International Women’s Day: Women’s work

The pandemic has had widely varying effects on different generations, races, nations, sectors and genders. Nearly a year in, the data shows women in the UK have not been more likely to lose their jobs, but they have been harder hit in many other ways.

They are more than half the population, so a focus for one day each year is bound to look tokenistic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the try. 

So, for International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at the way the pandemic has affected them, particularly in the workplace. March 8 brings a lot of new evidence.

In sectors including key workers – health care, schools, social care and supermarkets – women outnumber men by 4.8m to 1.6m, according to the Living Wage Foundation.

However, within these sectors, women are more likely than men to earn less than the real Living Wage (the non-statutory one calculated on basic needs, at £9.50 per hour and more in London). In schools, it found that is true of 22% of women and 8% for men. In supermarkets, it is true of 50% of women and 41% of men.

Women business owners are more likely to have found the pandemic stressful. NatWest/Royal Bank of Scotland reports its own survey finding that is true of 71% of businesswomen and 55% of male entrepreneurs. The gap is larger when asked about struggling business demands with family life.

The Economist publication runs an annual Glass Ceiling Index across 29 developed economy nations, combining data on higher education, labour force participation, pay, childcare costs, maternity and paternity rights, business school applications and representation in senior roles. 

To no-one’s surprise, northern Europe does well, with Sweden top, followed by Iceland, Finland and Norway. Britain ranks 20th out of 29, up three places on last year because it does relatively well in the share of senior roles occupied by women. The USA is two places higher.

Home-working through the pandemic is thought to have landed women with a disproportionate workload in childcare and home schooling, while disparities in housework persist.

With childcare centres closed or restricted through lockdowns, the Institute of Fiscal Studies noted that the paid childcare sector has been particularly vulnerable to financial distress. 

Many such businesses are run by women and employ mainly women, and run on very narrow margins. The drop in income risks putting many out of business altogether, risking a worsening of access to affordable childcare when the crisis phase is over.

Medics wearing face masks and shields
image captionWomen outnumber men in the health care sector

Is the gender pay gap important, and a top priority right now? In a recent survey of 1,000 British people for Ipsos Mori and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership in London, 28% said it has that urgency. 

That was much lower than other west European nations, with France at 51%, Spain 46% and Italy 44%.

But are claims about the pay gap for real? The study compared 28 countries and found the British are more likely than others to agree that it is a problem (61% of women, 48% of men). 

But 18% think is is an example of political correctness gone too far, and 15% of men questioned think media reports about it are “fake news”.

Julia Gillard, former Australian premier who chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, commented: “It’s been said that we’re at a coronavirus crossroads: we face a choice between building back better or allowing progress on gender equality to stall or even be reversed.

“If we’re to have any chance of ensuring women don’t lose out further because of the crisis, we need to keep this issue high on the agenda.”

What are the facts? This is what the House of Commons Library published last week: “Median weekly pay for female full-time employees was £543 at April 2020. This compared to £619 for male full-time employees.

“After adjusting for inflation, median pay for female full-time employees was around 2% higher than its 2008 level, while median pay for men was around 8% lower”.

(Median is the person half way along the population: in this case, half paid more, half paid less.)

Woman engineer

It used to be assumed that male brawn was required to drive a train, and more to shovel the coal. That was a while ago, yet rail union Aslef reckons that only 6.5% of British train drivers were female as recently as 2019.

LNER, the publicly-owned operator of the East Coast Main Line, says it has raised female driver applications from 7% of the total in 2017 to 17%, and it is aiming for 40% within four years.

Last month, the Resolution Foundation, a think tank specialising in labour market issues, reported on many labour market trends through the pandemic.

It did not bear out the expectation that women have been more likely to lose their jobs, because they’re more likely to work in the worst affected sectors. That is true of young people, but not women.

Job losses have been much lower than expected, with 1.9% of men losing jobs, and 1.1% of women.

However, a study of lockdown last year found that women were significantly more likely than men to be furloughed.

Surveys for the Resolution Foundation over the past year found there was not a significant gender difference between the share who were either furloughed, or lost their jobs, or lost pay.

It cites research at the London School of Economics concluding that men have been more likely to face job losses during recent recessions.

Debenhams
image captionDebenhams are among the businesses to have closed during the pandemic

However, there is some evidence that employers have been less likely to supplement furlough pay, above the 80% provided by the UK government.

The report also notes evidence from Public Health England that women are facing a tougher impact on mental health through the pandemic.

Close the Gap, a Scottish pressure group on women’s inequality in the workplace, does not agree on all the Resolution Foundation findings: it cites research published last year suggesting women have been more likely to lose jobs through this recession.

A briefing for MSPs ahead of International Women’s Day raises its expectations for improvements after the Holyrood election in May: “Action on women’s labour market inequality has been rendered even more pivotal by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. 

“The social, economic and labour market impacts of Covid-19 have the potential to reverse gender equality gains and exacerbate women’s pre-existing inequality.”

An inquiry by MPs into the UK government’s response to Covid found repeated instances where rapidly-designed emergency measures had failed to take account of gender differences.

The Self-Employed Income Support Scheme has several holes in it, which have been controversial. One of those to have got less attention than most is that its dependence on recent tax returns makes little allowance for those who took maternity breaks.

