Pwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau - Y Bumed Senedd

Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee - Fifth Senedd

27/01/2021

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Hefin David AS
Helen Mary Jones AS
Jack Sargeant AS Yn dirprwyo ar ran Joyce Watson
Substitute for Joyce Watson
Russell George AS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Vikki Howells AS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Antti Närhinen Cynghorydd Gweinidogol, y Weinyddiaeth Materion Economaidd a Chyflogaeth, Llywodraeth y Ffindir
Ministerial Adviser, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Finnish Government
Cerys Furlong Prif Weithredwr, Chwarae Teg
Chief Executive, Chwarae Teg
Dr Noortje M Wiezer Sefydliad Ymchwil Wyddonol Gymhwysol yr Iseldiroedd
Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research
Marianne Keyriläinen Cynghorydd Gweinidogol, y Weinyddiaeth Materion Economaidd a Chyflogaeth, Llywodraeth y Ffindir
Ministerial Adviser, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Finnish Government
Shavanah Taj Ysgrifennydd Cyffredinol Dros Dro, Cyngres yr Undebau Llafur Cymru
General Secretary, Wales Trades Union Congress
Yr Athro Abigail Marks Prifysgol Newcastle
Newcastle University
Yr Athro Kirsimarja Blomqvist Prifysgol NUT, Y Ffindir
LUT University, Finland

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Gareth David Thomas Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Lara Date Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Robert Donovan Clerc
Clerk
Robert Lloyd-Williams Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

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 09:50.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:50.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Croeso, bawb, i Bwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau.

Welcome, everyone, to the Economy, Infrastucture and Skills Committee.

I'd like to welcome Members to committee this morning. We have one substitution this morning: Jack Sargeant is substituting for Joyce Watson, who has given her apologies, and we've also had apologies from Suzy Davies. Also, at the start, I would like to say that, for public health reasons, this meeting is not available to the public from a gallery perspective, but this broadcast can be viewed back on Senedd.tv, and, of course, is also being broadcast live as well, and a Record of Proceedings will be available in the normal way. And should there be any connection problems with my connection then Helen Mary Jones has kindly agreed to stand in, should there be any IT or broadband et cetera issues this morning, which we hope there won't be.

2. Gweithio o Bell: Y goblygiadau i Gymru—Gweithlu a chydraddoldebau
2. Remote Working: Implications for Wales—Workforce and equalities

So, we move to item 2, and this is in regards to our piece of work on remote working and the implications for Wales. And we have a session this morning on workforce and equalities, and this is the fourth session in this particular inquiry. So, I'd like to welcome the witnesses this morning with us, and perhaps if I could just ask you to introduce yourselves for the public record.

I'm Abigail Marks. I'm professor of the future of work at Newcastle University, and I am principal investigator on the Working@home project, which is a UK Research and Innovation funded project looking at homeworking.

Bore da. I'm Cerys Furlong, I'm the chief exec of Chwarae Teg. We're a gender equality charity and we've been advocating flexible and agile working for decades.

Morning, bore da. I'm Shavanah Taj, I'm the general secretary of the Wales Trades Union Congress.

Thank you. This session this morning is just really about drawing your views from you, really, rather than putting you on the spot in any way. It's just drawing out discussion to get your perspective on issues. So, it's a fairly informal and flexible session in that sense. Perhaps I could—. And you don't all have to address every question that's put as well, I should point out, but, if you want to come in at any point, just lift your hand or your pen or something, and then I'll know to come to you as well. Perhaps if I could just ask, to start, a really wide question in terms of what do you think are the long-term impacts of remote working on the workforce all from your different perspectives—who would like to jump in? There we are, thank you. Abigail Marks.

I think, at the moment, it's very difficult to say, because we've all been put in this quite intense situation, and people are trying to draw implications for the future. I think what we do know is there are issues in terms of equality. From the last 10 months we've seen that women have fared worse than men from homeworking, partly because of the responsibility for schooling, but also because they're the ones that end up on the dining table or in the garage, on the ironing board rather than in the spare bedroom. They're the ones that have to attend to the housework at the same time. There are also issues in terms of inequality for those people in smaller domestic spaces. So, there are socioeconomic and gender inequalities going forward. I also think that it's quite clear from our current set of interviews that people's mental health is suffering by not having interaction with colleagues, and there are issues in terms of creativity as well.

Thanks. It's difficult not to agree with everything that Abigail has said, but, as she framed her answer, we also need to think about how we detach flexible or agile working from the overall context in which we're all currently working in the global pandemic. You're right: we're struggling with home schooling, we're struggling with interaction, both in the normal ways that we would want to do it, as well in a work context. And what we have seen over many years of advocating for flexible and agile working is the benefits that it can bring as part of a normal, healthy lifestyle, and not necessarily within the context that we're currently working. So, I think we have to think very carefully about those, because what we don't want to see is that a whole range of organisations and businesses say, 'Well, we tried that during coronavirus, and it didn't work for all of the following reasons, therefore we're going back to the Monday to Friday nine to five', which also wasn't good from an equalities perspective for a whole host of different reasons.

09:55

Yes, just to say that the fact of the matter is that people have been wanting to work from home for an extremely long time, and they were told that it wasn't possible, but I think the pandemic has proven that it can be done. There are positives to it; I think there are negatives to it as well, and what we have to remember is that not everyone is in that position to be able to work from home, and there are particularly a number of women, young workers, people who work in warehouses, cleaners, a lot of the people who we now class as key workers, who haven't even had the opportunity to explore the possibilities of working from home. At the start of the pandemic, we actually found that, even when it came to call centre workers, for example, particularly, it tended to be those individuals who were in senior management positions who were quickly switched and able to work from home, but we did really struggle to make the case for call centre workers to be able to work from home. Now, the situation has moved on, but, equally, there isn't a fair distribution of accessibility, so I think that, going forward, we need to look at the inequalities that continue to exist.

Thank you, Shavanah. Thank you all for your opening comments there. Vikki Howells.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, everyone. Obviously, the pandemic has exacerbated existing economic and social inequalities in our society in Wales, and that is something that the Welsh Government is seeking to address. So, as it develops its future remote working policy, what do you think it should build into it in order to try and tackle those economic and social inequalities?

I just thought I would volunteer. I think that there's obviously the infrastructure, so, quite clearly, there has to be accessible broadband for everybody. There has to be—. I think the biggest challenge is going to be to balance the wishes of the employees with the requirements of organisations in terms of flexible working. So, we all have—as has already been said, there's a better idea that this is possible and it's going to work, but it doesn't necessarily always fit with the organisation. So, I think there's going to be a really careful set of conversations about how to manage business needs with the rights of employees to work from home, because it clearly is a great thing, particularly in terms of an equalities agenda, for people to be able to work from home. But it doesn't work for everybody, so if you've got very young people that are living in family homes or in shared accommodation, working from home is not going to work for them. So, we have to make sure it's right for everybody, and that's a massive challenge.

I think it's important that we distinguish between flexible working or agile working and working from home, because it's not all about working from home, for the reasons that Shav has outlined. That's not possible for lots of groups of people, and there are people who are vulnerable for all sorts of reasons within their home, or just don't have access to an appropriate space to work from home. Flexible or agile working can work in a number of different ways. That might be varying the hours of work, it might be about giving staff more autonomy, empowering them. The way that we work, and the way we work with organisations at Chawrae Teg is about exactly that—exploring how can you increase your productivity in work through flexing the way your workforce delivers on the results that you need them to deliver, rather than thinking about how we can shift a Monday to Friday nine to five to a working from home Monday to Friday nine to five, which has all the same negative consequences that the standard way of working always had. So, I think we need to be careful about the term 'home-based working', for a start, and think much more creatively and innovatively about what that flexibility could offer and to whom and in different ways.

So, certainly, the way that we work is different for different colleagues, and, yes, for me, I've got an appropriate space in my house that I can work from—other colleagues are actually dying to get out to be able to meet people in coffee shops, work in libraries, access community hubs, meet in the office where appropriate and all of those things, and that is still flexible working. So, I think we just need to be really careful about terminology.

10:00

Is there anything else you want to raise, Vikki, before I bring Shavanah in, if she wants to comment on this point?

Shavanah, do you want to add anything—[Inaudible.]—your perspective?

Yes. Just to say, I think that, from our perspective, it's extremely important that Welsh Government continues on to support social partnership working, and we think that, in terms of remote working policies, it's extremely important to ensure that workers are recognised in terms of unionised workplaces, that their right to a collective voice at work is in place, and there's a real balance between the employer and employee relationship as well as—. I know the Welsh Government has got very few levers in this area, but a key aspect could be around driving positive change in the public sector, and we've seen this within Welsh Government, with their remote working policy identified as good practice through the workforce partnership council as well.

