In recent years, businesses have made vast changes by adapting their applications and infrastructure to the cloud, or off-site to create scalability, on-demand computing and cost reductions.

We are seeing a similar evolution in how businesses employ people: driven by collaborative technology and socio-economic conditions, more and more companies are adopting agile workforce solutions.

But, in the UK, this still seems to be a London-centric trend.

I’m going to explore why that is and what can be done to address the skills shortage in the technology sector – specifically, north of the Watford Gap.

The tech skills shortage

A recent roundtable event in Leeds brought together leaders from Yorkshire-based technology companies. The main topic of discussion was identifying skills shortages. Attendees called for a focus on educating school children on careers in coding, as well as encouraging more women into the sector.

A shortage of skills for tech firms is not just a problem in Yorkshire. Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, they all suffer the same issue. Larger companies can afford to pay developers top dollar, meaning the smaller businesses don’t get a look in with the top talent they need to grow.

Whilst I wholeheartedly agree the issue starts at schools, focusing on this to solve the problem is a long-term solution. We’re talking five to 10 years by the time the curriculum has been adapted and a new generation of skills are available – and that’s if it was agreed tomorrow.

Agile workforces

Public sector timescale issues aside, there is another solution and one that will bridge the gap in the short to medium term. It only needs a shift in attitude to facilitate the change that’s needed in the industry.

Firms must get rid of the mindset that the talent and skills they need can only reside in the same city or within commutable distance.

After all, not only are you restricting your access to skills, you are also paying high rents for those open-plan desks, and metro-tiled breakout areas, so remote skills cannot only cut costs but fill the short-term gap.

By breaking down geographical boundaries, you suddenly have access to talent from across the globe. Let’s face it – I’m sure they won’t mind me saying so – the lesser-spotted developer tends to prefer peace and quiet. Often found with headphones on in a secluded corner of the offices, open-plan and collaborative working isn’t a necessity for most of them.

Businesses based in London are way ahead of cities like Leeds when it comes to working with an agile workforce. They’ve set up the right systems and proven it works for many years now.

So why is it taking so long for the rest of the UK to catch up?

A search on yourBAU.com (the freelancer marketplace platform I run) lists:

  • 40,000 freelance programmers around the world
  • 6,200 of those live in the UK
  • 45% of the total UK number reside within 50 miles of London
  • 15% of the total UK number reside within 50 miles of Leeds

It doesn’t take Rachel Riley to work out what those numbers tell you. And the only barrier to building a remote and agile workforce is using effective technology for communication between workers and whoever is managing them.

Raising the profile of smaller cities

There is another benefit for firms in smaller cities that use remote workers. Once the work increases, it raises the profile of the city amongst those with the specific skill set. So, if programmers living in London are increasingly getting work in Leeds, naturally they will be attracted to the area and the industry can start to address those long-term objectives of having people close by. With the right jobs, we’re sure they’ll come around to Leeds’ local craft ale, cheap housing and sub-standard football team, soon enough.

This is not just me crossing my fingers and hoping for change; it’s very common for freelancers to eventually accept full-time roles if they have worked with a client over a sustained period. But by working with the self-employed on a project basis initially, firms are reducing the risk and cost in time and money, of hiring full-time immediately.

Freelancers bring fresh perspective

If the thought of not having a full office fills you with dread, and you feel the same as a business owner I chatted to recently, who said with great concern: “There’s no atmosphere in the office when half of them are not there” then you are simply going to get left behind. Freelancers bring fresh perspectives on problems that have been bugging your team for months. They are not bogged down with office politics, one-to-one meetings and discussing their strengths and weaknesses in order to earn a pay rise. They are efficient, goal-orientated, happy to work autonomously and most importantly free up your time as a business owner to concentrate on growing your business.

You want to see the whites of their eyes? Use Skype or Google Meet. You want to see exactly how much time they’ve spent? Use timesheets on a third-party platform. But remember, the freelancers have the power here. You’ll need to work hard to attract top talent, and that can no longer be bought through the addition of a ping pong table or free-drink Fridays.

This can only be a good thing of course. By considering the work you can offer a freelancer, you’ll be forced to take stock of the true value of your business. And who knows, you could be managing a team whilst sipping a piña colada on a Bali beach sooner than you think.