Beauty salon

It noted that “government priorities for recovery are heavily gendered. Investment plans skewed towards male-dominated sectors (‘shovel-ready’ etc) make for unequal outcomes and exacerbate existing inequalities.

MPs on the Commons’ Women and Equality Committee also reported last month that they were “gravely concerned by evidence of potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic”.

Not directly linked to Covid, Scottish Widows tells us today of a £100,000 average gap in pension funding. 

In the first 15 years of work, women contribute two-thirds of the sum put into pension pots by young men. Why? Mostly career breaks to raise children.

There are, meanwhile, positives to take out of the side-effects of pandemic. Home working can be made to work for women who are juggling careers with family responsibilities. 

If working from home is becoming the norm, and a more flexible routine is likely to last, then women have a better chance of mixing family life with work and career progression.

There’s a positive for fathers too, at least those who have the traditional role as primary household earner. Where their jobs demand long hours, and previously meant absence in the office or while travelling for work, they have more chance of being active parents and seeing their children grow up – into a fairer jobs market, perhaps?

Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

Why remote work could stall your career

Remote work has a lot of benefits, but one major drawback: it may be harder to climb the career ladder when you’re at home.

File image of a worker and supervisor in the office

When Mike Ali started working from home in 2016, he worried his colleagues would forget he existed. Ali, a 31-year-old marketing automation consultant, was relocating from Raleigh, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia. “I think they just didn’t want to fire me,” he says of the mid-sized tech company he was working for at the time. “So instead, I became the test case for working from home. There were definitely growing pains.” 

Ali’s colleagues were slow to adjust to using video chat tools. “People would forget to call me into meetings,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Oh, I’m having trouble setting this up, or getting you access’, and it’s like, well, will somebody please just call my cell phone? I discovered quickly that I had to be much more assertive. Because, I realised, if I just sit here quietly, they will forget all about me.” 

Ali’s worry about feeling invisible to his colleagues after transitioning to remote work isn’t unfounded. Research shows that home workers – however productive – suffer from a lack of facetime with colleagues and managers, which negatively impacts promotions, and ultimately may stall careers.

Being in the office gives you more opportunity to show your skills and connect with people – which helps with promotions (Credit: Alamy)
Being in the office gives you more opportunity to show your skills and connect with people – which helps with promotions (Credit: Alamy)

This could create problems as many of us seek to retain our newfound work flexibility after the pandemic. If we opt for a work-from-home future, will it be at the expense of our career prospects – or are there ways to mitigate visibility issues? 

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ 

The problem of inequity in promotion between remote and in-person workers has existed since well before the pandemic forced many people into home-work situations. In a 2015 study conducted in China, researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that while people working from home were more productive – 13% more, to be exact – they weren’t rewarded with promotions at nearly the same rate as their in-office colleagues. 

“It was striking that promotion rates plummeted,” says Nicholas A Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford, and the study’s lead author. “It was roughly half the promotion rate, compared to those in the office.”

I realised, if I just sit here quietly, they will forget all about me – Mike Ali

In interviews with workers and management, Bloom and his colleagues found there were two major reasons for the lower rate of promotion among the remote workers. People who weren’t in the office, he explains, didn’t develop relationships and managerial skills as readily, or didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate those skills. Plus, adds Bloom, when the people giving out the promotions aren’t getting any facetime with remote workers, “you’re basically forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind”. 

That tendency to forget about someone is a sort of unconscious bias, says Ioana C Cristea, a Zürich-based remote-work expert. “People are not necessarily doing this on purpose, but even though on some level I know the person at home is working just as hard as the person working in the office, [the remote employee’s] name’s not in my mind when I’m making a decision about who gets the promotion. Visibility plays a super important role in the way we get ahead.”

So, however good you are at your job, it can make a big difference when managers actually see that you are working, explains Cristea, co-founder of BELONGin, a start-up aimed at helping STEM companies attract and retain a diverse workforce. 

A 2019 paper Cristea co-authored while at the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that being observed by others while at work resulted in positive outcomes for employees “because it is a strong signal of their commitment to their job, their team and their organisation”.

Remote workers often find themselves working long hours to prove they're just as good as in-office counterparts (Credit: Alamy)
Remote workers often find themselves working long hours to prove they’re just as good as in-office counterparts (Credit: Alamy)

It even holds true when employees aren’t performing all that well. “We take being there – being present – a bit for granted,” says Cristea. “You may have a bad day at work, but you’re at work. Your boss sees you and thinks, ‘I see her struggling, but she’s here, and she’s working hard’.” 

When the work’s being done remotely, that same boss is more likely to see only the finished product, not the effort it took to get there. Even if the result is great, subconsciously, your boss may not realise how hard you worked. 

“A workaround for this for the employee is, maybe in your one-on-one meetings, tell the manager how much time you’ve spent and explain the struggles.” But it’s a fine line, concedes Cristea, between making yourself look like a hard worker and implying you aren’t up to the task. “You don’t want to come off as a complainer.” 

A heavier load 

Remote workers whose promotion prospects are suffering for lack of facetime may find their workload increasing. Because office-based colleagues are often perceived to be working harder, says Cristea, remote employees end up going above and beyond to make up the difference. Ironically, the resulting stress can make the promotion less appealing.