But I think that one of the things that we do also need to consider is the use of AI, and the monitoring of workers as they work from home. We saw there is a real pressure on people to work many more hours than they would have been when they were physically in the workplace. I've already seen employers referring to the fact that those hours seem to have reduced over time, and that hasn't—. I had to remind some colleagues that, actually, working from home is very different during the pandemic, particularly when the schools are closed, and just to sort of refer—. The TUC did a bit of research on this recently, and a survey of 50,000 working parents found that 78 per cent hadn't been offered furlough by their employer during the pandemic, and 71 per cent had had furlough requests refused during the latest school closures as well, and, actually, what this proved was—. It was still predominantly women—93 per cent of the respondents were women, proving that it's predominantly, again, working mothers who bear the brunt of the double burden of juggling work and childcare.

So, anything that we do going forward, that the Welsh Government does—particularly, for example, the discussions that are currently taking place about the opening of maybe having hubs and so forth, if those hubs don't take into account childcare and the wider needs of people, then we are going to end up in a space that we don't necessarily need to be in.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. Thank you. And bore da, pawb. Shavanah's begun to touch on this. I'd like to ask you all if you have some specific suggestions about how the Welsh Government might mitigate against potential inequalities between different groups that arise around remote working and how those inequalities—what can the Welsh Government do to help address some of those. And I think, Shavanah, you've begun to talk about kind of leading by example and having good practice in the public sector, but are there other things that the Welsh Government could do?

Yes. I think that there are a number of opportunities, really, particularly, going forward, in relation to the social partnership legislation, and also the 48 recommendations that came out of the fair work commission's report last year as well. I think that we should look back at some of those recommendations.

Additionally, I think that for those people who are going to be working remotely, we need to be ensuring that employers are conducting health and safety risk assessments, so in the same way as we have now updated regulations for people in workplaces, physically, we also need to be looking at how we can then make sure that those risk assessments apply for those people who are working from home as well.

There are lots of people who were, as Abigail mentioned, working in all kinds of situations, and employers haven't actually conducted those individual risk assessments, had those conversations. There have been some sort of, I'd say, 'excuses', because, actually, you can do this remotely—have an assessment of your workspace remotely. Excuses have been given, 'But we can't physically come into your home because of the coronavirus', but there are other ways and means of doing this. So, I think that there's more that can be done in terms of that. And then, in terms of trade union access for people who are working from home, at this moment in time we have access physically—the legislation allows us—into workspaces, but there isn't anything specific around digital access for workers. So, I think that, going forward, in terms of the social partnership legislation in particular, and, as I mentioned, the public sector, I would like the Welsh Government to explore those types of opportunities available to us as well. 

10:05

Yes, just a couple of things to add to that. I think we need to be careful how we frame that question: rather than what should the Welsh Government do to mitigate the negative impacts, what should they be doing to make sure that there's a positive impact on equality as a result of the work that they do. Someone said earlier in terms of showing leadership across the public sector and insisting on that in other public bodies, and you would expect me to say that they should be absolutely accelerating on implementing the recommendations of the gender equality review, rather than pausing or holding back on those at a time, because of the pandemic, when it's tempting to put efforts into other areas. This is exactly the time we should be accelerating our efforts around reducing inequality. 

On a practical level in terms of leadership, we should be asking the question why shared parental leave take-up is so low within Welsh Government and other public organisations, and why the numbers of workers who are working part time, flexibly or in another way adjusting their hours tend to be women, and that is usually to the detriment of their overall career progression. So, leadership by example is really important. Also, it's about things like access to equipment if we're going to be encouraging greater remote or flexible working and, actually, I quite like the term 'distributed workers' rather than 'remote', because 'remote' suggests that they're remote from an important centre, rather than wherever you are in Wales you should be able to do your job if you've got good broadband—we know that's a massive problem—and access to the right equipment, which employers absolutely should be providing for workers. 

And then, of course, childcare, and we're really worried about the impact on women of the current situation, where the TUC report, which Shavanah has already mentioned, showed the massive impact on women and not only in the now. We're all hoping that we won't be those people whose kids walk through the door behind us in an important meeting, but that invariably happens, I think to women especially. But I worry about the long-term impact on our career progression, because there's a risk that women will be last back into the workplace. We'll have to hold on to that flexibility for longer, because they tend to be lower paid earners within a household if they're a two-parent household. 

Finally, briefly, just to reiterate two things that employers, whether it's Welsh Government, public bodies or anybody, can do is think about what autonomy they can give to their employees to be able to take control of their working lives themselves, flex that around the complex and busy lives that we've all got, but, alongside that, really important is that it's not just about the kit, the hours of work and the contract variations that we might give, but it's about the inclusive environment that we need to create in our workplaces, so that it's okay for you to put you're out-of-office on at certain times of the day if you know that you've got other responsibilities. For me, my working pattern is probably very different to all of yours and there are good reasons for that, and that just needs to become culturally normal within all of our places of work.  

Everything that has already been said I think is absolutely correct. We need to ensure that there is appropriate financial support for people who choose to work outwith the office. Clearly, domestic utility bills are increased, so that clearly needs to be addressed. I think the issue of promotion and advancement for those people that choose to be distributed or remote needs to be really carefully addressed. There is a lot of long-term evidence of this—people who choose flexible working, because of a lack of presenteeism in the office, are disadvantaged. 

The only other thing I would like to say is that if people do not have the correct domestic space to work in a distributed manner, then we have to ensure that the hubs are appropriate, are available, are affordable and are flexible.

10:10

Shavanah wanted to come in, I think, briefly—if you want to, Shavanah.

Just quickly, I wanted to go back to something, and that was the use of—. It was an example I wanted to give, really, and it was in relation to an National Education Union rep who recently described pressure to respond at all hours leading to anxiety and stress, and also a Unison rep explained that people are sometimes expected to keep their phone or device on all the time, and there have been lots of concerns raised about more apps being planned to be installed on devices in the coming months, the pressure in terms of the daily workload. Another worker explained how AI—artificial intelligence—can result in an over-allocation of tasks when the parameters of the software significantly underestimate and downplay the time required to complete those certain tasks. These types of concerns are now becoming much more prevalent, and ultimately this is resulting in people feeling that they've been over-allocated work, and it's adding to that existing anxiety and stress that people are feeling because of the pandemic and because of the situation that we find ourselves in. Unless we address those types of things going forward, and the Welsh Government—. It might be something that they would wish to consider, but I would strongly suggest that they definitely do, because it's going to come up time and time again.

Thank you, Shavanah. It's interesting, with the reference to distributed working, Cerys, because I think when we were discussing the title of this inquiry, I think we'd never had so much discussion and we just couldn't think of the right words. You should have be in our discussions on what we call our piece of work.

We could call the report something else, Chair, if we wanted to, couldn't we?

We could do that—that's completely right, Helen Mary, absolutely. Hefin David.

Okay. I'm just interested in the kind of legislative workforce protections that might be necessary with regard to the negative impacts that affect different groups. We're aware that flexible working should be for the benefit of the employee, not the employer, and I think one of the things we're hearing already, from all three of you, is that that's not happening naturally, and I don't think—I mean, it's pretty ideological—it does happen naturally. So, how can a Government legislate for that kind of protection? 

I don't know whether I'll answer your question, but I might disagree with you slightly, just to say that I think where it works best, the benefits are to both the employee and the employer, and that's the only way that you create the kind of supportive, trusting culture that I've talked about, which enables the employees to really benefit from flexible working. One of the things that we haven't really talked about is how that can work in sectors that we might just think are not suitable for the flexibility that we've given examples of, and that is much harder if you're working in manufacturing or if you're a cleaner or in catering, but there are ways of doing that, of empowering your staff to take control of their own working lives, and that's why I think it's really important that that has benefits for both.

Just to give you an example of some of those benefits, as you know, in my other life, we run a couple of pubs. One of our pubs is run by a job-share manager. One of our managers in that job share is a single mother of three school-age children. She wouldn't be able to do that job in that industry in any other way, but that was an important way to be able to support the career progression of someone who was really able and talented. I think there are clear benefits to businesses and if we can convince businesses and employers of those, they're more likely to be supportive of employees' requests for the flexibility that they need. Vodafone did a survey a couple of years ago across 10 countries worldwide to look into the benefits of flexible working. Sixty-one per cent reported that their company's profits increased. Eighty-three per cent reported an increase in productivity, and fifty-eight per cent believed that flexible working had a positive impact on their organisation's reputation. So, I think that's the game changer: convincing organisations that this is good for them, and not, 'You should do this really', and then, it's always a public sector-led initiative, which is great and important, but to make the mass change that we want to see, the big cultural shift, we've got to get that balance right between it being good for employers and employees. How you legislate for that, I'll pass—I'll leave it to Shav.

10:15

Okay. Before Shavanah comes in, then, I suppose I could clarify what I was intending by what I was asking. My concern is that the literature would suggest that if you focus on flexible working as a concept, with the power imbalance being towards the employer, the employer will look for hours flexibility, which will be the kind of stories that Shavanah's told us about—the Unison people expected to keep their phones on at all times, you know. And my concern is that, without some form of regulation, that power imbalance remains, and the Government has a duty to impose some form of regulation to prevent that power imbalance, so perhaps that's a natural move into asking that question to Shavanah, and then to Abigail afterwards.

