Brexit: time to take work to talent, not bring talent to work?

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I have had some very interesting discussions this week around the potential implications of Brexit on the supply of talent to UK businesses. There are certainly a lot of nervous companies out there anxiously waiting to hear the implications for both EU citizens already working in the UK and individuals who might want to come here in future.

What is clear is that changes to UK immigration policies will have widely different impacts depending on your business. Living in Lincolnshire – which includes the constituency that recorded the strongest Leave vote in the whole UK – you can’t avoid thinking about the impact on farming.

As was pointed out in a Guardian article last year, over 90% of UK British fruit, vegetables and salad are picked, prepared and packed by overseas workers. Without that supply of labour, so my farming contacts tell me, growing many crops will become uneconomic. Instead they will have to turn to produce that can easily be mechanically harvested. Goodbye salad – hello spuds and sugar beet.

If lettuces are in short supply now, then trying to buy a British one in a decade’s time could be tantamount to a unicorn hunt (unless you are prepared to pay a super-premium price). According to the Telegraph there’s already a “salad black market”.

As one commentator suggested this week the salad growing industry will undoubtedly be losers in the great immigration game. No points system (which seems to be the likely regime) is going to favour unskilled workers entering the UK while unemployment is still well above 1 million.

Farming, manufacturing and many other industries heavily reliant on heavy machinery have no option but to bring people to jobs. However, many others have the real opportunity to send work to people. Could this be the moment virtual working really takes off?

As many will know, I have championed virtual working for at least a decade. Get the culture right, develop great leaders (rather than micro-managers) and put in place reliable technology and the idea that people have to physically congregate in a single location to work effectively and efficiently is exposed as the myth it has always been.

Now is the time for problem reversal: taking work to talent, not bringing talent to work.

The very simple truth is that most knowledge and administration based jobs can be done anywhere you can get access to the internet. What’s got in the way up until now are managers without outdated ways of thinking (eg who believe that if they can’t observe what staff are doing they are likely to be skiving) and the right economic incentive. Brexit might just provide the shove many businesses need.

I’m no longer a home worker – I’m a mobile worker. If I wanted to, I could do my day’s work tomorrow from Lisbon, Leipzig or Lesotho. It wouldn’t make one jot of difference to the quality or effectiveness of what I produce. Yes, I might have to work rather unusual hours to synchronise with colleagues and clients but actually I might find a break from 9 to 5 rather liberating.

Pierre or Lisle may no longer be able to come physically to the UK to work. However, nothing will stop them doing exactly the same job from home in France or Germany.  Whether they login from Bayonne, Ludwigshafen or Tumbridge Wells they can access exactly the same systems.

Your talent pool isn’t just the UK or EU. It is the entire internet connected world.

They may have to Skype into meetings rather than walk through the door. But if George and Mildred in the UK are working from home too, then you don’t need a door – or a meeting room come to that. Or even an office building in an expensive city centre.

Of course, any CEO or Finance Director worth their salt is now doing the sums. No physical offices means lower overheads. Lower overheads deliver more profit and/or makes you more competitive. All you need to make it work is those nice people in HR to develop a cadre of leaders to replace the micro-managers you have today…

However, the benefits don’t stop there. What you now realise is that your talent pool isn’t just the UK or EU. It is the entire internet connected world. When Pierre leaves, his replacement could as easily be Lucy in LA or Manjit in Bangalore. The work moves around the planet. Nobody goes anywhere. Which is great news for the environment as people stop travelling long distances to work. Fewer cars, fewer planes, less emissions. It’s a green solution.

So, you now have a world where the need for long stay work permits drops dramatically. Instead you just need visas that allow your team to pop over for a couple of days now and again to catch up. If you even need to do that… I suspect, as a result, immigration would cease to be as much of an emotive issue.

You now have a world where the need for long stay work permits drops dramatically

You don’t have to spend huge amounts relocating not just Lucy but her extended family to the UK. Where her partner may or may not be able to work – which might have stopped her coming anyway. Her children can stay in their school in Glendale or Hermosa Beach too. So you avoid all those problems of ex pats whose families can’t settle in a strange distant land.

Of course, what an economist will point out is that Pierre will be paying his taxes in France and Lucy in the US. Their spending power as consumers will be invested somewhere other than the UK. Set against that though is the realisation that they won’t create even a blip of demand on the NHS or UK public services in general. And, of course, those more profitable virtual businesses will all be paying significantly more corporation tax.

None of this of course immediately helps the company in Wolverhampton that needs to hire engineers for their factory. Or the NHS Trust that urgently needs more nurses. However, I have a suspicion that just as technology has made my job mobile so it will make even more jobs virtual in future.

I watched a fascinating documentary recently about how many technologies envisaged in Star Trek have now come to pass. Captain Kirk’s communicator for instance bears more than a passing resemblance to a 90’s Motorola flip phone. And is the iPad really that far from the tri-coder? How long before the Emergency Medical Hologram is realised in the form of the virtual GP?

If your business is worried about the impact of Brexit on the supply of talent then virtual working has to be part of your strategy. We’d be happy to share our experience of going virtual – just drop us an email to info@chiumento.co.uk and we’ll show you the future.

Written by Ian Gooden, CEO of Chiumento Group.

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