation—possibly through agglomeration in the urban centres as are. Some of the reasons cited for agglomeration are innovation, cross-fertilisation of ideas and that sort of thing. So, there are questions here where that might be a good thing. The question is whether, in practical, logistical terms, it is actually possible, because, obviously, public sector contracts are slightly different to how private companies work. We already mentioned, I think, how private companies have to think about health and safety in community hubs, who's in charge of the health and safety, who's in charge of the well-being of the employees in that space. And, similarly, if a company wants several contracts across Wales for community hubs, does that work with a public sector-led outlook on how you do it, if you see what I mean? There are questions around how these different types of organisations conduct their business, and whether we can marry those things together. Ideally, it would be good to have to cross-fertilisation across, the partnership working and all the things that help to do that, but those are the challenges, I think, when looking at how we would develop a property strategy, a community hub strategy, around these things. It needs to take those things into account.
Time is catching us, I'm afraid, we're going to have to move on to Joyce Watson's second questions.
Thank you, anyway.
Good morning, all. Again, it's the idea of remote working, rather than, maybe, homeworking, and the impact on different areas and what measures the local government can take to help, I suppose, to reduce the impact if it's negative, or increase it, if it's positive, in different areas of Wales.
Ian or Paul, did you particularly want to come in? Ian.
I'll go back to Llŷr's point about the space, the public sector space, because, interestingly, if we're going to work to a target of 30 per cent of people working remotely, or working from home, there's going to be 30 per cent capacity within the public sector in Wales that can be utilised in terms of property. So, that's something that can be looked at. With the impact in rural areas, I think, and outside of city centres—. Data suggests Cardiff is probably, outside of London, going to be most affected—currently it's the most affected city in the UK with regard to drop-off in activity and footfall and such. So, that is going somewhere and that's going to the smaller towns. Anecdotally—I haven't got any evidence to suggest it, but what we're hearing at the moment is that lots more people are using their towns. And I think there is a role for public sector, and I have been on a number of calls with various public sector organisations and local government organisations where they're looking at this as a potential opportunity. I think you've got to battle against the negatives. There are concerns, and, quite obviously, there is that impact, going back to the earlier question that Hefin raised, about potential property prices.
But, again, a lot of what we're hearing at the moment is anecdotal rather than evidence based, and I think that's the challenge. We're hearing stories about people moving from the south-east of England to parts of rural Wales now as well, so it's not just worrying about Cardiff; we're getting people moving from even further afield. Now, you can turn that to your advantage to a certain extent. We need to be quite creative here, and make these environments places that people want to choose to come to. You almost—you've got parts of Wales pitching against each other to get some of this investment and some of these people.
Can somebody bring transport in, please?
I think Paul wanted to come in as well. Joyce, were you saying about—? You were talking about transport, sorry.
Can somebody raise the issue of transport?
Yes, okay. Paul, did you want to come in on any other point? And pick up transport, if that's possible.
I'll happily do that. As was said, part of the consultation we've just come off, actually, was looking at infrastructure, and it's not just infrastructure in respect of transport, it's infrastructure in respect of digital provision as well. Just to Suzy's point earlier, I think the impact on retail is profound, but, rest assured, as somebody who works in restructuring for the rest of the time they're not working in the chamber, actually that impact on retail has been there for about 18 months. It has been accelerated as a result of the pandemic, but it was headed in this direction anyway; it was only a matter of time before our high streets were going to be impacted. For me, it's not so much about just the public sector; I think there are huge opportunities for repurposing of buildings in towns and cities across Wales, in order to be able to create these working hubs that people can collaborate in. It doesn't always have to be the public sector; it can be the private sector. Part of the support structure that the public sector can put in is improving the realm around those private sector environments, is improving the transport structure to and from those—so, how do we get to a 10 or 20-minute town? How do we get the last mile? How do we put in the rail structure or the bus connectivity that enables people to get to that point where active travel in the form of cycle or walk can take them to that hub? How do we know that they will end up with good digital connectivity when they get there? I think if we can get that sort of stuff right, the competitive advantage that it provides to Wales is profound, and we've already seen feedback from housing agents in west Wales saying that they are picking up more and more and more enquiries from people in London who want to relocate to work in the banking sector in London by being in Pembroke.
I will be sharing a copy of the report with the committee afterwards, which will give an awful lot more detail around this.
Yes, very grateful. I know we've already had Ian's document, that's come through already, so thank you, Ian, but thank you, Paul, for that further information after the meeting. Joyce, do you have any further questions? I know we're a bit stuck for time.
Just one further one to Paul. I live in Pembrokeshire, so I know that this has always happened. 'Is it just accelerated?' was my question, and maybe that will be evident in the report.
I think it is accelerated, Joyce. Again, I come back to the point I was making earlier to Hefin—we are in the grip still of a very different economic and social behavioural time, and it is very hard to build medium to long-term policy based on the reaction of people in a time of crisis. So, I think we need to let things play out over a period of time before we start to put a detailed policy that could constrain or contribute to growth and protection of the towns. But from where I sit innocently here, I think local towns will benefit significantly from this impact. I think it's up to cities like Cardiff, Newport and Swansea to find ways for them to repurpose their centres, which potentially is away from retail, which may be around hospitality, it may be around entertainment.
Thank you. I know Llŷr wants to come in, but we're short of time. If I bring Helen Mary in, and then if you can loop any comments on the back of Helen Mary's comments, Llŷr, I'd appreciate that. Helen Mary.
Thank you, Chair. We've already talked quite a lot about the idea of remote working hubs and the potential benefits for towns, and, personally, I can see that. But I'd just like to ask you specifically, because we're always having to think as a committee what could we recommend Welsh Government: do you have any suggestions as to what businesses would need from Welsh Government to support the development of these kind of not-working-from-home, but not-working-in-a-big-centralised-office hubs? Are there any things you think they need to do?
So, Llŷr, I'll come to you, and if you can address the comments you wanted to make in the context of that question, perhaps, possibly.
I guess that's the difficult one, isn't it, really? The big thing with the idea of hubs would be that they are flexible. The data with that is that from—. The idea of perhaps repurposing public sector parts of it is that, if we're looking at different types of workers, the private sector and small businesses who want to act more flexibly, be agile and so on, maybe want to come in and out, you know, hotdesk—whether the logistics of that will actually match to what they want it for. So, if you're working backwards from what we're looking for the hubs to do, which is looking at building innovation, cross-fertilisation as well as getting—well, in terms of Government workers—closer to the communities they serve as well, I guess, there's a need there to at least decentralise and have a flexible approach on it, rather than, perhaps, a one-size-fits-all model where we call a community hub one thing and that has to be the same everywhere. So, I think there needs to be an idea around the town planning, the property planning, around it that allows for communities themselves to fit them and that they fit with the small business needs of those areas, in particular.
Now, what those needs are probably we don't know yet, which is part of the difficulty, because we're probably—even if I was to ask small businesses, they might well not know what they need after COVID yet. But these are the kind of approaches we need to think about, I think.
Just a quick one on the transport issue, because that's all I was going to jump in on. Just to say that the south-east Wales transport commission was excellent on a lot of stuff, but also on noting that remote working is not a panacea for this, that, where people have been working from home—and there have been 25 per cent or so—public transport has needed to happen. People have still been on it and trains were busy at those times when they were able to open. So, it's just a matter that we shouldn't be looking at remote working as a panacea for issues we have around transport. Rather, it needs to be that it's another spur to develop the transport infrastructure as well as the digital infrastructure.