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workingmums.co.uk talks to Ben Marks, founder and executive director of the #WorkAnywhere Campaign about the campaign’s positive and linked-up approach to remote working.
What happens when you combine the movement towards greater remote working, accelerated by Covid, and a focus on social impact innovation? A joined-up approach to work and life with the potential to benefit everything from the environment to social inequality and loneliness.
Ben Marks is the driving force behind this approach as founder and executive director of the #WorkAnywhere Campaign. Innovation is his bread and butter. Ben had previously been working as Global Head of Innovation at CNN before leaving to devote himself to work that would have a greater social impact. He used his storytelling skills to work on start-ups and specific social impact projects. But two years after leaving CNN the mental health issues he had struggled with for some time became so chronic that he found that he could not leave the house.
Because it was early 2020 and everyone was confined to their homes, he was just about able to keep working. Now totally recovered, he says remote working has been crucial for him and has also been a great leveller socially, meaning people with a range of health and other issues have been able to keep working. Yet he thinks this benefit is very underrepresented in the media and misunderstood. He wants to raise awareness about the positive social impact of remote and hybrid working, while also being realistic about some of the challenges faced, something that happens whenever there is a period of great upheaval.
Ben brought some friends on board who are entrepreneurs with an interest in social impact. “I was lucky enough to find three people crazy enough to want to do it,” he smiles. Each brought different skills. Fast forward to 2023 and the #WorkAnywhere Campaign has 22 people on board, two of them working full time on it. The team is global, covering from the US to Europe and Kenya. They are focusing on policy changes, beginning with the EU since it has the resources and progressive momentum to lead change in this area and also a single point of entry to a number of different countries.
So far the team has been focused on identifying the perceived challenges of remote working and talking about potential solutions to these. “We want to address all the things people use as an excuse not to implement remote or hybrid working,” says Ben.
These include the isolation which can be associated with remote working and burnout from blurring home and work life. So far the campaign has hosted policy sessions with the European Parliament, the European Commission, Microsoft, Zoom, Selina, Remote.com and others on life-work balance and workplace loneliness.
Timing matters, says Ben – making the most of the Covid experiment and emphasising the importance of countries and employers not being left behind on the remote work transition.
The solution the group is putting forward centres around community hubs. Ben says that traditional working has many of the same problems. Loneliness, for instance, has been a growing issue in our society for some time, he states. “There is something at the heart of our culture that has been driving disconnection since long before the pandemic,” he states. ”We need to look at the root causes of the growing individualisation of our society.”
The #WorkAnywhere Campaign is focused on creating the social and cultural infrastructure that is fit for the remote working age. The community hubs build on the idea of co-working spaces, but have a bigger social element. They bring people together on a local basis, cutting people’s commute and carbon footprint, and can promote skills development and act as bridges between work and life. “They are hyper local shared work spaces, but they are about more than work,” says Ben. He says they can address the issue of isolation and mental health, provide peer support groups and be a centre for local volunteering, for instance, environmental activism. He cites social prescribing – the idea that being involved in nature or other group activities can help with a person’s mental health issues. A community hub can also address the digital divide issue that surfaced so prominently during Covid, providing a place to access the internet as well as mentoring and to exchange skills. It could also provide childcare support.
What’s more, the hubs can address wider social issues such as ‘levelling up’, bringing higher paid employment to rural and poorer areas.
The crucial focus now is to persuade governments and employers to fund them. Ben says: “We hope that as a result of the pandemic there is a perfect storm of factors that make this a more viable investment opportunity for both public and private sectors.”
Ben is also the co-founder of the upcoming Future Workforce Alliance, an initiative bringing together politicians and sector leaders around an ambitious policy agenda for a more fair, healthy and inclusive workforce. “We recognise the need for a forum and community to exchange knowledge and to collaborate.,” he says. The Alliance offers a counterbalance to the powerful anti-remote working lobby that we see at work everyday in the media. One of the Alliance’s members is Dragos Pislaru where he serves on the Committee on Labor and Social Affairs. The Forum launches formally in July with the publication of the results of a global survey of remote workers’ daily working habits. The Alliance is global due to the need for a worldwide knowledge exchange which also takes into account specific local contexts.
Asked which country he sees as stand-out when it comes to remote working, Ben mentions Ireland. “They have the most progressive approach to co-working in Europe,” he says, citing their investment in community hubs in rural areas and vouchers to encourage people to try them out. “There’s a real feeling that they have helped retain talent and reverse the brain drain in rural towns and areas and they have increased salaries in rural areas by as much as nine thousand euros,” says Ben. He adds: “We just need more countries to understand the potential. This could be just the tip of the iceberg.”