Visibility plays a super important role in the way we get ahead – Ioana C Cristea

“There’s a tendency to try to overcome not being present in the manager’s mind by putting in extra effort,” she says. Workers tell themselves, “’I’ll be in every meeting, on every call, answering emails well into the night’. We see people putting in all this extra effort not even to get ahead, but just to put themselves on the same level as the people in the office.” 

And having to work twice as hard to get to the same place, she adds, is a recipe for burnout. Sure, you might land the promotion – but by then it may not feel like a win. 

“After you’ve tortured yourself, you realise, ‘Hey, maybe this wasn’t worth it’. You’ve gotten your promotion, but your family life suffers,” she says. “People work so hard to get noticed and get that promotion, and then when they get it, the sacrifice they’ve had to make to achieve it is far greater than the reward.” 

Levelling the playing field 

Though his research clearly shows working from home is a career disadvantage, Bloom doesn’t see the pandemic as a promotion killer, because no one is in the office. “Right now, everyone who can work from home is working from home. It’s like running a race where we’re all carrying gallons of milk, so no one’s fast.” 

But we won’t all be at home forever. As workplaces re-open, Bloom says the issue will be more relevant than ever. Many companies are expected to use some kind of hybrid model, with some people in the office and others at home.

When the pandemic is over, having everyone work the same schedule could create a more level playing field, says Bloom (Credit: Alamy)
When the pandemic is over, having everyone work the same schedule could create a more level playing field, says Bloom (Credit: Alamy)

“Last spring, I wrote that we should let people choose,” he says. But newer research has changed his mind. In fact, he says, giving people complete freedom to choose whether and when they work from home could have serious ramifications. 

“If you look at who wants to work from home, it’s not random. People with disabilities, people with children and women all tend to have a higher preference for more days working from home. What could happen, if you let people choose, is that young ambitious single men who don’t want to work from home come into the office and charge ahead. Women who are at home with children fall behind, and don’t get promoted. A few years down the line, there’s a lack of diversity in leadership.” 

As comfortable as many have become using tools like Zoom and Slack to stay connected to colleagues over the last year, Bloom believes having some members of a team working remotely while others come to the office will inevitably disadvantage those working from home. “Anyone who’s ever tried to join in on Zoom with a group of people who are in the room together knows how hard it is,” he says. “It leads to a two-track system of insiders and outsiders.” 

The simple solution, says Bloom, is to keep everyone on the same kind of schedule. “Either everyone works from home, everyone comes in, or everyone on the whole team – including the managers – works from home two days a week.” 

The formation of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ groups can also be avoided by being deliberate about team building. There are a lot of effective ways to do that virtually, says Cristea. “I know a team that uses an online platform where you can play Risk or Settlers of Catan online together,” she says. “Anecdotally, this seems to work. Even if you’re not seeing people or talking regularly during the day, if you participate in group events, you’re making yourself visible and being part of the team.” 

Cristea says the pandemic “has shown companies that remote work can be done” and she expects to see many industries transition to permanently working from home. There will be some kinks to iron out and a period of experimentation, she says, but “with the proper training for leadership and team members, this can work”. 

It’s working very well for Ali. For the last few years, he’s been at a fully remote company, which he says has changed the promotion equation completely, and for the better. Not only is the playing field level, but with in-person happy hours and breakroom politics eliminated, the game is based entirely on merit. 

“Ten years ago, getting promoted was just about being the most popular person on your team,” he says. “Now it’s like, well, if you’re all distributed, no one’s really popular. So, it’s going to be based on effort and skill, and how well you do your job – even if there’s no one watching you do it.”

By: Kate Morgan – BBC

Analysis: Emerging markets feel the heat of the ‘bondfire’

Just when developing economies were ready to bask in the post-COVID rebound in global growth, in sweeps a bond market blaze to scorch them again.

Most major investment banks were predicting a stellar 2021 for emerging market assets as long as one crucial snag – global borrowing costs rising too fast – was avoided. Well guess what, they are on a tear.

February saw their steepest monthly gain since Donald Trump’s shock 2016 U.S. presidential election win and, though the move comes from record low levels, for emerging markets now carrying nearly $80 trillion worth of debt it has been painful few weeks.

The widely-tracked JPMorgan Emerging Market Bond Index (EMBI) is having its worst start to a year for a quarter of a century, currencies have recoiled and MSCI’s EM stocks index has just suffered its biggest weekly drop since peak COVID panic last March.

The carnage has been described as a bond bonfire by ING analysts and prompted some of those bullish investment banks like JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley to curtail their bets.

Graphic: Worst start to a year for EM hard currency debt in 25 years –

Reuters Graphic

Rising developed market bond yields sting emerging markets in two main ways.

Firstly they push up borrowing costs. BofA estimates emerging markets will sell over three quarters of a trillion dollars worth of debt this year – $210 billion by governments and over $550 billion by corporates. Higher rates mean adding to government debt ratios that soared 15.5 percentage points across the top 60 emerging markets last year and have left 13 such countries with debt-to-GDP in excess of 100%.

Secondly, it cuts the premium existing emerging debt offers investors compared to ultra safe and liquid U.S. Treasuries.

