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New report shows impact of COVID-19 on Good Work Agenda in the North East

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership and Durham University Business School have published a new report looking at how COVID-19, and the introduction of widespread flexible working, has contributed to the Good Work Agenda in the North East.

Researched and written during the coronavirus pandemic, it provides a unique insight into how changing working patterns accelerated employers’ ability to ensure better working practices for their employees, providing better quality and more meaningful work.

The new research supports existing Good Work pledges, charters and toolkits published by organisations including the North of Tyne Combined Authority, Northern Trades Union Congress, and North East England Chamber of Commerce.

Drawing on more than 20 qualitative interviews carried out between January and April 2021, the report includes a set of recommendations to support other businesses in the North East to implement and carry out better working practices for their employees.

Michelle Rainbow, Skills Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The unique thing about this research is that it was developed in real time during the pandemic, which was a period of huge change for businesses.

“Almost all organisations were compelled to introduce some form of flexible working, which introduced its own set of challenges for employers and employees. How do you provide a supportive and rewarding working environment when your staff are instructed to work from home by government?”

“What we’ve found is that lots of businesses in the North East have been installing the principles of Good Work as a result of the pandemic. The introduction of remote and hybrid working has helped employers focus on important employee issues, such as work/life balance, flexible working, health and wellbeing, and communication.”

Organisations including AkzoNobel, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Irwin Mitchell LLP and Quorum Business Park took part in the research. Employers discussed how the experience of adapting during the pandemic has introduced better working practices for employees, particularly around areas like flexible working, encouraging a healthy work/life balance, and what the future of work will look like post-pandemic.

Contributors described good work as being more than just having a good job; it was about delivering justice, fairness, transparency, opportunity, balance, enjoyment, and support.

A spokesperson from law firm Irwin Mitchell said: “Although we were quite flexible before COVID-19, we have been really flexible during it, and I think it will be about maintaining that and looking at different ways to support people within the various things that they go through in life.”

A spokesperson from AkzoNobel said: “Obviously when you introduce a policy like flexible working, people immediately think it is just for mothers who have children, to allow them to do drop offs. We very much promoted it in that it is not, if you have got a hobby on a Friday afternoon that you want to go and do, we want to encourage you to go and do it.”

The Good Work Agenda and flexible working report was conducted and written by Dr. Cat Spellman, Prof. Jo McBride from Durham University Business School, and Dr. Andrew Smith from Sheffield University Management School, in collaboration with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership. It was funded by a Durham ESRC IAA grant awarded by national research body, UK Research and Innovation.

Professor Jo McBride, Chair in Work and Employment Relations at Durham University Business School, said: “COVID-19 restrictions forced a rapid extension of a more flexible way of working. For many organisations this contributed to a reflection and reassessment of the future of work in their workplaces. It also led to the realisation for some of the significant value of a workforce.

“At a time when organisations are faced with an opportunity to proactively change the way they work and improve their employment relationship, this is also a perfect opportunity to link into and develop the Good Work Agenda.”

Michelle Rainbow from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership added: “I think the timing of the publication of this research is important because many organisations are considering what the future looks like in terms of how and where their employees work.

“The insight we have gathered will, I hope, give businesses confidence in knowing they’re not alone in tackling these issues. The conclusions and recommendations in the report are focused on centering policies around employees’ needs, welfare and wellbeing; and that is at the core of the Good Work Agenda.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the Good Work Agenda and flexible working is available to read on the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s Evidence Hub via evidencehub.northeastlep.co.uk.

For more information about the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, visit www.northeastlep.co.uk.

For more information about Durham University Business School, visit www.dur.ac.uk/business.

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New report highlights impact of digital exclusion on access to education and employment in the North East

A new report published by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) has highlighted the impact digital exclusion in the North East LEP area is having on people’s ability to access education, skills and employment.

Commissioned by the North East LEP’s Skills Advisory Panel (SAP), ‘Digital Exclusion in the North East LEP Area’ looks specifically at the economic and skills-related impacts of digital exclusion in County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland.

Published alongside IPPR North’s ‘Addressing digital exclusion in North East England’ research paper, the LEP’s digital exclusion report was carried out by New Skills Consulting.

Using data from the Office for National Statistics, it shows more than 200,000 people in the North East LEP area have either never used the internet, or have not used it in the last three months. It also reinforces existing findings that show people from disadvantaged backgrounds are most affected by digital exclusion.

