There is clearly a real appetite for government and business to work closely together to limit the damage Covid-19 has done to the UK economy, and that is encouraging.
However, a lot of the focus is on office workers and the hospitality sector. There appears to be very little attention paid to the saviours of a lot of UK businesses: the self-employed.
Over 15% of the UK’s working population, or over five million people, are self-employed. An increasing number of that total are service providers that allow office-based businesses to dial up or dial down resources and costs, based on real-time requirements.
Most of the ‘dialling’ over the past six months has been downward. This ability to reduce overheads without the expense, complication and emotional impact of redundancies has saved many businesses from worse fates. Most of these individuals will not end up unemployed; they will just suffer a significant impact on their income. They are also likely to suffer more from the effects of social isolation.
The rise in self-employment has helped to change the face of high streets, with every café becoming a shared workspace, bringing vibrancy back to town centres; and they continue to play a huge role.
With little prospect of substantial employment growth in the next few years, the self-employed, start-ups and graduates need more help than ever. These shouldn’t be forgotten in the rush to repurpose shopping centres, convert offices to residential and build new homes.
Covid-19 appears to have given everything starting with ‘co’ a bad name, but this is a mistake. Co-working spaces will continue to play a vital role in collaboration and collective thinking and need to be encouraged. They also need financial support to be accessible to the increasing number of people outside traditional employment, in terms of subsidised memberships, provision of business services and access to essential hardware. We are working on a new range of targeted innovation centres for city centres that we think will play an important role in revitalising these economies.
Interaction and learning
With a more balanced split between home and office working, creating the right environments for interaction and learning within a business, as well as within an industry, will be ever more important. We need to think carefully about how we marry flexibility with effectiveness.
There will also be a need to retrain the workforce not only from shrinking sectors and disappearing jobs, but also the self-employed and recent graduates, who will far exceed the number of roles available. Much of the learning they worked hard for won’t be enough; we will need to retrain 22-year-old post-grads, not just 50-year-old factory workers. That’s why the likes of MK:U, Milton Keynes’ new digital economy focused university, is so important and need to be prioritised in the upcoming funding rounds.
The self-employed have helped to save a lot of businesses; we now need to repay the favour.
Barry Jessup is director of First Base