Digital hiring is the only way forward, to lead the UK out of covid and into the 4th Industrial Revolution

Digital is everywhere. How we work, when we work, even how we search for work.

Yet the government unfortunately seems wedded to bygone days when it actually comes to getting work, whether you’re a contractor or a more conventional job applicant, writes Keith  Rosser, group director at Reed and chair of the Better Hiring Institute.

Remember ‘Apply Within,’ and  ‘Now Hiring’?

Harking back to old-fashioned “Apply Within” cards in shop windows, or clumsy “Now Hiring” sandwich boards, the government’s current stance implies that people still get work in 2021, locally, in person. Indeed, the Home Office-imposed requirement on employers to conduct physical and face-to-face Right to Work checks supposes employers hire in the way they used to -- by actually meeting the applicant in person and providing them with their ID badge on their first day. How quaint. A set of drawers might as well be handed over too!

Disappointing just about every member of the business community who I have spoken to about this issue, the Home Office has announced that from September 1st 2021, all workers must have their documents seen in person by their employer. That’s the case even though we’ve had 18 efficient months of online checking, introduced because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The labour market of yesteryear

Let’s put where we are in a historical context. The itinerant workers of the Middle Ages were the first to face the issue of a changing labour market, when hiring had previously been based on employers personally knowing who they were hiring, or knowing someone who did. So the very earliest freelancers used what we would now call a ‘CV’ to get around this.

Then, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, job adverts were born specifically to attract workers to the workplace. And by ‘workplace,’ I mean mills and factories built out of towns and cities where workers were not. These employers needed to bring workers out of where they lived and to what became the new workplaces. Hiring therefore evolved to meet a specific need. So our conundrum in 2021 is not new. Today, at the dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution in a post-Brexit Britain -- coming out of a pandemic, we need a labour market and hiring infrastructure that are fit for purpose. We need to cater for the new workplaces, with so many of those wanted for those workplaces favouring (or already) working remotely, flexibly, and in a hybrid way.


Digital Right to Work (RTW) checks and the ensuing digital hiring process are a necessity. Not only is our post-covid labour market built upon remote and hybrid working, but more than that -- the labour market is not going to revert to how it was pre-pandemic. As large numbers of people now work from home why does the home need to be near work?

The mills and factories of the industrial revolution were trying to bring workers to the workplace, with so many workplaces now being the home (or holiday home for some), why are we trying to move workers away from the workplace?

Mandating physical, in-person RTW checks means a job-hopeful needs to attend a physical office, or post their sensitive documents to the employer. Or they can arrange to meet at a neutral venue. There are clear problems with all of these options.

Where physical checks fall down

Firstly, meeting face-to-face in an office means that the would-be hire needs to live near the physical place of work or travel some distance. Not only does this mean a reduction in opportunities for workers if they are tied to geographical locations, it also fails to take into account how many fewer offices are now in use.

Secondly, where does a worker post their documents? A HR manager's home address, because they (too) are now working remotely? At a time when the UK's focus is on ‘Build Back Better’ and ‘Levelling Up,’ it creates problems for businesses trying to hire, and problems for workers looking for work, especially those in employment blackspots where there are fewer jobs. Posting sensitive documents is also not without risk. Identity fraud is already a huge issue for the UK. Asking people to post original, fraud-enabling documents only increases the risk of loss, theft and criminal activity. Asking them to meet at a service station or similar half-way point is almost comedy-esque, if not synonymous with an espionage film from the era that the government’s stance on right to work checks seems bogged down in.

The Home Office’s (misguided thought) process

So what is the reason the UK Home Office has stuck rigidly to this archaic system? There is a belief that a company employee checking the passport of a would-be hire in person is more secure than a technology equivalent. That's right -- the (misguided) idea that a front of house, busy receptionist can identity that 1 in a 1,000 fake passport better than technology can. From my sessions with Whitehall decision-makers, this is a big reason why we have a hiring system better suited to the pre-computer age – and will do again from September, than a digital hiring system set up for, and aligned with, a modern, post-pandemic, increasingly buoyant labour market.

These issues do not apply to all. Most non-UK nationals can assert their right to work online, and will continue to be able to after September 1st, meaning they can apply anywhere for work and do not have the same restrictions foisted upon them that UK nationals do. It means UK employers can hire non-UK nationals faster and more efficiently than they will be able to hire UK nationals from September 1st. Surely the Home Office does not wish to create an unequal labour market?

Losing the edge

Another important question, and one I’m being asked -- what does the return of physical RTW mean for workers? Unfortunately, it signals fewer opportunities, work limited to location despite how much of it will be done from home, and a hiring system lagging well behind much of the modern world – and lagging behind your counterparts overseas.

It is my fervent belief that just as itinerant workers in the Middle Ages created CVs, and mill-owners created job adverts, we too need something new to turbocharge our economy -- we need total ‘Digital Hiring,’ just as Lord Holmes recently pointed out.

And don’t just take my word for it. Businesses have had their say quite loudly. Notably, since the Home Office announced the changes in March to return to physical checks (delayed in April to June 21st and then delayed again on the Friday before the 21st -- this time until September 1st), enterprise across the country has lobbied the government to keep with digital RTW for good.

Finally contractors, we need YOU to come forward

In my role as chair of the Better Hiring Institute and my role at Reed, the UK's largest family-owned recruitment company, we helped achieve the delays, getting parliamentary questions tabled, writing to ministers, speaking at government and all-party parliamentary group events with MPs and peers. But you too – the workers who will be most affected by our labour market returning to bygone days – can step up as well. If you want flexibility, and the freedom to work anywhere, we have created a template letter to local MPs which you can use to call for a digital solution well beyond September 1st. This is critical to provide job-seekers with the much-needed freedom and flexibility, and to help us build back better from the coronavirus. Our futures collectively, as workers, whether contractors or employees, and businesses, depend on it.

Profile picture for user Keith Rosser

Written by Keith Rosser

Keith Rosser is a labour market expert with almost 20 years working in hiring. Currently a Group Director at Reed, the UK's largest family-owned recruitment business, and Chair of 2 joint UK government and industry bodies: the Better Hiring Institute and JobsAware.
Printer Friendly, PDF & Email

Contractor's Question

If you have a question about contracting please feel free to ask us!

Ask a question