Michelle Rainbow, Skills Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: ‘Whilst we know digital exclusion is a problem in the North East, the coronavirus pandemic has really exacerbated the issue and highlighted why we must address it now.

“This report has allowed us to see the scale of the problem for the first time, and how COVID-19 has extended the gap that already existed in our region.

“If we truly want to level up the country and provide opportunities for all, we must address the issue of digital exclusion, and we must do it in partnership with businesses, education, the voluntary sector, and the public sector.”

‘Digital Exclusion in the North East LEP Area’ highlights that whilst the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital adoption, it has also widened the gap in areas like education and employment, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A lack of in-person support during the pandemic has made it easier for people to withdraw, and limited access to digital devices has prevented people from accessing online training, job searches, and interviews.

Employers have also raised concerns about a lack of digital skills within the region’s workforce. A survey by the Department for Education in 2019 found 20% of North East employers found it difficult to recruit applicants with computer literacy or basic IT skills. 26% said they found it difficult to recruit people with advanced or specialist IT skills.

The report also looks at the effectiveness of existing initiatives to address digital exclusion, arguing that the current system is complex, with overlapping programmes and gaps in support. It also argues that much of the support available quickly becomes out of date and doesn’t meet the learning needs of people using the services.

Michelle continued: “If we look to countries like Finland, digital literacy is something that’s taught from kindergarten, it has the same level of importance as reading, writing and math’s.

“Whatever our agreed approach moving forward, we need to recognise that this issue isn’t just something that affects young people; it impacts people of all ages and at every stage in their lives. If people can’t access online tools to extend their learning, or can’t search and apply for employment opportunities online, how can they get into work or move up the career ladder from low-skill to high-skill jobs?”

The report puts forward a series of recommendations, recognising that the region’s response requires the support of academia; business; the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector; and the public sector.

Carol Botten, CEO of VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) and member of the North East LEP Skills Advisory Panel (SAP), said: “Some of the recommendations in our report can be delivered regionally, but others will need the support of Government and other stakeholders.

“We need to address the problem of access to digital devices, and how connectivity can be an additional barrier to people using digital services.

“We also need to prioritise education in digital skills from an early age, and ensure it becomes part of the curriculum in further and higher education.

“And by working with the business community, we can begin to develop a common framework for basic digital skills that meets the needs of employers.”

Michelle concluded: “Using the insights from this report and the IPPR North report, we plan to raise awareness of the scale of the challenge, agree a collective vision for the North East, and draw up the key areas we need to prioritise and address.

“This is a huge challenge for our region, and we won’t be able to tackle it all in one go. But we can start the process and make sure no one in the North East is left behind because they lack access to the digital skills, equipment and infrastructure so many of us take for granted.”

Read the Executive Summary of Digital Exclusion in the North East LEP Area by visiting the North East Evidence Hub.

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Adopting a unified, data driven approach across the North of England

When Boris Johnson unveiled government’s roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions in England he stressed that decisions would be governed by “data not dates”.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, access to data has been vital in responding to the global crisis, and it’s guided all the work delivered by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group.

From publishing intelligence reports on the economic impact of COVID-19 using data from the Office for National Statistics, to reviewing shopping trends and transport use during the pandemic using Google mobility data; access to accurate and timely intelligence has been essential in supporting North East businesses through this hugely challenging time.

Because of the North East LEP’s strengths in evidence-based delivery, we’ve been asked on behalf of the NP11 – the business-led voice for the North that brings together the 11 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) from across the North of England – to help shape a new data and evidence programme focused on the use of economic evidence, research and data across the North.

We’re currently in the process of appointing a qualified contractor to work in partnership with us to review what economic performance data already exists and identify where there may be gaps or duplication.

We also want to understand what some of the most common research needs are from our partners across the North, including the NP11 LEPs, Transport for the North, and the wider LEP Network.

Using that insight, we plan to develop a list of key research and evidence projects that can be delivered across the North to help stimulate economic recovery, enhance productivity and stimulate sustainable growth.

This new collaborative approach to data and evidence would build on the existing partnership working across the NP11 and further strengthen the North’s role in national policy decisions. It would also allow organisations in the North to combine resources, and complement and leverage knowledge, evidence and research capacity.

More details about the project and the current procurement opportunity can be found here.

If anyone would like a further discussion about the project, please feel free to email me via [email protected].