Go on, Shavanah. Cerys, did you want to come back first on what Hefin said? And then, Shavanah, you go ahead then.

Just to say, I wasn't criticising what Cerys said; it was just clarifying what I was asking.

Yes, I know, and I think that's where I started from—the terminology and the difference between flexibility, agile, remote and distributed. All of those matter. Naturally, agile working is perhaps a better term to use and it focuses on the results and the output of that working rather than the hours worked, and that's a big shift for employers to make, but that's all that really makes a difference. And I'm sure we could share with you some information about that terminology if it's helpful.

I think that addressing the one-sided flexibility is obviously going to be important, but ultimately it's not a devolved responsibility. Ensuring that employers aren't investing, as I say, in harmful AI to monitor or manage staff is going to be important as well as clear standards around health and safety commitments. We do have the socioeconomic contract, and maybe there's an opportunity for us to embed something within that that says that anyone who is in receipt of Welsh Government funding makes a real clear commitment to ensure that no public money is going to be invested in a way that is going to be harmful to their staff, particularly, as I say, at the moment, for us, it is around the use of AI to manage staff, but also, as we've all spoken about, it's in terms of health and safety and risk assessments and making sure that those are all absolutely in place. And issues around digital access are extremely important for us. So, I think that some of these matters are interlinked with lots of issues in relation to employment rights and industrial relations, and some of it is going to be in the hands of the UK Government, but I think that there could be some levers around the socioeconomic contract that would be good for Welsh Government to potentially explore.

So, there could be then—I think I've raised this before—an unintended consequence of the Welsh Government saying, 'Well, we are absolutely in favour of flexible working for employees and we're moving towards that', but without the legislative powers to regulate it, it could be those unintended consequences that lead to exploitation.

Chair, I'd like to hear Abigail's view as well, from an academic point of view, on whether I'm completely barking up the wrong tree, or not. It's a long time since I studied—

I think the legislative perspective is really, really important—just the basics of ensuring that adequate homeworking space, adequate broadband, and I go back to having payments for people who are based at home in terms of utility bills and things. I think there's an interesting focus on outputs, rather than hours of work, which I think was hinted at and I think that's really important.

The other thing I'd like to say is that I heard a really interesting example yesterday in terms of flexibility when I was interviewing somebody, in terms of a large retailer. What they were saying is that, when they go back, they are going to offer flexibility for the retail staff by saying that the people who work on the shop floor can also spend some time working answering calls. So, even if you're in a customer-facing retail job, you could perhaps spend two days a week in the shop and three days a week in the call centre or answering calls from home. So, they're really being creative in terms of rethinking the nature of the job to allow people to have that flexibility.

Can I just ask about that? Isn't that moving towards requiring employees to have skills flexibility, which is possibly not always in the interests of employees themselves?

10:20

It's a possibility, but I think it's also about giving people choice; it's about allowing employees themselves to know what's best for them. I'm not saying that organisations should dictate that, but if you are working on the shop floor and you want to work five days a week, but you don't want to do it on the shop floor, then it is giving you the opportunity. Maybe it's a transfer of knowledge as well. I'm not saying that organisations should dictate that; it's just an interesting example of how flexibility can be actioned if it is in the best interests of the employees.

I'm not disagreeing with you; I'm just trying to look at some of the unintended consequences. So, could you then see people being required to work beyond their contractual competencies as a result of that?

No, because that goes back to careful legislation, doesn't it?

Yes, and the problem is that the Welsh Government doesn't have those legislative powers, which is what Shavanah said.

I know, yes. I think as long as it's not enforced and that there is suitable engagement with line management and the employees to know they have the appropriate skill set. But, it's very difficult to do one-size-fits-all in terms of flexibility, and I just thought it was quite an interesting example from the person I was speaking to—that it was an opportunity.

The most important thing is ensuring adequate—whether it's adequate hub space, adequate homeworking space or adequate equipment. So many people we've spoken to have not had appropriate information technology equipment and have had to use their own IT equipment, which is not okay. So many people—as I said, we're still talking to people who are on their ironing board in the garage. I would say that 70 per cent of people who are homeworking now have got musculoskeletal problems, bad backs. This is an extreme scenario, but if we dilute it a bit, this is going to be the situation for many people—homeworking—so we really, really have to ensure that organisations are taking responsibility.

Okay. I suppose my final point, Chair, is that this requires some co-ordination between legislative authorities, doesn't it? At the moment, the relationships between those legislative authorities are not good.

No, I know. It's a structural problem, yes.

Chair, thank you. Can I take the opportunity to—[Interruption.]

This is perfect for an inquiry on homeworking—on remote working. [Laughter.]

Chair, if I could take the opportunity at the start to praise the Trades Union Congress and the trade unions, because I think they've provided a real insight of what it's like in everyday work and the importance of joining an union. I particularly like, Shavanah, the report you mentioned in highlighting the crisis and how it's been disproportionate to women. You mentioned furlough, and perhaps we could have a wider conversation outside of the meeting on that, because I'm looking at some work with those who are pregnant and on furlough now.

Moving on, Abigal, you briefly just mentioned part of my question, so perhaps we can dig a little bit more, but how should the Welsh Government support employers and the workforce in relation to the potential impacts of remote working or agile working on physical and mental health? It's a big stress from me there on the mental health side of the workforce. I just want to throw in an example here, because it's a conversation that I've had with an employee in Deeside. He's actually working nights from home. Now, I don't think we've spoken about that this morning. It's a different circumstance, so perhaps you could relate to that as well.

I think that the mental health impact at the moment is horrific, and when I say that I mean at this very moment in time. We have been interviewing people since the start of the pandemic to now, and people who were very robust are now really, really, really struggling. Organisations, employers, are putting in initiatives to support them, but it's not good enough; it's, you know, 'Meet up for a chat. If you want to, you can access the employee assistance programme.' One person, yesterday, I was speaking to said they used to have five mental health first aiders, and they're now down to one. There is really insufficient support and we are about to hit a massive mental health crisis. There are some absolute horror stories about how people are feeling now. But, again, this is an extreme scenario, that maybe we dilute this a bit for the longer term in terms of flexible homeworking. I don't think we should move away from the flexible or agile agenda because of the extreme scenario that we're in at the moment. I do think we need to be mindful, at the present time, things are not good, in terms of mental health.

In terms of physical health, we have to ensure that organisations are held accountable for making sure, both in hubs and in the home, that there is good physical workspace and that people are getting enough sleep. As you said, there's a lot of technological invasion now, so people constantly have their mobile phones with them at bed time, replying to e-mails and answering phone calls. We have to find a way of stopping that, because our home is no longer becoming our place of leisure—it's being overtaken both in terms of technology and in terms of physical space. So, there have to be ways of trying to stop that was well. But we do have to ensure correct, appropriate workspaces, appropriate technology and support for heating bills and things like that.

10:25

I thought I had to unmute myself then. I was just like, 'What am I doing?' Sorry.

I think, for me, going back to some of the points that were made earlier on, at the moment, in the conversation so far, there's been a lot of emphasis on the support needed for employers in this sort of discussion, and we think that Welsh Government should really now be talking to trade unions, working with us and organisations to support the workforce directly, and not necessarily only just focusing on, 'What can we do to help employers get the most out of their employees?'

I think the references that have been made so far in relation to mental health are massive. Mental health and well-being is being absolutely critical. Trade union reps are inundated. They themselves are extremely stressed and really anxious at this moment in time. A lot has happened in people's personal lives, where they've lost people. Additionally, there are the issues around long COVID. So, people are suffering from long COVID, but because they're working from home, employers are assuming that things can carry on as per normal because, 'Oh, you don't have to do the physical commute any more, so you can just carry on working.' As far as the employer is often concerned, those reasonable adjustments have already been made. So, I think that we need to factor in some of the real focus on the mental health and well-being of individuals.

I'd like to see some discussion and consideration about investment in management skills and occupational health as well, specifically in terms of supporting those people who are currently working remotely because, as has just been mentioned by Jack, there are people who are working from home all kinds of crazy hours and all sorts of shifts, doing all kinds of different jobs—lots of jobs that we never thought could be done. But, equally, we shouldn't assume that the way that people are working currently is the best way to work. I think there are lots of adjustments that are still required and we need to refine that as much as possible.

So, I think there are some opportunities in terms of some of the levers that we have in terms of economic support. I think that there's a lot that we could do through the public sector in demonstrating leadership. But, equally, I think that the private sector is open to that conversation as well. No-one wants to be openly seen as a bad employer. Even when we had issues with call centres, when we had low-paid workers being told they had to physically go into work, it wasn't until we spoke at a committee like this that all of a sudden, overnight almost, lots of people were given the kit and were told they could work from home. But just being given the kit isn't enough; you need all the wider adjustments to be made as well.

Thank you, Shavanah. Do you have any further question, Jack? Or—[Inaudible.]