If the risk-reward calculation no longer adds up, money managers can quickly sell as was seen during the 2013 ‘taper tantrum’ when the Federal Reserve’s hints at ending its easy-money policies triggered an estimated $25 billion emerging asset selloff in just two months.

The effects of that episode were particularly severe in the “Fragile Five” of Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey that had built-up large current account deficits that were funded by short-term capital inflows.

Graphic: US yields and EM capital flows –

Reuters Graphic

BOOM TIME

This time, investors are worried about at least some of those.

“Brazil and South Africa are countries whose combination of persistent weak growth, rising public debt, very steep yield curves with very high long-term real interest rates has become a big source of concern,” said David Lubin, Citi’s managing director and head of emerging markets economics. “Mexico might also be on that list.”

Still, the alarm bells aren’t ringing as loud now.

For one reason, U.S. “real” yields, adjusted for inflation, remain low by historical standards, at about negative 80 basis points which keeps emerging market assets looking attractive.

By comparison, during the original taper tantrum, “real” U.S. 10-year yields rose steeply from negative 75 basis points at the end of 2012 to positive 50 basis points by mid-2013.

And despite the huge rise in debts, last year’s recessions have helped to mostly eliminate current account deficits, limiting many emerging markets’ reliance on capital inflows and acting as a shock absorber against rising U.S. yields.

A punchy recovery in global growth and fast-rising commodity prices should further help developing economies and even dig some out of a hole.

Moody’s last week cranked up its pan-EM growth forecast for the year to 7% from 6.1%, led by upward revisions to China, India and Mexico, and with $1.9 trillion of U.S. stimulus now coming most institutions are doing the same.

“We could be at the door of a big, big economic boom,” said head of Barings’ sovereign debt and currencies group Ricardo Adrogué. “Some of these countries that seem hopeless today could actually be ok”.

Graphic: Emerging market borrowing costs are rising again –

Reuters Graphic

FRAGILE FRONTIERS

Others will not be so lucky though.

Ethiopia is about to become a test case for the new G20 ‘Common Framework’ debt relief plan which stipulates private creditor debt must also be restructured, meaning the government has to default.

Others are expected to follow. S&P Global warned last week Belize was “virtually certain” to default in May. Laos and Sri Lanka have key payments in June and July, while JPMorgan lists 16 at-risk countries from Cameroon to Tajikistan sitting on a combined $61.4 billion of debt.

Tellimer’s senior economist Patrick Curran has dubbed the new group of vulnerable countries the ‘Fragile Frontiers’. It includes Jamaica, Tunisia, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, Belarus, Ethiopia, Laos, Bahrain and Oman.

Adding to the risks, not all emerging markets have started rolling out COVID vaccines yet. In Africa, for example, only a minority of countries are currently vaccinating and more variants are still breaking out.

Countries like Mexico, Jamaica, Panama, Mauritius, Montenegro, Jordan and Fiji where tourism accounts for close to 10% of GDP will wonder whether vaccines will come quickly enough to save their busy seasons this year.

“Virus mutations are a real thing I worry about,” said Raza Agha, head of emerging markets credit strategy at Legal & General Investment Management. “There’s already been several and there’s no way of predicting how many more there will be.”

Graphic: Tourism as a share of GDP –

Reuters Graphic

Graphic: Most indebted emerging and low-income countries –

Reuters Graphic

Graphic: Interest payment pain –

Reuters Graphic

Buffett upbeat on U.S. and Berkshire, buys back stock even as pandemic hits results

Not even the coronavirus pandemic could dampen Warren Buffett’s enthusiasm for the future prospects of America and his company Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Buffet used his annual letter to investors to assure that he and his successors would be careful stewards of their money, and “the passage of time, an inner calm, ample diversification and a minimization of transactions and fees” would serve them well.

He also retained his longstanding optimism for his company, repurchasing a record $24.7 billion of Berkshire stock in 2020 in a sign he considers it undervalued, and for the United States despite “severe interruptions” such as the pandemic.

“Our unwavering conclusion: Never bet against America,” he said. ((here))

The letter breaks an uncharacteristic silence for the 90-year-old Buffett, who has been almost completely invisible to the public since Berkshire’s annual meeting last May amid the pandemic, soaring stocks and a divisive U.S. presidential election.

“He’s a deep believer in his company and the country,” said Tom Russo, a partner at Gardner, Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and longtime Berkshire investor.

The letter was accompanied by Berkshire’s financial results and annual report.

Berkshire reported net income of $35.84 billion in the fourth quarter, and $42.52 billion for the year, both reflecting gains in its stock holdings, led by Apple Inc.

Operating income, which Buffett considers a more accurate measure of performance, fell 9% for the year to $21.92 billion. The stock buybacks have continued in 2021, with Berkshire repurchasing more than $4 billion of its own stock.

Primark bets on last year’s fashion for April reopening

Primark owner Associated British Foods says it hopes to offload millions of pounds worth of clothing stock when its shops reopen in England on 12 April.

The High Street giant does not offer online sales and says it expects to have lost £1.1bn in sales due to the latest lockdown closures.

It plans to sell more than £400m of last year’s stock to help plug the gap.

Primark said its 153 stores would reopen in England on 12 April, and in Scotland on 26 April.

