There’s a sense of panic in the employer ranks. The words ‘working from home’ seem to ignite a similar reaction in corporate dinosaurs as ‘the menopause’, ‘maternity leave’ and ‘Gender Pay Gap reporting’. To the point where one law firm Stephenson Harwood has offered up this deeply-worrying proposition: work from home but take a 20% pay cut.
It’s like the HR version of Indecent Proposal.
What would you do? Numbly accept this archaic resistance to focus on what you are doing instead of where you are sitting? Or schlep into the office to secure what’s already been contractually agreed?
At the same time as progressive leaders at Airbnb and Nationwide declare ‘anyone can work anywhere’, others (like the note-leaving Jacob Rees-Mogg) are insinuating that being in the office is better.
It seems the pandemic has put the willies up those used to lording it up over their employees. Vague mumblings about ‘missed water cooler moments’ and a need to keep city centres brimming with Pret sandwiches occur.
What seems to be eternally missing from these discussions is that flexibility – of which working from home is one strand – isn’t about where someone is sitting, it’s about who you are including at the table. Single mothers, Disabled creatives, bipolar lawyers. The penalising of someone needing to work in a more flexible way is essentially saying ‘we don’t want you’ to those with caring responsibilities, those who are Disabled and those living with mental health issues.
And this binary ‘home’ or ‘office’ narrative is completely missing the point of flexibility. It’s not one or the other. A flexible working utopia is a world where employees can go between kitchen table and HQ facilitated by tech and driven by communication that goes beyond a water cooler. Far from slacking the pandemic has proven that we can use Slack to business advantage.
To land some clear research my campaign Flex Appeal – to fight for flexibility for all not just knackered mothers – united with Sir Robert McAlpine recently to look at the financial gains to be had from flexible working. Cold, hard cash seems to be a language most CEOs seem to understand.
The report found £37bn could be added to the UK’s coffers and that a 50% increase in flexible working could unlock an economic gain of £55bn, alongside 51,200 new jobs. On the flip side, the cost to businesses of saying no to flexible working requests is almost £1.7bn a year. That’s a lot of water coolers.
Cash aside there are companies like Seatfrog, a rail ticketing company that works fully remotely and has introduced a four day working week. Pay wasn’t reduced because the roles were the same. And it worked - they have seen a 15-20% increase in productivity across the company as a result. On the other hand, I can’t find any evidence out there to suggest employees work better strapped to a designated slab of MDF under strip lighting.
It’s also worth noting that Zurich Insurance saw a 66% increase in applications to the company, and have doubled their part-time hires in just two years after fully flexing. The data screams increased productivity in the workplace when companies flex, and, yet Stephenson Harwood wants to chop employees’ pay by 20% for daring to Zoom in.
A spokesperson for the law firm commented: ‘In theory, a senior associate solicitor could choose to WFH full time even if they lived in London, but it is likely they would be ruled out for promotion to become a partner.’
This isn’t OK on any level, financial or human.
The burden of childcare is still firmly strapped to female shoulders so when they say ‘senior associate’ it’s likely to be ‘female senior associate’. Throw that into the already glaring gender pay gap in the legal world – and every other industry – and it’s increasingly a black hole of inequality.
Even more worrying is the fact that flexible working legislation has been swept off the government’s table for the upcoming Employment Bill after a lot of hot air. Never have we needed companies to step up to the flexible challenge more than now. The choice is simple: banal water cooler chat or entrenched equality in the workforce? Pick a lane. Ideally one that doesn’t have a subtext of ‘you can’t sit with us’.