Just a point of clarification, really, Chair. I don't think this is about moving away from agile working—I think that's definitely the future, and I'm a supporter of that—but I don't think we can ignore the reality that we live in, and I think action was needed yesterday, really, on this, and it's important that we do it. As Abigail says, it's not good enough. I think I used in the Senedd, and in committee yesterday morning, that we need to do more and we need to do better. Particularly, it is about leadership. I had a strong conversation with my former boss last week, a really open conversation, which quite surprised me, and he's taken the idea of finding out what works for his employees, and I think more people need to do that. You know, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach; it's got to work here, and perhaps I can call for all Welsh Government-funded organisations to take that lead and aid in helping their employees as well. But that's all from me for now, Chair.

10:30

Thank you, Jack, and Cerys wanted to just comment on addressing the points as well. Did you want to come in, Cerys? Sorry, Cerys I was asking for. There we are. Thank you.

Yes, just briefly. I think it's really important, Jack, that you've raised the point about mental health. I don't think any of us working—. Many organisations and employers could fail to see that and that's been particularly acute, I think, over the winter and facing the coming months ahead, and it is a crisis, and we're right to talk about it in those terms, and the long-term impact that that can have. I think, whilst not necessarily as relevant to this committee's work today, it's important to recognise the mental health crisis facing those out of work and those who are likely to become out of work over the next six to 12 months, and what Welsh Government could do to support them, not just in terms of steps back into employment, but addressing the mental health support that they need right now.

And I just want to finally say that I absolutely support what Shav said about investing in leadership and management now, and with new tools, not necessarily the same old tools that we've used to develop leaders and managers, because it is a different context, and everything we've talked about this morning demonstrates that.

Yes. Thank you, Cerys. I think this will be an important part in terms of our reporting on this inquiry. Actually, I'm tempted to ask for the name of the dog for the purpose of the Record of Proceedings as well. It will be interesting to see how the Record of Proceedings capture that.

The dog's called Albus.

Albus. There we are. Right, the Record of Proceedings have noted that. Helen Mary Jones.

Thank you, Chair. We've already touched on that working differently and working in a dispersed way—whatever language you want to use—doesn't necessarily mean people working at home, and the Welsh Government's policy is talking about working hubs, more local hubs. I think we refer to them as 'remote working hubs', but I really do take Cerys's point about that language not perhaps being helpful. And we've mentioned, for example, the need to join those up with childcare—there has to be accessible childcare close to there. I just want to ask you all, as the Welsh Government is developing policy, more of these hubs in communities that people can use to work away from perhaps quite a distant workplace, what sort of equality considerations and workforce issues should they be thinking about and building in from the beginning?

Thanks, and it's really important that you've raised childcare, and that absolutely needs support. All of us are holding our breaths and hoping that nurseries stay open for those people struggling with the youngest children in households at the moment. So, that needs to be an absolute priority.

In terms of developing hubs and the impact that might have on equality, again, there are some really practical considerations that Welsh Government need to take into account: accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users—there's a real risk that public transport could be decimated as a result of the lack of use over the last 12 months; proximity to schools and other childcare facilities, to make those shorter journeys, which often women have to make, easier to undertake around the working day, whatever that looks like in its most agile form. Also, as well as being close to schools and childcare facilities, other community services—shops, libraries and so on that we use in our everyday life for the same reason. I think there's a consideration that they need to give around personal safety, particularly for women and other vulnerable groups feeling comfortable travelling between those places, potentially in the dark, if the working day's not so much based around daylight hours.

And, lastly, how we think about any investment in those sorts of working hubs, community hubs, how it can maximise the benefit for the local community. There's a real opportunity if we can reverse the trend of everybody travelling down into Cardiff, for example, sitting in the same traffic jam and polluting the same air, that they could be spending money in their local communities if the places that they go to work are close to coffee shops, they're close to where they do their shopping and close to where they have to collect their children from childcare facilities. So, there is a really good opportunity, and all of that has an equality implication. But, just to say, what I said in answer to the question, I think it's important how we frame it—how can we make sure that that investment does have a positive impact on equality outcomes, not thinking about how does what we do potentially damage, and then later we worry about what we need to do to mitigate that. Let's design it in at the beginning.

10:35

I think, to clarify a bit, what I meant in answering those questions is we know that the COVID crisis has had a negative equality impact, and we know that that has particularly for women and the issues around working from home. So, it's about what the Government can do to mitigate that, not that we should be allowing them to do things that have negative, unintended equality consequences and then have to put it right. You'd like to think that the Welsh Government wouldn't do that; I'm not sure if we can be 100 per cent confident, but we'd like to think they wouldn't do that. Abigail or Shavanah, do you want to come in on this, about what the hubs need to be and do and look like to make sure that they promote good equality practice, if we put it that way?

Yes. I think, just to say that, as the Wales TUC, we agree with the Welsh Government's aim to see a workplace model where staff can actually choose to work in the office, at home or in a hub location, but we do think that, rather than focusing on a particular target—percentage—the emphasis should be much more so on making sure that as many workers actually have the choice, rather than having their employer making that choice for them. I think that there are loads of environmental benefits to some of this, but ultimately, even when it comes to the hub structures, if you haven't got good Wi-Fi connectivity, and some of these hubs are in locations where you don't have investment in the nice coffee shops and within those local businesses, and you've got better facilities closer to your physical office space, then you're not really going to see those benefits either. So, I think that the investment in something like this has got to be felt equally for everyone within the local community.

We've already mentioned a lot of the inequalities that could exist. For example, we saw within parts of the UK civil service where you had hubs that were set up but they were classed as the main head offices, so to speak, more often than not lots of men would physically be there for the first couple of days because that's when the big boss was going to be in, so it was important for them to be seen, and then you had more women workers who were working in the smaller offices elsewhere. And because they weren't seen, sometimes they missed out on certain meetings and so forth as well. So, I think that it is going to be about getting that balance right, making sure that it doesn't impact on people's ability to progress within the organisation because all of a sudden working from home or flexibly or these hubs are seen as somewhat different in that way as well. But I think that, if the hub model is pursued, and for it to be effective, it does have to be pursued in a social partnership sort of way, and for the public sector, actually, to begin with maybe, so that we can balance off some of that existing evidence of areas of deprivation and accessibility by public transport as well. As I say, there are some people who, potentially, we're going to have to make sure aren't losing out either, because there could be certain jobs that are needed in particular bigger sites if we move over to this sort of model. As I say, we need to balance that off.

I support what's been said by the previous two participants—we've got to get it right from the inception, ensure that access is equal, that people aren't forced into hubs if it's not appropriate for them. But also, I think, on the positive side, one of the things that I've noticed that the pandemic has created is a much better sense of community, and I think one of the things that the hubs can do is really now exploit this amazing improvement in people's sense of community. So, going forward, I think that's a really positive thing that the hubs can do, but, absolutely, it has to be got right. It has to be got right for individual employees as well as employers.

10:40

Yes, just briefly. I think we're all worried about the impact of everybody working in a dispersed way and us missing that creative interaction that you get when you sit with somebody and have a conversation over a coffee or whatever it is, but there is an opportunity with whatever hubs look like for there to be shared spaces where people in the public sector, private sector and the voluntary sector can come together and collaborate in a much more innovative way than has happened before, rather than sitting very separately in our different sectors with our different perspectives and focus. That's a problem that public sector leadership has been grappling with for a long time, how can we get the best of expertise and lived experience from these other sectors that are different to us, and the hubs potentially could be part of the solution to that

Thank you, all, as well for your time this morning. It's much appreciated, and, as always, if you are listening in to the rest of the sessions and you feel you can add anything further to what's been said, then please do so as well. Diolch yn fawr. Can I thank you very much for your time with us this morning? Thank you very much. And that brings us to a 10-minute break, if we can be back at 10:50.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:41 a 10:53.

The meeting adjourned between 10:41 and 10:53.

10:50
3. Gweithio o Bell: Y goblygiadau i Gymru—Tystiolaeth ryngwladol
3. Remote Working: Implications for Wales—International evidence

Croeso, pawb. Welcome back. I move to item 3 in regard to our remote working inquiry, and we've got some evidence now from international colleagues and witnesses. So, I'd like to thank them for being with us this morning, and If I could ask them to introduce yourselves for our record.

Okay. Hello, everyone. My name is Antti Närhinen. During this session, please call me Antti, by my first name. That might be easier. I work in the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. My main responsibility is working life development matters.

Hi, everyone. My name is Marianne Keyriläinen, and I also work in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. I'm responsible for the working life quality questions and also responsible for the Finnish working life barometer. Thank you.

10:55

Thank you ever so much for joining our meeting and being with us this morning. Our first question is from a Member who is not on the video feed due to connectivity issues, but we should be able to hear Hefin David.

As you can see, I'm struggling with remote working. How is it happening in Finland and what are the main reasons why Finland's had a higher level of remote working than other European countries? Is it to do with broadband?

Yes, thank you for the questions. I would say, like, the main reason why remote work is so common in Finland is the occupational structure and the change in the occupational structure. Nowadays, people are more—. Their education level has been getting higher every year, and more salary earners work in white-collar positions compared to the blue-collar workers, so it has increased every year the amount of white-collar workers, and it's known that the white-collar workers work more common in distanced work than blue-collar workers, so I would say the main thing is this occupational structure.