Unlike rivals, the retailer had no online operation to shift stock when stores were closed during lockdowns.

But Primark is not set up to sell online, and has said the costs involved in distribution and sales online would mean price rises for customers.

Primark’s £1.1bn sales drop contrasts with online only fashion retailers such as Asos and Boohoo, whose sales rose by around 40% in the last four months of 2020.

Sales gap

Primark said sales for the 24 weeks to 27 February 2021 were £2.2bn, compared to £3.7bn in the same period last year, as lockdowns and closures in the UK and Europe stopped people going to many High Street shops.

Its stores have been closed in many countries across Europe, including Germany and the Netherlands.

It has dates for reopening shops in those countries, but still does not know when it will reopen in Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Portugal.

However, it is optimistic that customers will return to all of its stores as soon as they reopen: “We expect the period after reopening to be very cash generative,” Associated British Foods said in a statement.

It will be selling a mix of new and old lines for the remainder of the year as it plays catch-up.

Primark expects to sell £150m of spring and summer lines that were stored in warehouses from last year, and £260m of autumn and winter stock such as jeans and jumpers.

Sophie Lund-Yates, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said the closures of the Primark estate were “costing a pretty penny”.

“However, the retail chain is a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “When previous lockdowns ended we saw demand rebounded strongly.”

While sales were down 15% in the last round of reopening, which “sounds bad”, “in reality that’s an impressive recovery when you consider people had little reason to visit the High Street, and Primark’s lack of online business”.

“Even more importantly, so strong is the demand for Primark’s clothes, excess inventory has been less of a problem during the pandemic, because more of it flies off the shelf than expected once the doors open,” she said.

Why won’t Primark sell online?

In the past Primark has said it won’t sell online because the cost of manning the operation and processing high volumes of returns would mean it could no longer offer low prices.

Being in fast fashion means it has low margins, so “they have to be very competitive on price,” Patrick O’Brien, UK retail research director at GlobalData told the BBC in January.

Online players like Asos and Boohoo were “geared up for it in terms of logistics”. 

“But Primark would be starting from scratch, and would have to integrate any new online operation with its existing store structure which would be costly.”

However Retail Economics’ Richard Lim said Primark was at risk of “potentially alienating its customers” who increasingly expect to be able to shop online.

MWC Shanghai: Gadget companies gather for rare pandemic tech expo

China is hosting one of the few in-person technology trade shows since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 200 companies and about 20,000 people are expected to attend Mobile World Congress Shanghai.

But the three-day event has been scaled back from previous years – 60,000 were at the last MWC Shanghai, in 2019.

Faces masks are obligatory at the show. And exhibitors have been told they must observe “strict” capacity limits at their stands.

MWC Shanghai
image captionNew virtual and augmented reality kit is on show

The event’s organiser said the combination of Covid-prevention measures and the country’s vibrant technology sector meant it was the only place that could host such an exhibition at this time.

“We believe this congress will help strengthen the confidence of the global industry,” GSMA trade association head of Greater China Sihan Bo Chen added.

Under-screen camera

The trade show takes place against the backdrop of continuing US-China trade tensions.

Qualcomm stand
image captionQualcomm and Samsung are among about 50 international companies exhibiting, in addition to 200 Chinese ones

At Huawei’s keynote address, chairman Ken Hu said it had managed only slight growth over the past year.

President Donald Trump’s administration put the company on an export blacklist in 2019 and cut off its access to computer chip manufacturers in 2020.

“Huawei was confronted with some extraordinary difficulties,” Mr Hu said.

The show also comes at a time that other attendees – including US chip designer Qualcomm – have warned they face-chip supply issues of their own because demand is outstripping supply.

But it is also an opportunity to show off innovations.

ZTE Axon 30
image captionZTE is having a second go at an under-screen smartphone camera

So far, these have included:

  • ZTE’s Axon 30 smartphone – its second attempt to make a phone with a selfie camera hidden under the display, after the original was criticised for relatively poor-quality photos
  • Oppo’s 125-watt flash charger, which the company says can fully recharge a smartphone in 20 minutes
  • Huawei’s foldable Mate X2 handset – the company has switched to a design pioneered by Samsung but says it has found a way to close the device so both sides lie flat against each other rather than there being a gap around the hinge
Mate X2
image captionHuawei’s new foldable handset costs the equivalent of about £2,000

The GSMA is still hoping to host a version of MWC in Barcelona at the end of June, when it plans to require visitors to have tested negative for coronavirus within 72 hours of arriving at the venue.

But some have doubts.

“With the current situation, it’s hard to see many people being both willing and able to travel until later in 2021,” Opensignal analyst Ian Fogg tweeted.

“September maybe, June is much more iffy.”

And there is still a question mark over some of the year’s other big technology showcases, with growing speculation Los Angeles’ E3 video-games expo will be limited to virtual live-streamed content.

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Average Scottish house prices jump during the pandemic

The average house price in Scotland increased by 8.4% over the last year, according to official figures.

Despite the impact of the pandemic, the number of transactions jumped by nearly a third. 

Comparing October 2019 with October last year, the number of house sales rose by 31.9%

The rise is at least partly explained by the desire of many homeowners to have more space and also reflects low borrowing costs.

The figures are based on transactions filed with Registers of Scotland and are published by the Office for National Statistics.

