Blog: Employee ownership and the post-Covid world

‘To have the best possible chance of recovery, we need businesses that can be resilient, adapt and offer a fairer more inclusive economy’

Isabella Miller – newly appointed co-chair of Scotland for Employee Ownership – shares her thoughts on how the business model can help the country thrive in the post-Covid economy.

It has been over a month since I started my new role as co-chair for Scotland for Employee Ownership, a role that will see me help to drive forward the group’s vision for Scotland to become a global centre of excellence for employee ownership.

Simply put, we’re aiming to make Scotland the best country in the world for establishing and growing employee-owned businesses.  

I am enormously passionate about employee-owned businesses and their contribution to the communities and sectors in which they operate, as well as the wider Scottish economy.

Employee ownership drives engagement, productivity, long-term thinking and innovation, brought about by enhanced employee wellbeing. Employee-owned businesses also tend to be more resilient than their non-employee-owned counterparts, something which stands them in better stead for the new world we now find ourselves in following the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The pandemic has had a huge impact on our economy and in order to have the best possible chance of recovery, we need businesses that can be resilient, adapt and offer a fairer more inclusive economy.  

Naturally, employee-owned businesses have experienced many of the same challenges around job retention, cash flow and uncertainty that have presented themselves through the Covid-19 pandemic as other businesses. However, employee-owned businesses have a unique relationship with their employees and, often, a unique anchor role in local communities.  

It has been clear that during the initial response to the pandemic that employee-owned businesses were able to leverage their employee ownership spirit to unite behind a common goal, enhancing their ability to adapt and innovate during the crisis. 

 For example, seafood business Aquascot launched a financial support package for any employees who had to self-isolate with symptoms and for those in the shielding category. It declared safety, health and wellbeing top priorities and made changes to the site layout, implementing social distancing. With restrictions on car-sharing and reductions in public transport, it teamed up with a local taxi firm to provide transport for both day and night shift workers.

The employee-owners also devised a flexible working scheme so those with children could still do their job when schools and nurseries closed. They have worked extra hours and shared roles as required and the attitude has been one of coming together for a common cause – i.e. to keep the business alive and kicking. Being an employee-owned business has been a key part of that response. In addition, the company has been supporting up to 130 vulnerable people per week by donating fresh fish, helping the local community get through the crisis.

The founding owner of Jerba Campervans deferred his payment schedule when the crisis hit to ensure there was sufficient cash flow within the business, and shared full details of the business’s financial position with staff, including its bank balance, to reassure them about job security. The open and transparent nature of the business throughout the lockdown left everyone feeling safe. It is another example of how different employee-ownership businesses can be.

The employee owners at Highland Home Carers, the Highland’s leading home care provider and Scotland’s largest employee-owned business, has used its employee-owned status to support the staff financially through the crisis via a profit share pay-out, an enhanced sick pay programme and a share buy-back scheme.  In addition, it has introduced an Employee Assistance Programme through which staff can access a range of support services including the use of physical and mental health professionals.

As we slowly emerge from lockdown and begin to take tentative steps towards a new normal, employee-owned businesses are leading the way.  

With the benefits apparent, we have an aspiration to see 500 employee-owned businesses in Scotland by 2030.  This can only be achieved through the support and advocacy of people in employee-owned businesses, those that work with the employee ownership sector and those that believe employee ownership is a business model that will help build an economy in which everyone has the chance to contribute to and benefit from growth. To help facilitate this aspiration, we have just launched an Advocate Programme.

With a focus on raising awareness on the benefits of employee ownership and the opportunities it presents, the objective of our Advocate Programme is to equip employee-owned businesses and individuals who want to promote the employee ownership message with the right information, data and tools to do so.

Covid-19 has highlighted what is important to business owners; safeguarding the long-term future of their company, keeping it rooted in its local community and retaining jobs, skills and investment. These are all characteristics of employee-owned businesses and will help to create a stronger, more resilient, productive and fairer economy. This is why we believe that to help ‘build back better’, employee ownership is most definitely part of the answer.