And also the broadband—they are quite good in Finland. We have these fixed broadbands and mobile broadbands, and so that's the main thing—if we don't have good network connections, it's impossible to work remotely, so I would say that's also one really important thing.

So, I would say these two: that people are educated, they are able to work remotely and work in those kind of workplaces where it's possible to work remotely. So, I would say it is these two.

Thank you. Did you want to come in, Hefin, before I bring Antti in?

Well, just briefly. Marianne covered quite well the questions to my mind, but also, just to add maybe that this is not something new, even though, maybe, the official numbers of remote workers were not that high. So, we have had a kind of tradition of these flexible work arrangements in Finland. So, for example, we in the Government have been working for a long time remotely, so we have been able to use mobile work, remote work, since the beginning of 2000, or 2005 [correction: since 2005], around that time. So, just to add there's a long tradition.FootnoteLink

Okay. Thank you, Antti. Hefin, if you want to come back in, speak now. If I hear silence, then I will move on. There we are. Helen Mary Jones.

Thank you, Chair, and welcome to you both, as the Chair said. Thank you for your time. Can you tell us a little bit about how the Finnish Government has supported the development of remote working over recent years and if there are parts of the approach that you have taken that you think Wales could learn from in that regard?

Yes, maybe I can start. In fact, you might also remember the European level telework agreement—the agreement on telework from, was it, 2002? Then it was accepted by Finnish social partners in 2005, so that forms kind of a basis for quite a lot of collective agreements, which is a common way to agree on the labour market issues in Finland. So, that's the basis of it. In fact, we checked, and remote work itself hasn't been kind of a priority of any Government, although of course, every Government has tried to find ways to engage the balance between this flexibility and security in labour markets, and the Finnish way to do it, of course, to co-operate with social partners. So, we had some remote work campaigns 10 years ago. I have to say, we had a remote work day. To my knowledge—I was away three years—I don't know if it still exists. So, there have been some minor campaigns. I don't know if you want to add something, Marianne.

11:00

Yes, I would add that, yes, we have had this remote working day, and done some campaigns to get this remote working more popular, but it's more about the workplaces, the culture in the workplaces and how to change them. Also, work-life working place practices and attitudes, so it's more like how to change them to support remote working.

Thank you, that's helpful. Antti, you've already touched on this a bit. Can you tell us a bit more about what role collective agreements and partnership working have played in increasing the amount of homeworking, remote working, and has legislation played a part in that as well? Has the Government legislated in ways around workers' rights or equality legislation that have made it more possible for people to work remotely?

Yes. Finnish labour law doesn't expressly recognise the concept of remote work, and you mentioned the equality law but, in fact, the employment contract Act, working hours Act and occupational health and safety Act are maybe the main principal Acts that form the legal basis for all employment, including remote work. So, it's applicable, if that's the right word. And about collective negotiations and agreements, I mentioned already about the framework agreement that was agreed by the Finnish social partners. So, when they are negotiating collectively or locally, that's the basis, so they do respect that framework agreement in the case that they are agreeing on these flexible working time arrangements, including remote work. So, yes. I don't know if that helps. 

Yes, that is helpful. It might be useful, Chair, if we asked our team to look at that document, look at that collective agreement and see if there's anything in there that Wales could pick up on, even though the legislative stuff isn't devolved necessarily. Did you want to add anything to that, Marianne?

Thank you, Chair. I'm wondering what impact the relatively high level of remote working in Finland has had on levels of inequality between different groups of people in different parts of Finland, for example, between urban and rural areas, or any other groups that you might like to discuss.

Yes, thank you. There are clear differences between different groups. As I told you earlier, there is quite a big difference between white-collar workers and blue-collar workers because remote work is more common, especially in the upper white-collar workers. We had quite a big difference between the sexes until 2018, but in 2019 the difference had disappeared. Nowadays, there isn't any more difference between men and women, and this is because the remote work has become more common, especially in the lower white-collar employees, and there are more women working in this group. In the lockdown last spring, it affected more women, because in Finland there is quite strong occupational segregation, and women work more often in, for example, the service sector, so that affected more women.

You also talked about the rural and the cities. There is quite a big difference, because in Finland we have this rural brain drain from the rural areas to the bigger cities, so it means that the more highly educated people are living in the bigger cities, and they work more often remotely, so it means that the people who are able to work remotely live in the bigger cities. But we will see how corona will affect that, whether people are now more likely, like you said, to work remotely. Are they moving back to rural areas? That will be a really interesting question, but at the moment, the people who are able to work remotely live in the bigger cities and towns.

11:05

Antti wants to come back in there. I'm particularly interested, as well, on if the rural and urban is connectivity related—broadband connectivity related—as well.

Yes. I can say a few words about that. As Marianne already mentioned, we do have quite good broadband coverage, so in fact, with the wireless broadband networks, there is 3G and 4G coverage of like 99 per cent of the Finnish population, and there is fixed fibre optic cable with at least 100 Mb power, or how you call it, and that reaches more than half of the population. We do have a strategy, of course, to enhance, to make it even more powerful of the networks. There remains development to be done, and that's recognised, but to give you also a little bit more about this challenge in Finland, even though we have a good tradition and we are a small nation when it comes to the population—we are 5.5 million—in fact, the area of Finland is almost 340,000 square kilometres. I calculated; that's 15 times more than the area of Wales. So, you can imagine that this rural and urban question is, and will be, a big question. It has been, is, and will be a big question for all the Governments. So, this regional policy, it's a good question, but it's kind of a different perspective for us than it is for you.

Thank you, Chair, and good morning, Marianne and Antti. To what extent do co-working spaces operate as part of remote working in Finland, and how does the Finnish Government encourage their development?

Yes, we have these kinds of co-working spaces. I checked some research, and it said that compared to Nordic countries and other European countries, Finland is a bit behind in these co-working spaces, but last year, it had been getting closer to the other Nordic countries and European countries. We have these co-working spaces, but it's more near the bigger cities. There aren't that many in the rural areas, but probably because of the remote work, if it's now growing, probably there will start to be these kinds of co-working spaces also in the countryside. But, yes, that's my—. And also, if the current situation changes with property prices, because they are quite high at the moment in the bigger cities, probably people want to then move to the rural areas and start working from there. But, have you, Antti, any more you want to add?

11:10

Well, I will briefly jump in. So, this is—. I have a kind of good experience; my wife works for the city of Helsinki cultural department, but anyway—. So, I asked her. So, for example, our capital offers a lot of free co-working hubs or co-working spaces, and the coverage of the free Wi-Fi of the city of Helsinki is really functional, and we have a lot of public libraries that are half libraries and half these kinds of hubs, and they are well digitalised, all the libraries, and offer those kinds of services also. But having said that, of course, it's good to remember and remind ourselves that now, during this pandemic of coronavirus, it's not recommended to use those hubs, so, more or less, people stay at home. But, well, we'll see. But I suppose, in future, as Marianne has said, we have a good basis to build on those hubs in the big cities. Thank you.

Thank you. I suppose, in Finland, you are more advanced in terms of remote and homeworking than perhaps the rest of the world who, perhaps, had then a greater challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. So, I'm really just thinking about how the pandemic has changed in Finland—perhaps I'm expecting you to say to a lesser extent, because you were already doing a lot of this before the pandemic struck. I'm just trying to gain your thoughts on that.

Marianne, would you like to give the statistics here for a start?

Yes, I could—yes, some statistics, for example, according to the working life barometer, it says that remote working is a regular arrangement for about one in four, so, it was 23 per cent. And also, this kind of occasional arrangement for fewer than one sixth. And Statistics Finland counted, according to their Finnish quality of work life survey of 2018, almost half of wage and salary earners moved to remote working, so it would mean about 1.2 million employees. So, we have a high number of people who are able to work remotely, and probably tried it also before, but not like five days a week, but one day or two. And then it's probably easier to move to this full-time remote working than other countries.

And of course, we have done several ongoing surveys during this time of coronavirus and remote working, so how do people feel about it, and more or less, it seems that most of those who respond to these surveys are doing remote working and are willing to go on, somehow, I don't know, maybe full or some kind of hybrid model in the future. But anyway, it's a mainly positive experience among the employed.

Has there been any need to change regulation in terms of how homeworking or remote working is regulated?

At the moment, no. In fact, there is this recommendation of the Finnish Government that's valid until the end of the month of June this year, so it was prolonged now with this second wave of coronavirus, but there haven't been any talks that we should regulate. There is an ongoing tripartite working group—the Government and social partners are working on should one negotiate more agreements at the workplace level than at the sectoral level. Now, it's mostly at the sectoral level; the negotiations are held at the sectoral level. I suppose that this is—. As Marianne also mentioned, maybe the best experience, and, as I work on work-life development matters, it seems that the way that—. Well, it doesn't seem, but, the way we work in Finland is, when we develop working life—it's always good if it's from the needs of the workplace. So, the less that we can regulate—. We don't want to over-regulate anything in Finland. In fact, it's the other way around, nowadays. Also, always, when you have a regulation, you have to have follow up, so that needs some kind of reporting, so it can be an extra burden. To my mind, so far, it has worked quite well, but, of course, we are gaining now real-time experiences of this because of this ongoing situation. So, I suppose, maybe not more regulation, but I suppose it could be a good time, in the post-COVID world, to rethink what kind of vision or strategy we should have around remote work also.