Detached homes saw the biggest increase in price, of 9.9% to an average £285,415, while flats and maisonettes saw a smaller one, rising 7.3% to reach an average of £115,600. 

The average house sale in Scotland last year was at a price of £162,983.

Across the UK, house prices climbed 8.5% in 2020, the highest annual growth rate since October 2014.

Ayrshire increase

Edinburgh remained the most expensive place to buy with the average cost of a house at £236,000, though the price increase was a more subdued 5.3% last year. 

Inverclyde had the lowest average price in 2020, at £108,000.

The biggest mainland increases were in the three Ayrshire council areas, with East Ayrshire up by 17.9%. 

Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, Borders and Stirling also saw increases of more than 10%.

Prices in Aberdeen continued to fall, down 2.1%, which may reflect turmoil and job losses in the oil and gas sector last year. 

However, Shetland, which also tends to follow the fortunes of that sector, saw the biggest average price rise in Scotland, of 19.9%. 

The data show a big boost in the number of transactions in Scotland, up 31.9%.

That may reflect a temporary reduction in the Land and Buildings Transactions Tax.

By Douglas Fraser
Business and economy editor

Analysis: Europe braces for pandemic reality to hit banks

(Reuters) – Unpaid debt from pandemic-stricken borrowers has ravaged profits at Europe’s big banks and kick-started a debate among politicians about whether they may ultimately need state help.

Reflecting on the pandemic impact, many bank executives say the worst is behind them, with Societe Generale CEO Frederic Oudea and BNP Paribas CEO Jean-Laurent Bonnafe predicting an imminent rebound.

“Optimism is … a weapon of war,” Philippe Brassac, chief executive of Credit Agricole said in January, decrying “doom-mongers”. “And this war, we can win.”

All three French lenders saw profits shrink last year and profits at Spain’s Santander and Dutch bank ING also dipped.

While executives voice confidence, European officials worry the banks’ problems have barely begun.

They fear more borrowers will default when government support, including billions of euros of loan guarantees in France, Spain and elsewhere, is unwound.

Officials spelt out their concerns in a report presented to euro zone finance ministers who met on Monday, warning of “wide-scale corporate distress”.

In the document, they highlighted the extent to which banks rely on governments to help borrowers.

Were it not for government support, they estimated roughly a quarter of EU firms could have been in trouble at the end of last year and cautioned that banks’ provisions for such losses did not reflect the “underlying deterioration”.

Roughly 587 billion euros ($712 billion) of loans were under moratoria and 289 billion euros of credit had been given on the back of public guarantees, they said, from a tally late last year.

“We have to avoid a sharp rise in insolvencies,” Paolo Gentiloni, the European Union’s economy commissioner, told journalists after the ministers’ gathering.

The same unease is felt at the European Central Bank, which supervises lenders.

In January, it said banks were setting aside less for bad loans than rivals in the United States and it suspected some were not taking sufficient measures, skewing the calculation of risk to convey brighter prospects for the future.

Both continents have unleashed billions to stem the economic fallout from the pandemic, although in Europe, a patchwork of independent states, the type of assistance, whether grant or guarantee, depends on which country is giving it.

France, Italy and Spain have issued billions of guarantees on loans, while Germany made generous grants.

Jerome Legras of Axiom Alternative Investments said the upbeat message of bankers jarred with that of regulators: “The message from the supervisor is almost the exact opposite.”

The rosy picture painted by some executives is also at odds with data collected by the European Datawarehouse, which has analysed half a trillion euros of European mortgage loans.

Its survey last December calculated that one fifth of loans in the United Kingdom had required a payment break, followed closely by Portugal as well as Italy, with more than 12%, and Ireland with around 10%.

One euro zone official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while banks were largely robust, “some … may run into problems or have to be wound up”.

Despite the concern of European officials, deep divisions remain over how to respond.

Although the 19-country euro zone bloc agreed to put the central bank in charge of supervising lenders after the financial crash more than a decade ago, they remain at odds on what to do if lenders run into trouble.

Wealthy countries, such as Germany, are reluctant to help poorer ones, such as Italy or Greece, by establishing a joint rescue net.

Klaus Regling, head of the European Stability Mechanism, told journalists on Monday that the ESM fund, set up during the great financial crash to help countries in trouble, could be used in winding up banks from next year.

“We have created a strong second line of defence,” he said, pointing to the knock-on impact of rising insolvencies on banks and governments.

Deciding on joint action such as resorting to the ESM, however, is highly political. Efforts by the European Central Bank, for example, to set up a pan-euro-zone bad bank to help lenders warehouse and sell off troubled loans have made scant progress.

In the meantime, many bankers hope for the best.

“There will be light at the end of the tunnel,” said Steven van Rijswijk, CEO of ING. “Where the tunnel ends we do not know.”

($1 = 0.8226 euros)

Royal Dutch Shell sees huge loss as pandemic hits oil demand

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell sank to a net loss of $21.7bn (£16bn) last year after the coronavirus pandemic caused demand to slump.

The announcement comes after two of its rivals, BP and Exxon, posted similar big losses.

Looking ahead, Shell said “significant uncertainty” would continue to have a negative impact on demand for oil and gas products.

As a result, it said it might need to take measures to cut production.

Shell profit

In September last year, Shell announced that up to 9,000 jobs would go worldwide as the company responded to the effects of the pandemic.

Last month, it said it was cutting 330 jobs from its operations in the North Sea.

Even before the virus struck, the oil industry was already having to rethink its future plans as part of the transition away from fossil fuels.

The Covid impact means companies such as Shell are accelerating that transition.

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Analysis box by Dominic O'Connell, business correspondent

Some doom-mongers were anticipating Royal Dutch Shell might unveil the largest-ever UK corporate loss, but in the end, the Anglo-Dutch oil group managed to get only halfway there. The £16bn deficit is dwarfed by the £30bn loss posted by Royal Bank of Scotland at the height of the 2008 banking crisis.

The Shell results will also quickly be forgotten. They are largely accounting rather than cash losses, the result of a giant write-down in the future value of the company’s oil fields and prospects. Already investors are turning their attention to next week, when chief executive Ben van Beurden will present the company’s long-awaited plans to shift the company towards greener forms of energy.

Pension funds and other big investors are pushing hard to get Shell to do more. The same pension funds, however, are reliant on the big stream of dividends that flows from the oil business. They will be hoping that Mr van Beurden will be able to pull off the trick of using that income to fund the investments in green energy that will – hopefully – yield a similar juicy dividend income in the future.

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Other big oil companies are also feeling the strain. On Tuesday, BP reported that it lost $18.1bn in 2020, marking its first annual loss in a decade.

On the same day, US giant Exxon Mobil posted annual losses of $22.4bn.

Two other big US firms, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, reported big losses as well.

There are also indications of a potential shake-up in the sector, after media reports emerged this week that Exxon and Chevron held preliminary talks last year on a possible merger.

The two firms declined to comment, but sources told Reuters that the discussions involved Exxon chief executive Darren Woods and his counterpart at Chevron, Mike Wirth.

Brent crude

“This week’s huge losses by Shell, BP and Exxon reflect the challenges oil and gas companies face,” said David Elmes, professor of practice and head of the Global Energy Research Network at Warwick Business School.

“They are skating on ever-thinning ice as the effects of climate change combine with other events like the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Prof Elmes said the slump in demand for oil and gas due to the pandemic had become more prolonged than initially hoped.

“There will be some ongoing need for oil and gas as a fuel for a while yet. There will also be demand for the petrochemicals and other products made from them. But that can’t sustain the industry we’ve seen in the past as we look to address climate change.”

Working remotely: How the pandemic could redefine productivity and work life

Accelerated changes to work-life routines are leading some people to radically rethink their approach to productivity – and even change the quality of their lives.

Carol Tompkins’ weekdays used to look very different. Before the pandemic, the 38-year-old business-development consultant woke up around 0630, commuted to her job at an accounting software firm in London and worked 10-to-12 coffee-fuelled hours before going to bed after 0100.

In the past nine months, Tompkins has halved her working hours, doubled her sleep, suffers fewer migraines – and even increased how much she accomplishes in a day. “The pandemic helped me realise I was not as happy, fulfilled or healthy as I want to be,” says Tompkins.

“The pandemic helped me realise I was not as happy, fulfilled or healthy as I want to be,” says Tompkins. So, in the past nine months, Tompkins has halved her working hours, doubled her sleep, reduced her migraines – and even increased how much she accomplishes in a day.

Many of us can probably see ourselves in Tompkins’ pre-pandemic life. We live in a society obsessed with productivity – increasing it, hacking it and pushing its limits. And, in ways, this push for productivity has gotten even worse since the onset of the pandemic as people fret over how they’re ‘making the most’ of their newfound time at home. (That pressure to finally get fit or finish that home-improvement projectdoesn’t help, either.) Additionally, as companies have shifted to remote work, ticking off every single to-do has become a way for employees to prove productivity for supervisors who no longer sit within eyeshot.

London-based Carol Tompkins says

London-based Carol Tompkins says “the pandemic helped me realise I was not as happy, fulfilled or healthy as I want to be” (Credit: Carol Tompkins)

As the pandemic carries on, we’re not going to become less obsessed with productivity. However, we do have a rare opportunity to reassess what productivity actually means.

Tompkins is one of many redefining productivity as a result of the pandemic, finding that the old definition of nonstop grinding hasn’t served their health, wellbeing or even success at work. Now, some are taking a critical look at their choices, and rewriting productivity to include caring for their holistic selves. Taking a step back hasn’t only helped these workers slow down – it’s also opened up the potential for a better quality of life.

Changing ‘internalised values’

If we feel programmed to be productive – in ways, we are. Our cultural obsession with productivity has deep roots.

“The importance accorded to ‘being productive’ goes back several centuries,” says Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. “But [particularly] over the last 30 years, [advocates] relentlessly beseeched us to improve our personal productivity, strive to become more efficient and effective and to get more done, faster. Many people have so internalised these values that change is no simple matter.”

This push for productivity has gotten even worse since the onset of the pandemic as people fret over how they’re ‘making the most’ of their newfound time at home

This means that even as conversations around work-life balance have increased over the years – and especially amid the transition to remote work – “the productivity discourse is still fantastically dominant in our society”, and it’s not easy to snap out of the mindset. “People resist trying new things because there’s comfort in the status quo,” says Grace Marshall, productivity coach and author of How to Be Really Productive: Achieving Clarity and Getting Results in a World Where Work Never Ends. “There’s a difference between knowing something is a good idea versus experiencing it.”

