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Technology to the rescue in big freeze

Terry smiling headThere are lots of clever folk telling us how much output will be lost as a result of the big freeze: £200M? £500m? £1 billion?

Estimates vary depending on who’s doing the number crunching or writing the headlines. The truth is that no one knows, or could possibly know until hard data starts coming in.

Some analysts are even suggesting the shutdown will not make that much difference as companies make up for the lost production.

The Fraser of Allander Institute points out that in the last period of severe weather in the final quarter of 2010 the Scottish economy contracted by 0.7%. In the first quarter of 2011, it grew 0.9% and continued to grow through the remainder of the year,  adding a further 0.9% to GDP.

Since that last shutdown many more people have turned to home working or have become able to work from home. Employees may have not made it into the office or been able to attend a meeting last week, but that doesn’t mean they were idle.

Modern technology is a wonderful thing, allowing more of us to work remotely. It may even have offered an opportunity to catch up with a backlog of other tasks. Some will work overtime to make up for the time lost. So work delayed, is not necessarily work lost.

This should serve as a reminder to those employers who have considered penalising workers who did not turn up for work. Not only should they take into account their employees’ willingness to make up for the missing hours, they should bear in mind that we were all advised by the police and government not to travel during the worst of the weather.

The economy therefore has some built-in corrections to rebalance the ‘lost work’. Apart from rescheduling of work not done over those few days, there is also a degree of replacement output. While transport operators will see a negative impact from paralysis of the the rail and road networks, energy users will report a rise in consumption.

Those most obviously affected – shops, restaurants and leisure centres –  will be among the biggest losers, though shop purchases may be postponed rather than cancelled, as will some event bookings which will be re-arranged.

While much of the impact remains speculation and guesswork, the first substantive data will emerge in the next GDP figures in April.

It will perhaps indicate to what extent the workforce made up for lost time and how much the economy has become dependent on technology to keep things moving, at least in cyberspace.



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