11:15

One of the things that we've been hearing from some of our other witnesses is that, in the pandemic period, working from home hasn't always been a good experience for people and that there has been increased anxiety and mental health issues and people missing the interaction that they have with colleagues. I was just wondering—you mentioned some surveys, Antti. So, you're gathering information about how this is working, and I just wondered what the evidence from that was in Finland. And maybe it's not the same, because you've got a much higher percentage of people who are used to doing—. As Marianne said, you were doing some work from home, and now you're just doing more work from home, so perhaps it's not the same impact, but I was just wondering if you had any information or thoughts about that.

Marianne, do you want to take—do you remember the data of the Finnish institute for occupational safety and health? Yes, we do have evidence, and those same kinds of things are raised also in Finland. So, for some, of course, it causes stress, and not all people are happy to not be able to have this kind of social contact, and it might be demanding for management and leadership. Marianne, did you have statistics, or should I look for them?

Yes, I could say a few words. We have been following the research from last year and now from this year that has been published, and it says that people are quite satisfied. I would say, for example, last spring, people were really optimistic and they liked to work remotely. But I think the longer the time goes, probably, the negative sides start to appear, and I would say about the research there has been that people feel the monotony of the working day, that their working days feel the same, and also this kind of isolation from their colleagues. I would say that these two are probably the two things that come out from people's answers. And also because people don't have good working facilities at home—not everybody has a working room and table and good screens or everything. So, it's also about these ergonomic things that have come out from the surveys. But I would say that it's hard to draw any conclusions. So, I think it will change, how long people will now work remotely and so on—so, probably, we will see in the future. But, at the moment, the statistics look like that people are quite happy with remote working, but isolation is the most common thing that people feel.

11:20

I had to mute myself to cough, I think. Thank you. Thanks, both, for your evidence. Is there anything else that you want to add that you think would help our work? We've drawn out a lot from your contributions, so we greatly appreciate that, but if there's anything you want to add that you think would be helpful to us in our experience in Wales in terms of remote or home working, then please say. Okay.

I suppose you are having the same kind of discussion session with the Finnish researcher, and that's good, because she works at—I think she might give you a good recommendation. But I suppose it's already good that you are—and we, of course, are interested to watch those sessions also and hear about the Dutch experiences also—that you are having the same kind of session for them also. So, what I mean is—you know, everyone is having experience of remote work now, so we are interested in your models as well as you're interested in our models.

Thank you for that, and feel free to listen in on the next session as well. If you need details of how to do that, the officials can help now during the short interlude.

Thank you, all; thank you, both, for your time this morning. We won't take a proper break, we'll just take a two-minute technical break to swap over, but we'll end broadcasting and be back in two minutes' time. Thank you.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:22 ac 11:26.

The meeting adjourned between 11:22 and 11:26.

11:25
4. Gweithio o Bell: Y goblygiadau i Gymru—Tystiolaeth ryngwladol
4. Remote Working: Implications for Wales—International evidence

Welcome back to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee. I move to item 4 on our agenda today, and we continue with our next session in regards to remote working and implications. And we also continue with some evidence from international colleagues about how remote working is conducted in their parts of the world. So, if I just ask you both to introduce yourselves for the public record, Kirsi, shall I come to you first?

Thank you very much. So, my name is Kirsimarja Blomqvist, and I work here in Finland in LUT University as a professor for knowledge management. And also I'm leading a research consortium of Finnish universities called Future Remote, and we have been doing research on Finns moving to remote since the pandemic, and, in general, we're very interested in the future of work and new ways of working, digitalisation. Thank you.

Yes, good morning. My name is Noortje Wiezer, and I'm a principal at TNO, and TNO is a large research company in the Netherlands, and I'm a scientist in the field of workers' health, worker conditions and work in the Netherlands. And one of the tasks of TNO is to monitor workers in the Netherlands, so we have a lot of information on that—on work and working conditions before the pandemic—but also we are monitoring very closely what is happening with workers during the pandemic. 

Thank you. I suppose the obvious question to start, from our perspective in Wales as we look at this piece of work, is: why have you got—why do you think that you've got a higher proportion of homeworking in your countries than in other parts of Europe?

Well, before the pandemic—. I think why we have a lot of people working remotely now is because—one of the explanations is that we did have a lot of people working remotely or from home before the pandemic. In 2019, 37 per cent of Dutch workers worked from home part of their time—on average, six hours per week. I think there are several explanations. One of them is that remote working is done in sectors like ICT and communication, the financial sector, education sector, public administration, and these are very large sectors in the Netherlands. So, that could be an explanation why people are working from home more than in other countries. And I think another explanation can be that remote working is something that has a long history in the Netherlands. Already, at the end of the last century, 10 per cent of workers in the Netherlands were working partly from home, and we were experimenting a lot with new ways of working. It was very popular at that time in the Netherlands, and that remained. I think the third explanation is that we have a working conditions Act that was revised in 1998 in the Netherlands, and that pays a lot of attention to working conditions and also takes into account working conditions in remote settings—so, working conditions at home. That was arranged in a good way, so that people felt stimulated to experiment with remote working. So, I think these are the explanations for the Netherlands.

11:30

That's interesting, because in Wales we also have a high level of public sector workers as well, and we probably don't have that level of remote working. It's really interesting for us to try and understand why things are different, really. It could be that some of the other explanations are relevant as well. I'll ask Kirsi—if you want to comment on that as well.

I must say that most of the reasons seem to be similar to Finland from the Netherlands. Something I did not recognise was this early emphasis on the home office. I don't think we have paid attention to that. But, otherwise, I think that the highly educated workforce, the sector that could work remotely, is definitely one of the reasons. I was also listening to the previous session, where my colleagues from the ministry of industry were talking, and I, of course, agree also with them. Also, I think the high quality of internet access over the whole country is one reason. 

Then I think something that has not been talked so much about before is trust. There's a cultural value of trust that is very high in Finland, and this is also one explanatory factor why it was also, last spring, when those people who had not been working remotely before, or had only been working maybe one day—why it was so easy for them to work remotely. So, this is maybe one cultural, national level factor that has not been discussed so much before. But, otherwise, I think the high level of education, then the tradition of remote work—and then also the availability of the technological connections is really good, actually. Many people have been working from their summer cabins, even. As we heard before, this is a very sparsely populated country, and it's also as possible from the regions as from the cities.

Something that I'm thinking myself that's maybe interesting for you to think about, I feel, as Noortje was saying, is that there has been this interest in remote work in Finland, also, for longer, an interest for the productivity of work, and now, again, it's a big theme. But when there has been this type of development programme, there have been the different parties together and they're done cross-sectorally. There have been the employee representatives and unions and the employers' unions. So, I would think that one issue is that—of course, together with researchers. So, this has been a national interest, and I think people have seen that this is an opportunity where all these stakeholders can win. I think we have this tradition of these types of programmes. And, as it was mentioned before, the remote work day, but also development programmes and research related to this—I think this is something that you could also consider.

Thank you. If Hefin David is in the meeting—. I know he's got some connectivity issues, but if he is in the meeting and he wants to come in at this point—do you want to come in now, Hefin?

This is an entirely appropriate question, because it's about how the high quality of broadband and mobile provision for the relatively high level of remote working in Finland and the Netherlands has made a contribution. I personally will never forget the day on which I was sitting on my garage roof in order to get a signal to respond to constituents on Facebook. It's been a challenge throughout for me, in my home, despite the hard work of Senedd officials trying to get connection to the home. With that in mind, do you feel—? How have Finland and the Netherlands conquered this problem, and is there still an issue in relation to people who work remotely in rural areas, for example?

11:35

If I shortly add, there is actually—. I asked the telecom operators; there are three operators in Finland. I'm not a specialist in technology, but actually the coverage is 99.9 per cent, and it depends on the population density and scope, how people are living. So, broadband and mobility are at a very good level, and of course that has an impact. But on top of that, the price level of using mobile is very reasonable at the European level. That's also a factor, when people are actually paying for that themselves. And then another factor is that, in many buildings nowadays, the internet access is already within the buildings. So, if you are in a rental, for example, then you have reasonably priced mobile access. So, the combination has been very good.

Even last spring, when of course the data usage jumped up suddenly, it was not a problem because people watching movies were mainly active in the evenings and the remote work was mainly carried out during the day. So, this has been doing quite well. However, as I've said all of that, I remember that there were issues in some Government services, there were issues at universities, suddenly when we were doing all teaching online, and that had to be prepared for, and organisations did. Then, of course, we could not always have everybody's video access, so people were using it without a picture. But I think it is a factor, the reasonable price and access.

