By prioritising business development funding that supports remote workers with care responsibilities, the government can better support working women and improve conditions for rural entrepreneurs.
The national conversation on the complex challenges facing people with care responsibilities and working remotely is overdue. It’s not a new conversion, of course, and unfortunately, it took a major crisis to put the issue on the map. Still, I welcome the discussion as an advocate of diversifying the ways entrepreneurs and small businesses are supported in the UK.
When I relocated from Glasgow to Dunoon nearly a decade ago, I left secure employment to work as a freelance designer and business consultant. This meant stepping out on my own while also becoming the primary carer for two young children. Of course, I’d also be running a business in a rural context for the first time.
Needless to say, maintaining the professional network I needed to build my consultancy became considerably more difficult, even with digital solutions.
Fortunately, local connections emerged. I met other people, many of them mothers or carers for elderly parents, who maintained part-time jobs in the closest city or freelanced, like me. These were highly skilled, ambitious women who, also like me, struggled to stay in constant employment because of the obvious disadvantages facing them as rural entrepreneurs and workers. To keep momentum, they frequently accepted volunteer positions or billed sub-standard rates to retain clients. This allowed them to sustain themselves and a fragile local economy.
Now, when we talk about the impact of remote working on women and others with carer responsibilities, I hear echoes of my conversations with people operating rural businesses. Their experiences should be seen as a lesson in the risks of underserving our national workforce.
Business development agencies can learn from rural enterprise
Last year, Tacit-Tacit completed research on the unmet enterprise support needs of freelancers, home-based workers and micro-enterprises in Dunoon. I mapped original data from surveys, site visits, formal and informal interviews over key economic policies and current business development schemes.
To complete this research, I had to overcome the paradox of gathering data on an invisible workforce. My solution was Dunoon and Cowal Co-works, a place-based network for a cross-section of workers and those juggling various roles to generate income locally (again, not all jobs fit into job classification codes).
The co-work group proved fertile ground for investigating the diversity of rural enterprise. We welcomed software developers coding solutions for global clients, marketers consulting clients across Scotland, experts organising archaeological digs abroad and health and wellness specialists serving people across the UK. We were joined by people starting their entrepreneurial journey and those picking up their careers where they’d left off.
Unfortunately, vibrant networks connected by a commitment to their community like this one remain outside the reach of most business development and support schemes initiated by economic development agencies. Where they exist, these programmes tend to focus on a single sector or issue. This fails the wider economic eco-system. They target broad catchments like Scotland-wide schemes or those serving large regions like the Highlands and Island. This dilutes their impact. This leaves rural communities largely ignored and their dynamic local networks fending for themselves.
There are risks to underserving a hidden workforce
It was through Dunoon and Cowal Co-works that I completed carefully phased action-based research. I found that on a practical level, rural businesses struggle to overcome a number of logistical barriers to growth. Many lack local access to a business postal address. Others can’t acquire sufficient storage facilities. Very few people can find affordable hotdesk and meeting spaces.
Like members of Dunoon and Cowal Co-works, people feel isolated and unable to connect to networks operating exclusively in urban centres. This limits their ability to exchange ideas, knowledge and skills with industry colleagues, a crucial ingredient for the up-skilling and the kinds of partnerships that support growth.
For families with low or unpredictable incomes, structuring care around work commitments is a major challenge. Few solutions present themselves other than personal and professional sacrifice. Until affordable and local child care provision is prioritised as an economic development issue, working-age people with care responsibilities are most likely to be left behind, no matter how innovative the initiative. Of course, we know from our research that this disproportionately impacts women, deepening the gender inequalities in the British workforce.
Time to move toward inclusive support
By highlighting the impact of remote working on carers, the lockdown has amplified an important issue. Now is our chance to critically examine the systematic inequalities in enterprise support in the UK and devise mechanisms to help remote workers balance professional and care responsibilities. In doing so, we can also address overlooked workers in rural Britain.
Like gender equality legislation, policies advocating for localisation exist. In fact, they are embedded in the Scottish Executive's Community Empowerment Act. But as with women’s labour rights, there is still a long way to go to achieve the aims of these directives in our communities. More must be done.
The solution is increased partnership across agencies and local providers. Together, the spatial and gender in-equalities endemic in both urban and rural areas can be overcome. For working mothers and others with care responsibilities, the challenges are shared. So too are the risks to continued inaction facilitating the success of these workers.
If you would like to know more about the research or Dunoon and Cowal Co-works download the file below or contact us.
Above: A model of Place-based co-working. The approach has outcomes that impact across multiple areas of policy at a local level: Community development, Economic Development, Enteprise Support and Health and Well being.
Tacit Tacit is currently working with the Dunoon Area Alliance to implement this idea at a local level.