In the last few months, working from home has become a topic that’s up there with speed cameras and parking tickets.
Everyone has an opinion on it and it’s guaranteed to start a passionate debate whenever it’s mentioned.
Many employers and employees alike will argue that remote and hybrid working has countless benefits, such as a better work-life balance for staff, reduced costs for businesses, and productivity being as high as ever, if not better. But this shift in working methods, which has been widely embraced by businesses in countless industries, has drawn strong criticism too.
Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, made his displeasure known by leaving notes on empty civil service desks saying: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon”. Businessman Lord Sugar has also entered into this debate, describing homeworking as a “total joke”, adding: “There is no way people work as hard or productive as when they had to turn up at a work location.”
Lord Sugar’s comments came after PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) told workers it could take Friday afternoons off throughout the summer, as long as they get their work done by lunchtime. Richard Osborne, a senior manager at PwC, described the Apprentice star’s comments as “at best childish and misunderstood”. Writing on LinkedIn, he said Lord Sugar was “out of touch” with the “modern working world”, insisting: “This isn’t about taking time off to be lazy. It is about flexibility to work effectively as and when we work our best.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, was widely condemned for leaving notes on empty desks, with FDA General Secretary Dave Penman, for example, saying it was “condescending, crass and insulting”.
Strong words are being used on both sides of the debate, a measure of just how strongly people feel about this issue. But why has working from home inflamed passions to such an extent?
According to Julia Hobsbawm, author of book The Nowhere Office, the issue is now part of a wider “culture war”. Speaking to BBC News, she said: “You’re really seeing a difference between hardliners of a particular generational disposition like Alan Sugar, who genuinely believe that if you’re not in the office you’re not working, and soft-liners like PwC and their chairman Kevin Ellis, who recognise that how you work productively is a lot more complicated than turning up to a fixed place.”
Some businesses are attempting to straddle this line diplomatically, perhaps by allowing homeworking but asking people to be in the office for at least two days a week. Law firm Stephenson Harwood, meanwhile, recently hit the headlines for its approach – allowing staff the option of working from home permanently, but only if they take a 20 per cent pay cut. Philip Richardson, head of employment law at Stephensons Solicitors, said the idea of cutting pay in exchange for remote working “is going to raise eyebrows”. Speaking to Personnel Today, he stated: “Many employees feel just as productive, if not more so, than if they were commuting into the office every day. “If their work and output is of a high quality, some will view the decision as harsh to penalise employees solely on the basis of where that work is done.” He added that the risk of this approach is that employees don’t feel trusted and that may prompt some to find a job elsewhere.
Trust is ultimately at the heart of this continuing debate, and many staff who don’t feel trusted will be well aware that they can move to a company that has embraced remote working. That puts a degree of power in the hands of employees, as managers won’t want their best talent to leverage this option and move elsewhere.
One thing is for sure – people aren’t looking back after the change in working habits that was precipitated by the pandemic, and many businesses might have no choice but to respond accordingly.