Another thing here is that the taxation office has been quite quick to move to remote, to support remote work. They've added some additional tax redemptions, so you can cut out your costs for your remote work, depending on how much you work remotely. Because before we could have some reductions for our taxes when we commute to the workplace, and of course those were gone, mainly, when we moved to work from home. 

That's interesting. I hadn't considered that aspect about taxes and how Government could incentivise people in that way. That's interesting. Did you want to come back in, Hefin? If not, I'll bring in Noortje.

I'm also not an expert in this field, but I think the situation is a little bit the same as in Finland. In the Netherlands, we are currently a leader in broadband provision. Over 90 per cent of all companies and all households have a broadband connection, and also have a wired network connection. In the Netherlands I think that's more easy than in Wales or in Finland, because we do not have rural areas as you have. What we consider rural areas might be a small town in your country. Houses are built close together, so that's quite easy. We have elections coming up in March and, actually, yesterday, there were two political parties that proposed legislation on having tax reductions for homeworking facilities, like connections, instead of the travel costs reduction. So, that's probably going to happen in the Netherlands as well. What I do know is that if you have technological issues as a worker, that's one of the main stressors of remote working, working from home. There can be a division between people who have a bad connection and people who have a good connection. 

11:40

Yes. We see that in the Netherlands, for instance, with home schooling. We see that children that live in a home with bad Wi-Fi, that do not have a good laptop—that they lag behind children that have good connections and have all the facilities at home. So, we should be aware that this is not going to create a division, I think.

If I may very quickly add here, I was yesterday following a presentation for the Finnish centre for occupational health, and they are studying these digital divides within the work population. It really can create stress, of course, with people: 'How can I quickly learn to use these different tools?' And in different segments, there are different types of stress and challenges. For those kind of high-end users, then it's more the cognitive ergonomics and, 'How can I rest, and when can I be on my own, and recharge my creativity?' So, they're different kinds of challenges, but I think this is important to take into account for a work context too.

Thank you. Noortje, you mentioned you have elections coming up, and we have elections coming up as well in Wales, actually, shortly—potentially. We may put them off due to the pandemic, but the intention is to keep those elections to the date that's planned at the moment in May. But I was interested, if you've got a higher percentage of people working from home, in how that might impact on elections, in terms of people being perhaps more used to being at home and not going out. Does that have a knock-on effect in terms of people going to vote in a polling station, or do more people vote in different ways?

If people are not keen on going out, that will affect the results of the elections, because some of the parties benefit from people—. Well, if it's raining or very bad weather, that also affects the results of the election. I think they are looking into possibilities of having remote voting possible, or creating small places where you can vote close to homes of people. And again, in the Netherlands, the station where I can vote is five minutes' walk from my home. So, it's always very close to where people live.

I'm going off track a bit, so only answer this very shortly. There's no discussion about postponing the elections.

Well, there is a mention of—. The message is, 'We are not going to postpone'. So, it's discussed; it's not not on the agenda, but so far, they are still planning on having the elections.

I think that's the view of all parties in Wales in terms of the elections coming up, in fairness, as well. Thank you, Noortje. Jack Sargeant.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Kirsi and Noortje. I'll be watching with interest the elections in the Netherlands; I've got good friends in the Netherlands, so we've been talking quite a lot about this upcoming election. We've spoken quite a lot today to a lot of participants and evidence givers who've said that, in countries like the Netherlands and Finland, and other European countries, remote working is a long tradition. So, perhaps there are a lot of lessons Wales could learn whilst developing its policy. I know you mentioned incentives; I'm just wondering if there are any other lessons that we could perhaps learn, and the Welsh Government could learn, from both of your countries in developing their policy.

If I may start, there are some national-level issues that may not have been discussed so much yet. There is actually this strategic initiative within the Finnish Government and the ministries; they are working on a report that will be dealing with regional renewal strategies, more local services available for citizens across Finland digitally or physically, and then strategies related to premises and multilocational work. And I think this will be very interesting also for you, but I must say that that is right now in preparation and I will be happy to connect you with the people who are working with this. Basically, the idea is also that they see that there will be less need for space, and the space available will be used more efficiently. And the spaces for the private sector or for the Government servants, or counties, there will be more of these co-working spaces, but, for the public sector, that we would build regionally. There's a great interest in that.

For example, in the centre of Helsinki, there has been this 300 sq m in the very downtown where the idea has been to have a cross-ministry collaboration, and also have researchers or consultants in an open space that you can reserve, where you can work on complex societal issues and you can get the people together. There have been these co-working spaces in the public sector, but only the ministry people are allowed to access them. But the next phase would be to build those also regionally, so that you don't have your own office from this ministry or that county service or social service. If these people could be more in the same space, then citizens could access their services digitally or face-to-face from these services. But this is under preparation; they are doing research on that. Actually, this is related to about 75,000 Government employees—so, how they work in future and where the work will be located. So, it's a really big issue. 

And, of course, as my Finnish colleagues were saying before, I'm sure there are also political interests, but it's also how you run this type of a large country efficiently and effectively for the citizens around the country. So, I find this initiative quite interesting and, of course, the same types of initiatives are happening in the private sector, which is seeing how many premises we need, how we use these premises, where they will be located for more co-working and then much more for home offices in the future. So, I think it will be a big change for premises and ways of working. I have more to say but, Noortje, I can continue later. 

11:45

Noortje, do you want to come in there, or do you want to come back, Jack? 

Just briefly from me, Chair, I think the point Kirsi made on regional working is very interesting for us. I'm a north Walian, so quite far away from the capital city, and I think that, sometimes, people, certainly my residents, feel they are distant from the capital, so perhaps regional remote working and future ways of working can address some of those issues there. So, I think that's of particular interest and I'm sure the committee would certainly link with the multilocational working, if you could do that for us. 

Yes, I would be happy to do so. Myself, I'm located 230 km from Helsinki, and I realise now that I don't have to take the 6 a.m. trains in the pitch-dark winter, because everything works online and all the meetings. There is also a kind of a democratic approach, because people can approach different events and meetings easier than before, when a lot of things were happening more centrally in Helsinki.

Yes. Although the Netherlands is a very small country and so we live close together, I see the same things happening in the Netherlands—not regional working spaces but that connecting online is much easier, so you have a much broader—. You can reach more people as an institute as well, and the Government as well, during online sessions. If I look at the Netherlands, employers are a very important stakeholder in this discussion. So, an employer is responsible for the working conditions of employees, and if an employee works at home, then home is the workspace. So, an employer is also responsible for preventing the health risks of remote working. That is the focus in the Netherlands, and that is an important part of our working conditions Act. An employer is responsible for doing a risk assessment and for developing action plans to reduce or to prevent these risks from happening. The labour inspectorate is looking into this, and they are looking at the risk assessments of employers and they are looking at the action plans. But what we see now, after the pandemic, I think the expectation now is that a lot more remote working will be done in the Netherlands than before the pandemic, and what we see is that employers are not as aware of the risks of working at home as they should be, and also they are looking for ways to prevent and to decrease these risks. So, the labour inspectorate and also the ministry of social affairs, they are very much working on giving advice, helping employers to set up these action plans, and I think that stimulates remote working and stimulates the trust that, as Kirsi says, is very important. It stimulates the trust of employers to let their employees work from home. So, I think that's a very important part in the Netherlands.

11:50

Thank you for that. I think there are some questions later on on the impact on workers' health, so I think I'll leave it there. Thank you, both. Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, Chair, and welcome. 'Croeso', as we say in Welsh. Welcome to you both. Thank you. What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on remote working, working from home in Finland and the Netherlands? You've already mentioned some of this, Noortje, about how there have been impacts on how the work needs to be regulated to ensure people's safety. So, have you seen—? Presumably, you've seen a big increase in working from home, but from a much higher base than we had here. Who would like to start?

During the pandemic, in the past nine months, I think—10 months already—48 per cent of Dutch workers work mostly from home. So, that means that 52 per cent of Dutch workers do not work from home, and that's largely due to the type of work they are doing, but also some do not want to work from home, but there are also employers that do not want their employees to work from home. The Government is pushing on them, because of the lockdown, that we should work from home as much as possible, but there is still something to be done there. Working from home is most common in the sectors that already worked from home before the pandemic, so the ICT and communication and financial sectors. Business services, as well. Public administration completely works from home. And, on education, what we see—. Well, the remote workers are highly educated, mostly professionals, and that's something that we should take into account as well, because if we look at the blue-collar workers in the Netherlands, then 80 per cent of blue-collar workers are still working on the location of the employer or on a plant. The focus is now very much on, 'How can we support workers that work from home?', but we should not forget the workers that still work on location, especially because what we see in industry, for example, is that there is a large group of blue-collar workers working on location while the management is working from home. That creates a difficulty in leadership.

As I've said, the work station is largely the responsibility of the employer in the Netherlands. What we have seen in the last few months is that employers have put a lot of effort into expanding the opportunities for remote working and expanding the number of remote connections or the possibility to work remotely, and also helping their employees to create a healthy workspace at home, because that's very important. Did you also ask about the health effects of—?

