Remote working is here to stay, a fundamental shift in working practices accelerated by the Covid pandemic. The resultant economic, social and environmental consequences are still not fully clear, with ripple effects still reverberating, but government needs to face up to this reality and proactively take steps to seize the potential economic opportunities in a range of policy areas - including around the public sector estate.

Most businesses, and organisations, have settled on a hybrid working model, with employees averaging perhaps 50% of their time in the office, although this ranges from 100% compulsory attendance - due to the nature of the work, or corporate culture - to 100% remote barring the occasional employee event. Some tech start-ups - global and local - haven’t even bothered to set up an office, instead hiring everyone on a remote working basis.

The immediate environmental impact has been a reduction in traditional commuting. ScotRail’s busiest day is now Saturday. In addition to the carbon reduction this also frees up more capacity in road and rail - and enables a reprioritisation of capital investments to reflect this new reality.

The impact of reduced footfall in city centres is of course much more visible than the positive impact on smaller towns and local shops spread across the country where that money is now being spent, and it’s very hard to see a return to the status quo ante. Policy measures to significantly increase the level of residential properties in city centres - with the potential to deliver a more sustainable 24/7 footfall for city centre businesses - need to be proactively encouraged.

Meanwhile the creation of local hubs, enabling local remote working but in a shared office environment supporting multiple employers, is a solution that will increasingly come to the fore. The public sector as potential anchor tenants should be championing this.

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The implications for traditional inward investment are also potentially significant. Remote working allows growing businesses to hire internationally without the need to invest in real estate locally. The traditional model of an inward investor in tech, or financial or business services creating a defined number of jobs in a location as a consequence of a single competitive investment decision is fractured, if not yet completely broken. The availability of talent remains the prime decision-making factor in choosing a location, but recruitment can now be done - at least in the initial stages - without having to commit to buildings. It also allows businesses to hire significantly in excess of their notional footprint capacity without any additional investment decision. This new dynamic presents both opportunities and threats to Scotland’s inward investment prospects - an area where Scotland continues to excel. While Scottish-based employees can still live here and access employment opportunities further afield the reverse is also true. This challenge, and opportunity, is magnified for more rural communities. On balance the effect should be positive with Scotland, and in particular our more remote communities, able to offer a quality and cost of life that attracts talent who can still benefit from higher salaried jobs notionally based elsewhere - in Scotland’s cities or further afield.

One thing is for sure, the countries, and communities, that can make this remote working offer in the most coherent and strategic manner will benefit from the economic boon work from home can offer – but government needs to be on the front foot, and not drift into a situation where others are more proactive and secure a stronger tax base as a consequence. The potential for increased tax revenues to invest in public services that can be raised through a successful "remote talent" attraction strategy is much higher than anything further tweaks to tax rates can deliver.

Reports of near-empty public sector office space has hit the headlines recently. Much more needs to be done proactively to utilise this space for best effect, including exiting leases or selling off redundant properties where appropriate. Sharing facilities - between government, agencies, local authorities, health boards and others - enables closer collaborative working and more joined-up public services. With some exceptions the public sector unfortunately hasn’t yet fully grasped this reality, with inertia or the unforgivable desire to protect turf often trumping more collaborative approaches.

Excess public sector space also offers the potential to kick-start economic development and build clusters. Initial plans to turn a portion of the 3,000-capacity Victoria Quay civil service building in Leith - now linked by tram and currently 80% underutilised - into a tech and creative hub need to be taken forward at pace. This will provide much-needed growth space for tech start-ups and university spin-outs and creative a vibrant business eco-system around this asset in an expanding part of the capital. Whether this project is delivered or not is a real test of the extent to which government understands these economic challenge and opportunities, and is willing to do more than just issue platitudes and soundbites.

Ivan McKee is an MSP and former Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise