The outsourcing giant Capita was created in 1984 as a division of my non-profit, chartered public sector accountancy body CIPFA. It was quickly subject to a management buyout a few years later and equally quickly established as a major FTSE company. The key to its success was partly down to the rich network of connections it had established in public sector bodies, given that almost all senior finance staff in the public sector are CIPFA members. Success was, even more, a result of the company’s ability to unpack administrative processes and identify elements that it could do far more cheaply and efficiently than individual organisations. In an era focused on a mantra of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, this was a perfect business model.
Capita wasn’t interested in taking over whole processes, it just wanted to do a slice of a process but do so for every local authority. This is similar to the company GKN, which makes a little piece of almost every car, rather than every piece of a few.
I keep thinking about Capita and GKN in the context of the current debate on hybrid working in colleges. The debate so far seems limited. Much of it is focused on how existing jobs might be repackaged into activity you can do at home, and activity you can do only in college. But this feels like playing chess by only considering one move at a time. The Capita story, and economic theory, suggests that the pandemic is much more likely to create a chain reaction of changes that will be different to those envisaged, especially for support staff.
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The economist David Ricardo is most famous for his theory of comparative advantage, not least because it works in practice. Essentially if you and I have two activities to do, and we are each better at a different one, then we should specialise. Crucially, the theory says that if you are better than me at both, you should let me do the less valuable activity and you focus fully on the other. It maximises the overall wealth of society.
How can working from home work in colleges in the future?
It is almost certain that we found that the disruption caused by Covid, and the expansion of online learning, customer service and general communication, identified some staff who are brilliant at some activities and less good at others. It is a fair bet that some good face-to-face teachers struggle to achieve as well online, some tutors will be much better than colleagues at online engagement, some staff will come across as more professional in online meetings. We might also now find that some staff are better than others at writing reports, or using systems, or running team meetings from home.
Given evolution and economic theory, isn’t it highly likely that we will want to use people’s skills to achieve the biggest overall gain? Don’t Capita and GKN show us a glimpse of the way roles in colleges might evolve?
For example, it may well be that we decide that face-to-face teaching of 16-18s has a higher value than online delivery. If so, why wouldn’t you employ your best face-to-face teachers to work in college five days each week, even if they are brilliant at online delivery, too, and make the less good deliver online from home every day? The assumption that all teachers would do both seems odd. Similarly, if your support staff role has elements that can be now be done at home (data input, data analysis, administration) and elements that need to be done in college or with an employer, why wouldn’t the roles be split up so some staff concentrate on the employer elements, others on the college elements, and others who work at home? It particularly makes sense if it reduces the need for office space (one desk not three).
Alongside this is a parallel shift in the way we might measure staff, particularly in support areas. Although we might pretend otherwise, we generally measure people by seeing if they are in work (attendance). A shift to working from home requires an intolerable level of intrusion if you seek to replicate that approach. Instead, it is more likely that metrics of your output will be established, but that generally leads to some negative changes for staff.
First, it is tempting to move to pay by output rather than your time (piece work). Second, it then becomes easier to outsource that work by simply tendering for the output (it drives down pay and you become a commodity). Third, evidence suggests that being out of sight makes you more likely to be overlooked for promotion, and first in line for any job cuts (it being easier to sack someone remote).
The future may not be the bed of roses that many champions of working from home believe, and may not be the hybrid experience many are predicting.
A recent Unison survey of college support staff showed a real concern for their futures and an expectation that life will get tougher for them. Perhaps, as is usually the case, our people are smarter than our forecasters. They can see that, just as individuals want something that works well for them, employers will also want to see an increased bottom line. Where the benefits don’t align there will be battles, and the relative balance of power will dictate where a new equilibrium is established.
Who knows, we might even move away from whole-college mergers to massive departmental mergers. If GKN can make a bit of every car, maybe the Bedford College Group can run everyone’s staff recruitment process? From home, of course!
Ian Pryce is principal and chief executive of the Bedford College Group