- Millions are working from home, in a shift that is likely to have permanent sticking power, bringing digital technology and telecoms to the fore.
- There are worries that smaller digital firms will fall through the cracks in government support schemes, but also opportunities to be doing more while on furlough, with a ‘tech army’.
- Employment intentions look surprisingly robust, according to the industry body – if only tech sales could reach potential clients in their bunkers.
Up to 50,000 staff at Royal Bank of Scotland are working from kitchen tables and living rooms.
The chairman, addressing shareholders from his own attic study on Wednesday, said that there’s something to be learned from this sudden and enforced social and business experiment. Maybe RBS doesn’t need so much office space.
The boss at Barclays has reached the same conclusion. Why have staff commuting into London when they could operate from home or their local branches?
But hang on – isn’t it building a huge office in central Glasgow as office space for the 2,500 Barclays staff already in the city, and as many jobs again being relocated from elsewhere into one of three global hubs?
Yes, it is. And I’m reassured form Barclays there’s nothing about this week’s musings that will change that plan.
As stock markets fell last month, there was a theory that too many Wall Street traders were sitting at home in their leisure pants, lacking the adrenaline-fuelled, competitive, risk-taking culture of their offices.
But part of the new normal we’re trying to define is sure to involve more home working and conference calls in place of face-to-face meetings.
Commercial property people take note. We may not need all the office space you’re constructing and refurbishing – though what you’ve got might be handy for now, if we’re supposed to retain two metres distance, with no hot-desking allowed.
The sector that comes to the fore with this is, of course, technology. It’s hard to imagine how much worse the lockdown would have been for office-based business if we had had to rely on the telecoms technology of even 10 years ago.
So far this week, we’ve had a call for government to pay attention to a sector that’s important and big in total, but often too small to be seen as it falls through the cracks of government support schemes.
Tech start-ups tend not to make much profit, if any, so basing loans or self-employment grants on recent past performance, as measured in the accounts, is not catching them in the safety net.
Turing Fest surveyed 106 technology start-up founders and other senior figures in Scotland, and found more than half don’t think the Scottish government is doing enough to support entrepreneurs.
Scottish Tech Army
They’re looking for direct financial support, including two-thirds looking for innovation grants and nearly two-thirds identifying employee wage subsidies as vital. Already, 37% have staff on furlough.
There followed on Tuesday a call for the “Scottish tech army” to be mobilised. The raising of this regiment began only two weeks ago.
It’s allied to CivTech, the Scottish government’s programme to harness technology skills, on business’s terms and in a technology environment, to tackle the challenges that face public services.
This idea is that furloughed technology workers can do something more socially useful than playing Call of Duty, and can volunteer on public sector projects; first to support the front line efforts in healthcare, second, to add firepower to those public sector challenges, and third, to keep match fit (or battle-ready) for their return to work.
With Thursday comes an update on the state of the digital tech sector from industry grouping Scotland IS.
Under new chief exec Jane Morrison-Ross, much of it was based on a sector survey carried out in a different world, when Covid-19 was barely out the wet markets of Wuhan. That has since been updated.
And amid the mayhem and fear out there, it looks moderately reassuring, for an industry with 3,900 companies, employing 100,000 people. Scotland IS represents firms that employ 60% of them.
Only one in 10 surveyed companies puts the risk of insolvency among their top three challenges.
One third think business opportunities will rise as a result of new demands related to the virus – particularly in cloud services, digital connectivity, remote working technology and digital health.
The problem, though, is that familiar problem of… other people in other businesses. Winning new orders, cash flow and income management are all tricky when client and potential client hatches have been battened down across the economy.
Every day, I’m being told of tech firms offering other businesses their innovative technology platforms for a limited period for free.
Born in the storm
With income so constrained, around a third of those surveyed by ScotlandIS said they have already furloughed staff during the Covid-19 outbreak, with 30% planning to do so in the next few weeks.
On the other hand, there are not many parts of the economy, outside healthcare and food retailing, where you can find 29% of firms taking on new people soon, and only 8% heading towards staff redundancies.
Better still, a seriously impressive 81% of those responding to the survey plan to take on university graduates in the next year, up from 70% in the past five years.
Several big technology successes were born in the storms of past recessions. That will almost certainly be the case again.
And with the new normal requiring ever more dependence on digital tech, this is one place to watch for the first positive signs of economic recovery.