Why this 11th hour digitising of UK hiring averts us from a damaging course

Aware, it seems, that the UK is engulfed in one of the worst staffing shortages since 1997, the government has changed course at the 11th hour to help contractors and businesses across the UK work and navigate their operations flexibly, writes Keith Rosser, chair of the Better Hiring Institute.

Better late than never

In fact on Thursday, when the government officially announced a reversal to physical Right to Work checks, there was just a single working day to go until all British contractors faced having to find work in person, rather than being hired digitally and remotely. Fortunately, the Home Office recognised the damage that such in-person recruitment would inflict to the economy. And so, on August 27th 2021, digital right to work checks were thankfully extended until April 5th 2022.

What we’ve narrowly avoided…

Had officials not acted, in a little over 48 working hours’ time, the UK government would have been insisting that all hiring be carried out face-to-face. That would have spelt disaster, exacerbating an already precarious staffing situation by limiting job opportunities for contractors and businesses to geographical location.

Workers would have been able to get jobs only with companies they could physically travel to see, in-person. What’s worse is that workplaces and commercial  premises are simply harder to come by nowadays, as many companies have reduced their physical presence due to the coronavirus pandemic. So it makes it harder for people to attend a location to be hired. Conversely, during covid and because of the digital system introduced as a result (the ‘temporary adjustment’ -- now extended until the end of Q1 2022), many contractors have benefited from the ability to secure, begin and conclude work entirely remotely, often from home. This no longer needing to attend an office, or be stationed anywhere near a workplace, was familiar to contractors pre-covid, but before Thursday’s decision it was about to be entirely torn apart by the Home Office -- for contractors and every other British work-seeker.

This seven-month extension is telling

Prior to the extension announcement early on Thursday afternoon, I learned that not only was the official decision to revert to physical checks reversing, but that also the extension of digital checks was a sizeable one -- to April 2022. That’s an additional, and extremely welcome seven months. Previous extensions of the digital system have been for just a month or two. This extension being at least three times longer than usual is a clear indication that the UK government now recognises the clear advantages of remote, digital hiring. They have confirmed as much, saying in the official announcement that the government is going to explore ways to put virtual checking and hiring on a permanent footing.

Last week, the institute of which I am chair submitted a briefing to Number 10 with the support of MPs and House of Lords members. The briefing outlined the case for digital hiring for both contractors and employees and was based on evidence given by over 50 major brands. This briefing was also shared with other government departments, such as BEIS and DCMS, with an interest in business, work, and digital policy.

A major, monumental decision we will all benefit from

Whether it was this briefing which tipped the balance or not, I am unfussed because I am massively pleased with the government’s decision to extend digital right to work checks significantly, with a view to embedding them for good.

A hiring system that does not mandate physical presence will directly benefit thousands of contractors, would-be contractors, recruitment agencies, and end-client businesses, as we all collectively strive to build back better. This monumental decision to end face-to-face hiring follows four parliamentary questions on the topic, three parliamentary events, and countless letters and briefings to MPs and government, from everyone ranging from corporations to one-person companies -- all of them chanting that digitising the hiring process is how to avoid disastrous consequences. The decision to extend to April next year is a major step forward in helping the UK deal with the effects of Brexit, covid and the current staffing crisis, and it will pay dividends for an untold number of companies and individuals in the months and years to come.

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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.
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