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How much leverage should employees have when it comes to WFH?

As countries worldwide ease their Covid restrictions, there’s a lot of decisions to be made on how the new normal looks for office workers.

Photo by a_medvedkov

This week, workers in both England and Scotland made a full or gradual return to the office, with the respective governments lifting their guidance to work from home. They joined many other countries around the world, including France, Germany, and the United States, who each have their own phased plans for staff returning to workplaces.

While it’s difficult to know for sure, the ONS reported that as many as 47% of people in the UK can plausibly do their jobs from home.

And now that nearly half of the UK workforce are told to return to the office, along with millions of others worldwide, should we be questioning whether that’s what they really want?

The advanced digital age in which we live bestowed many companies to survive the pandemic. It is because of technology that millions of people around the world were able to continue working.

As the pandemic accelerated the normalisation of remote working, employers were forced to decide whether they wanted to build relationships with their staff that was based on trust, or instead find a way to monitor the time their staff were spending at computers.

Whichever method was chosen, it has been proved that many office-based businesses can still run, and people will still work, even though staff are not physically present in the workplace.

With countries all over the world relaxing their rules to mirror the easing threat of Covid, employers are making decisions on whether they want staff back in the office full time, as they would’ve been two years ago; working from home (WFH) full time, as has become the norm for so many people; or a mixture of the two scenarios, dubbed ‘hybrid working’.

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But should one rule fit all? Should it really be down to the employers to decide what their staff’s new working status is?

If this was the case, workers could find themselves in one job where WFH full-time is mandatory, to another where full-time office work is mandatory. This could in some cases mean a whole lifestyle switch each time workers land a new job. While adapting to change is human nature, is the modern world of developing technology and progression of employment rights not all about shaking up the systems in place to make our lives sensibly easier?

Another likely scenario is that people will avoid applying for certain jobs altogether because of their stance on office or home working. This means employers could be missing out on some of the best talent.

A recent poll by The Female Lead found that a staggering 70% of their audience now wouldn’t consider applying for a job that didn’t have remote working as an option.

Edwina Dunn, Founder of The Female Lead, says, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Employees have had a taste of working from home and have proven that they can work just as (or more) efficiently, as working in an office five days a week. I think employers should really consider offering an option for hybrid working - it’s the way the world is moving.”

WFH and hybrid working has been embraced by a long list of companies that include Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Spotify and more.

Is the modern world of developing technology not all about making our lives sensibly easier?

It’s now generally agreed that it would be a monumental step backwards for companies to deny their staff any option to work from home when we have the technology which allows it. But how do we create a working system that is fair and appealing for all?

Every person has individual needs, and every person has different reasons for why they want to spend most (or all) of their working life either at home or in the office. So is there a way for employers to accept those varying needs on a case by case basis?

One employee of HSBC said the company hasn't asked her to come back into the office since the ‘working from home’ rules were lifted. “We were luckily given full control over how often we were allowed to come into the office. Some of my colleagues are permanently working from home, like myself, and others are working exclusively from the office. Some choose to go one or two days a week, which really suits them.”

“I chose to work full time from home because getting back ten hours a week in commuting time is invaluable to me. It helps that I’m at home for errands that need to be done before and after work, allowing for a better work/life balance.”

“I also found working in an office incredibly stressful and it often meant I couldn’t get on with my own work because I was always having to help other people. At home I can focus on my own tasks.”

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But this is just one person’s argument. For many, going to the office and physically interacting with people every day is crucial for their mental health. For some, life at home, or the environment they live in, can be an unhappy one, and going to the office is a form of escapism.

So who should make the decisions on how often staff need to be in the office?

Amazon announced in October 2021 that in-office work days will be determined by individual team directors. Amazon expects some teams will return to the office, some will continue remote work and some will strike a balance between remote work and coming into the office.

Some people would take it a step further to remove control from the big bosses: a recent poll by The Female Lead found that 87% of their audience believes that power to determine in-office work days should lie with individual employees.

But if employees are to make these decisions, will it come at price?

LinkedIn announced in July 2021 that they will allow employees to opt for full-time remote working or hybrid working as offices gradually reopen. However, workers who relocate from cities like San Francisco and New York to cheaper areas may have their pay docked based on local market rates.

Similarly, Google employees based in the same office before the pandemic could see different changes in pay if they switch to working from home permanently.

And while most people say they now wouldn’t consider taking a job that didn’t have remote working as an option, 76% of The Female Lead’s audience said in a LinkedIn poll that they wouldn’t take a pay cut to continue partially or fully working from home.

One participant said: “As a remote worker you incur a lot of expenses - more heat, water, and you need an office space with faster Internet speeds.”

Another said: “Shouldn't the salary be paid for the hours we do and not regarding the place where we work from?”

Another said: “I end up working more hours at home because I don't have an enormous commute and can work right to the last moment before needing to get my children.”

However, Edwina Dunn worries that an imbalance of people in the office would negatively affect those who choose to stay working from home, which previous ONS research found is more likely to be women.