Now, however, workers haven’t had to opt into change. The pandemic foisted it upon us. “More people are actually seeing what it’s like to have the autonomy to choose where and when we work, rather than have arbitrary commutes and office hours. For some, simply stepping off the treadmill and having time to think has resulted in shifts in values,” adds Marshall.

“Pre-pandemic, my definition of being productive was crossing as many things off my to-do list as possible,” says 44-year-old Steve Waters, an entrepreneur based in Washington, DC. “I had the sense that I was spreading myself too thin, but I’d also [become] too busy to figure out how to change. If it wasn’t for the forced pause brought on by the pandemic, I’d likely still be working that way.”

Before the pandemic, Steve Waters only defined productivity as crossing tasks off a list, and says without the

Before the pandemic, Steve Waters only defined productivity as crossing tasks off a list, and says without the “forced pause”, he’d still work that way (Credit: Steve Waters)

Tompkins was caught in a similar cycle until it was interrupted by the pandemic. She noticed the imbalance in her productivity focus: work far outranked other aspects of life. “Before, only my professional goals mattered, and everything else, including my health, was pushed to the side,” she says.

Both Waters and Tompkins have changed their relationship with the traditional definition of productivity. They’re among the workers realising that productivity isn’t just output, but that it also includes doing things that move them closer to overarching goals. Simply, the time spent outside of working on their careers – and instead working on themselves – is productive, too.

For Waters, the pandemic-induced closure of the market-intelligence firm he owned led to a bracing wake-up call, and a new approach to productivity. “At first I felt shocked by the rapid change, but once I embraced the discomfort, I found a deep sense of clarity,” he says. “This led me to implement essentialism into my daily routine: the idea of doing less, but better. I went from being focused on a variety of things to being laser-focused on the most important thing.” He launched a new business: CONTRACE Public Health Corps, the first American organisation to nationally recruit individuals for contact tracing. Now, Waters wakes up two hours earlier than he used to and works a full day by 1400. He’s cut down on email, calls, social media and news, and spends less time over-analysing his decisions and proactively disengages with toxic people.

Pre-pandemic, my definition of being productive was crossing as many things off my to-do list as possible – Steve Waters

Tompkins slashed her hours without slowing productivity by delegating more and limiting her availability for meetings. With more sleep, she brings fresh energy to her work, which has helped her make more impactful decisions and hit her targets, so her manager is happy, too. In her new-found leisure time, Tompkins can be with her family, head outside or meditate. (Pre-pandemic, she considered the latter “a complete waste of time”.) “I’m committed to sticking to these positive changes, even when life goes back to some kind of new normal,” she says.

Will the door stay open?

This new holistic perspective on productivity is improving many workers’ lives, giving them satisfaction, balance and success at once. However, even as employees may have found the key to a better place, they’re not the only factor in whether the door stays open.

Companies that employ these workers have to buy into the new framing of productivity, too or things will go back to the way they were. To adopt long-term changes, most need the sign off from their employers. And even though research shows corporate productivity has, in many cases, increased since the onset of Covid-19, experts agree that even a global pandemic can’t reverse deeply ingrained corporate productivity paradigms in the span of a year.

“For organisations to make these shifts worldwide, we would need to see incentives change, increased regulation or enough leaders and companies exert social pressure and create norms,” explains Michael Parke, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and supervisor of the remote-productivity study. “Otherwise, my concern is that once things ‘normalise’, we will return back to pre-pandemic times.”

A new holistic perspective on productivity can improving many workers’ lives, giving them satisfaction, balance and success at once (Credit: Alamy)

A new holistic perspective on productivity can improving many workers’ lives, giving them satisfaction, balance and success at once (Credit: Alamy)

If that happens, it could lead to conflict between hiring companies and the talent pool. “The pandemic has accelerated a shift away from believing financial or productivity outcomes are the only outcomes that matter,” says Shoshana Dobrow, assistant professor of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Yet change needs to happen at a systemic level, or we’ll see more mismatches between what individuals want and what organisations are willing to offer, and more people may choose to opt out [of the existing system].”

As a business owner himself, Waters agrees. “There will be a divergence between business owners who understand our new approach to productivity and are open to changes, and those who attempt to revert back to the pre-pandemic status quo,” he says. “Business leaders will have to empower employees that have discovered new mindsets that work better for them – or risk losing them to companies that do.”

For her part, Tompkins is looking to the future with a balance of optimism and realism. She plans to keep up her new approach, and foresees potentially returning to the office on a more flexible schedule. “My boss is happy because the work is still getting done right, milestones are being met and productivity has not faltered,” she says. “I have the sense that management is happy with how things have changed, but [nothing’s been decided yet].”

Although it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen when work settles into its post-pandemic state, workers can always choose to tune into their relationships with productivity. The pandemic has provided a rare opportunity to re-evaluate what it means to ‘be productive’, and given workers the chance to reset for better selves – and, hopefully, better workplaces, too.

By: Hannah Hickok – BBC Worklife