11:55

If I may, so, what happened in the COVID pandemic here in Finland was, as I mentioned, we were all surprised, still, how easily it happened—that people moved to remote work. And then, when we made the first survey, which was in March or April, where we got some 5,400 responses, it was surprising to everybody that, actually, even in that situation, which was when home schooling and everything happened so quickly in this crisis situation, from our respondents, the majority had no experience, or they had been working only one day remotely—71 per cent at that time—and now they were working remotely full time, but even then, 65 per cent were satisfied with remote work. And also interesting is that, in this group, the majority thought that, actually, from the work tasks that they do in normal time, 81 per cent to 100 per cent could be done remotely. So, there was even much more potential to do remote work. And over half, even then, were happy with their productivity and satisfied with their work-life balance in that difficult situation. But there are different groups, still, within the sample. But also, what was then and what is still is the issue of social isolation—the majority were concerned about that. And they had a high trust in co-workers and supervisors, as I mentioned.

Basically, also something I think is quite interesting is that those people who had earlier experience of remote work were most productive, were most satisfied and had the best work-life balance. So, basically, you can learn to work remotely. I think this is important to think. And I think now, when we have been doing this longitudinal study with the second and third waves, we do see that, for example, engagement, enthusiasm and creativity levels are going down. So, it was like people realised, 'I can do that and it was fine', but now, when the time has passed, they are going a little bit down, which is of concern. Also, related to trust, I think it's quite interesting that the trust levels have been going a little bit down. The trust to peers has been rising, but the trust to supervisors has been going down more. And, for me, this means that we have learned to trust each other in a face-to-face context, and now especially these people who had not experienced working remotely before and are suddenly thrown into this mode and have to learn how you supervise people, how you communicate with people and how you can be part of that work group. And this is a big thing that I think we need to address, and also training; we need all kinds of training for people, first for the technologies that we use, but then also for leadership and how you manage your work-life balance, your health, but we will come to these issues later. Because these ergonomics, where people have aches and pains and then also being socially isolated, it varies with people and their personal situations. But all these things are coming up and we need to build sustainable remote work, so we have to take all this into consideration, I believe.

Thank you, that's really helpful. Chair, shall I move on to my next question, which is about health and well-being? We're certainly hearing, in other evidence that, for people who are homeworking for the first time, there have been real issues around mental health and well-being, but also issues around physical health in terms of whether they have the right equipment. Do you have the right chair? People getting bad backs and all of those kinds of things. So, I wonder if you can tell us a bit more about what positive and negative impacts remote working has had on workers' physical and mental health during the pandemic, and what's being done. You've already begun to touch on it a bit, Noortje, when you were talking about enforcing health and safety at work, but also providing employers with advice. So, can you both tell us a bit more about what kind of health impacts there have been on workers, and what's being done to address any of those?

12:00

Yes. Shall I start?

Well, we've been monitoring workers in several studies during the past nine moths, and what we see is that working from home has a number of positive effects. That's something that people mentioned, not only really when they are still in their honeymoon experience of homeworking, but still also during the last measurement in November. The top one is that they like having less travel time. That leaves them more time for family, more time for friends and more time to relax. So, that's one of the most positive. It increases flexibility in their work-life balance. That's also something that people mention. They also, in the Netherlands, mention productivity. So, when they have to do tasks that need a lot of concentration, then they prefer working from home rather than working in a very busy office. So, that's what we see in our results.

In November, we asked workers, 'If the pandemic were over and you could come back to the office, would you prefer that?', and 43 per cent of all workers said that they would like to continue at least a mix of working remotely and working from the office. They said two to three days, so 30 to 40 per cent of their working time working from home would be something that they'd prefer. And 25 per cent of all workers would even prefer to work mostly from home. So, that gives an indication that people are happy with working from home.

But we also see a lot of risks, and one of the most important risks we see is that we sit all day, and we sit behind the screen. And that's a serious risk for developing musculoskeletal problems. We do not see those problems in our data, but maybe I should say that we do not see them yet. We ask people, 'Do you take short breaks? Do you take a lunch break?', and we see that people who work from home or are remote working do not take breaks. So, they have back-to-back meetings all day, and you don't even have to walk from one meeting room to another because you just have to switch from one Teams meeting to another. So, if you are going to create remote working spaces, you should consider having spaces that stimulate movement or exercise. We've also asked people, 'Do you exercise more now that you have the time?' But the answer to that is also 'no'.

So, what we do see, and that's also a risk for people who work remotely, is that they have longer working hours. So, what we see is that the time that they spare by not travelling, they spend that time working more, harder, longer. So, I think, the last data showed that, on average, people work about five to 10 hours per week more than their regular working hours.

Kirsi already mentioned work-life balance. We do not see an increase in a disbalance between work and private life, but what we do see is that people have difficulty in guarding the boundary between work and private life, because work is always there. And what we see is that there are a lot of people who have problems with their work station at home, especially young workers. They do not have a good space to work; they do not have the right equipment, although a lot of employers in the Netherlands are providing equipment like screens, keyboards, separate mice, even adjustable chairs and desks to their employees. But, then, there is still the issue of workspace. So, we see a lot of people working on the kitchen table, with small children bouncing around, or in the laundry room, and that is, for some of the workers, a problem. And if you have your laptop on the kitchen table, then work is always there, so it's difficult to—. And, even more seriously, if you have your laptop in your bedroom and the last view before you close your eyes is your workspace, that causes sleeping problems. So, that's—

12:05

Sorry to interrupt, but we're a little bit short for time before we—

Apologies for interrupting you. Helen Mary, have you finished your line of questioning? We're a bit short of time.

I don't want an answer to this now, but I just wonder, in some of the research that's been done, whether it's highlighted differential impacts on different groups of people. We've certainly heard that it's not always been a good experience for women because of family responsibilities. So, if you've got any information on that that you can share with us after the meeting rather than now, that would be great. Thank you.

Yes. Yes, I will.

Thank you, Chair. My questions are around workforce productivity, and you've covered that, to a degree, already, but if I could just hone in and ask you about whether the increased level of remote working during the pandemic has had any impact on workforce productivity that you know of, compared to before the pandemic.

Okay. I must say that my data is collected during the pandemic, so I couldn't compare to the time before, but I think that there are other research findings about remote work and productivity that are positive. Basically, the idea that, because you can focus more flexibly on your time, you can be more focused and that can be beneficial for productivity. And in our data, during the pandemic, it is at a really high level, because in March and October, most employees believed that they remained effective employees: 92 per cent and 87 per cent in October. So, the productivity perceived by employees is very high, and even higher if you have had previous experience and you've learned how to work. But this issue of how you structure your work days is really important and how you collaborate with others.

In Finland, actually, the number of work hours in our data has not grown as much as in the Netherlands—only a little bit more with supervisors who have more things to take care of than their employees. But, from our data, 60 per cent comes from the Government sector; that might also have an impact. But, the productivity, I think it can be high, but we also need measures—objective measures—not just as perceived. So, we need more research on this, definitely. And then we have to think of the sustainable productivity, the health issues, the physical and cognitive ergonomics. So, how people can remain well, because to be able to do knowledge work, it is very holistic, and the work-life balance has been also quite good. And, actually, people have been sleeping more now, and that has been good news, and also are very happy because of a lack of commuting. So, similar to the Netherlands.

Thank you. Unless there's anything that you particularly think that you want to impart to us, that's answered all our questions today. Is there anything else you feel that's important for our work that may have been missed during questions?

Well, maybe I would say that it's been very drastic, and there are a lot of very difficult things due to COVID-19, of course, for society, but, as a small part, if we think of the bright side, I think this is an opportunity to develop work life across sectors, which we can do with different stakeholders together. Because I think there are a lot of benefits for the employees, for the employers, for society, for the ecological aspects, but we have to be mindful of the long-term benefits, not just the short-term benefits. So, basically the sustainable work—that is maybe my message. And I'm so glad that you have taken such an active interest and are doing this research on this topic.

12:10

Can I add to that, because I totally agree? And I think that the issue of trust that you mentioned before is very important on the national level, but also on the level of employers and employees. And one group that's not been mentioned in this discussion yet is the group of people who have a disability or a chronic illness. Those people benefit from working from home, and benefit from the situation where most people are working from home, because they can participate now much more easily in working life than they did before. So, it's also beneficial for this group that was a little bit on the side of the working community before the pandemic.

I understand. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr—that's 'thank you' in Welsh. So, thank you for your time with us this morning. It's been really, really helpful for our work, so we really do appreciate you joining us this morning. Thank you very much. Thank you.

You're very welcome.

Thank you.

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public for the remainder of the meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

In that case, I move to item 5, and under Standing Order 17.42, I resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting, if Members are content. Thank you very much.

Thank you. Bye bye.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:12.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 12:12.

Eglurhad / Clarification:

Even though it might not have been that general to do remote work, it did exist before the COVID-19, depending on the ministry and in an agreement between the employee and employer.