The business benefits of a migrant workforce are seriously undervalued and need to be better articulated, a leading economist told the CIPD Scotland Annual Conference in Edinburgh this week as he explained the economic case for diversity.
Philippe Legrain, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and author of European Spring, said diversity in all its forms was an established cornerstone of business success: “People from different backgrounds, working together, complementing each other and sparking off each other create more successful businesses, a more vibrant economy and a richer society.”
This was particularly true when it came to migrants, said Legrain, pointing out the disproportionate number of successful companies they had founded or co-founded, including around half of Silicon Valley start-ups – a roll call that takes in Google, WhatsApp, eBay and LinkedIn, as well as a huge number of British firms.
“It’s not because migrants are more enterprising than Brits,” said the economist. “It’s because they are a self-selecting minority. They’re taking a risk to get here and they have a burning desire to succeed. As an outsider, you’re more aware of opportunities and you go out and grab them.”
Legrain urged businesses to put in place the conditions to help migrant workers flourish, by addressing culture and communications in an effort to embrace difference.
In Scotland, he said, the 7 per cent of the population that was comprised of migrants boosted the economy by 14 per cent. But the country faced a challenge because it was still notably homogenous, a situation that could worsen after Brexit. For this reason, CIPD head of regional policy and insight John McGurk said he hoped a bespoke visa system could be put in place for Scotland after the UK exited the European Union.
The conference’s other keynote speaker, neuroscientist Vincent Walsh, struck a markedly different note as he extolled the virtues of doing less at work to help your brain flourish.
The professor of human brain research at University College London said that innovation, for example, was greatly aided by trying to think as little as possible, since that was when the brain could have its most novel thoughts. “We’re unaware of our brain state 99 per cent of the time, yet we’re terrified to be seen doing nothing,” said Walsh. “In the working environment, you have to create moments of downtime. Get out of the way of your brain so distinct brain areas can work together… nobody in history had an idea sat at their desk.”
This principle extended to sleep, added Walsh, who said it was vital managers that encouraged restfulness – and even napping during the day if that helped employees regulate their body clocks.
“Sleep is the lowest hanging fruit in health and wellbeing,” he said. “You sleep 37 per cent of your life, more than you do any other thing. Anyone who doesn’t take sleep seriously doesn’t take themselves seriously.”
Elsewhere at the conference, flexible working was on the agenda. Shirley Campbell, director for people at Scottish Water, explained how the company wanted to become truly agile, using technology to untether employees from the notion of working in a single location. A new headquarters gave it the ideal opportunity, and it brought in a raft of new technology and training to help shift mindsets.
“We gave people permission to decide when, how and where to work to maximise their productivity,” said Campbell. Employees came up with their own slogan for the concept: ‘Work is about what you do, not where you go.’
“The change journey hasn’t always been easy,” she added. “Proving the business benefit from a purely financial perspective is complex.” But six years on, 74 per cent of employees saw flexibility as a notable benefit. And whereas initially, almost all managers had said all their roles were ‘fixed’ by nature, most of them were now regarded as having some degree of flexibility or fluidity.