“I worry that women whose interactions are mostly virtual will miss out on providing their spontaneous input, which could in turn see them not being offered opportunities. Those that are more visible in the office will be more likely to get promotions.”

“I also fear women will further bear the burden of household and childcare duties, which we know from our Women at Work research they are already doing most of. I think we need to create a system that is completely fair to both men and women.”

"Those that are more visible in the office will be more likely to get promotions.”

So if there is to be a blanket rule, how much leverage should employees have in that decision?

Some companies are already making judgements without consulting their staff. One employer from a major retailer said she is unhappy about being told to go into the office three days a week. “I’m refusing to accept this,” she says.

“I am on calls all day every day, and my commute to work is well over 90 minutes. What’s the sense in me wasting three hours a day travelling to and from an office where I’ll be on the exact same virtual calls that I can do at home? Each day in the office costs me £20 in commuting costs.”

But it’s her mental health she’s more worried about. “I like to play netball on Monday evenings, which I will potentially have to give up. I’ll be a more unhappy employee for reasons that can easily be avoided. The bosses say they care about our mental health but now they don’t seem to care about our work/life balance.”

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“I recently won the ‘Star Employee of the Month’ and that was achieved working completely from home. I’ve proved my capability and don’t see the sense in changing my routine. No one consulted us on this new three day policy.”

With a multitude of personal circumstances to grapple with, how can businesses appeal to everyone, whilst still ensuring they provide fair opportunities?

"Hybrid working is excellent when it applies to everyone working the same number of days in and out of the office.

One woman who works as a contracted Product Designer said because she is freelance, and also 36 weeks pregnant, the health and leisure business she is working for isn’t asking her to come into the office. However, they are asking the full time staff to go in two days a week.

“From my understanding, staff were not consulted on this decision - it came from the top. I don’t think this is the best way to do it. I know lots of other companies sent out surveys asking staff for their input - this is a much more inclusive way of handling things.”

Work organisational company Hugo says that surveying your team allows you to find out how they are feeling, makes them feel valued, and helps you determine the best way to offer support.

It will also allow employers to come up with the best average plan for most people, whether that be mostly working from home, working from the office, or a combination of the two.

Edwina Dunn says, “It might be that the best way forward is for companies to offer hybrid working that’s the same for every employee. Hybrid working is excellent when it applies to everyone working the same number of days in and out of the office.

“What we do stress at The Female Lead is that people have the right to ask for flexible working.”

Photo by DragonImages

The Female Lead’s Women at Work research shows the most women-friendly companies were those in which people throughout the organisation worked flexibly.

One woman we spoke with works in children’s services as a Social Worker. She said, “Myself and my husband have fully split our weeks working flexibly to enable us to continue working full time, but also to be able to drop off and pick up the kids.”

“My work had initially told me to do whatever I needed to do, as long as I got the job done. I fully embraced this, and we have seen huge benefits to the quality of our family life.”

“Despite both working full time, I don’t feel like an absent parent and feel fully involved in all day-to-day aspects of my children's lives.”

Another mother we spoke to, who works as an Employment Lawyer, said, "As soon as there was talk of restrictions being lifted I was asked to return into the office full time."

"The impact on our day to day is huge as I cannot contribute to the drop offs and pick ups of my daughter as I would like to. Much of that falls on my husband who is still currently being directed to work from home."

"There was no input from myself of colleagues into going back to work. In fact I have had a flexible working request turned down!"

"The law in respect of flexible working is currently pretty toothless. From my experience, I feel we need further robust legislation and a change in culture for many employers to concede more flexible working and for employees to have some control over their working patterns.”

We know after speaking to women that working flexibly allowed them to spend more time with their family, have better mental health and increased happiness which led to an increased sense of fulfilment with work.

"The need for greater workplace equality, diversity and inclusion has long been on the radar, yet women’s ambitions for success have been muted.”

With all this in mind, is the best practical solution for companies to implement hybrid working that’s the same for all of their staff, with the added possibility of flexible working for those who really need it?

Will there ever be a world where employees really can choose where and when they work, in a way that totally suits their individual needs?

While it’s very possible the latter will be the new normal in years to come, for now in this adjustment period, employers and employees will have to consider what their bargaining chips are.

“You need to understand a problem before you can solve it,” says Edwina Dunn.

“The experience of the pandemic has demonstrated that organisational culture and working practices can successfully flex to adapt to new demands and unexpected challenges. The need for greater workplace equality, diversity and inclusion has long been on the radar, yet progress has been slow, action has been limited and women’s ambitions for success have been muted.”

“For this reason, The Female Lead’s new research collaboration this year will explore one of the most pressing issues facing business leaders in 2022 - hybrid working.”

“We believe this is the ideal moment to find out how new ways of working have impacted the experiences of women and ethnic heritage, and arm businesses with up-to-date evidence on how to successfully implement hybrid working policies to support and advance the entire workforce – equally and productively.”

By Holly Droy


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