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Will September see a back-to-school ultimatum for WFH employees?

·3-min read
Hello? Is there anybody there?
Hello? Is there anybody there?

Last month we saw a glimpse of what an economic slowdown might look like for WFH workers. A survey of over 1,000 employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said that one in ten firms planned to cut the pay of employees who had some mix of home working. In the US there’s already been announcements by some companies that they intend to lower the pay for those workers who moved away from cities - tech firms like Facebook and Google have told workers that additional allowances for working in expensive locations will be clawed back - but this is the first time we’ve seen commitments to similar actions by British workplaces.

It’s part of the growing evidence that we’re heading to a flashpoint between bosses and the wider workforce at the end of the summer. The fundamental issue is that senior leaders across a variety of sectors don’t believe that their workers are showing up at the office enough and believe the looming threat of recession gives them leverage. I was on a call with senior leaders from a major UK business last month. ‘We’ve tried to be fair but our workers are coming in less than we want them to,’ one said. They expressed regret that they’d previously acted too cautiously when faced with unprecedentedly high resignation rates. They feared they were on course for 25 percent of their team resigning this year, and hadn’t wanted to risk pushing this higher with onerous rules. Now with the hint of an economic slow down, they are ready to introduce firmer strictures after the summer.

This approach might be tempting to leaders looking out at empty offices, but it doesn’t mean it’s right. There’s a serious danger that such strict rule enforcement will provoke a backlash, even in a soft job market. Employees not being willing to trek into the office is rarely evidence of an absence of commitment, however managers might read it. Professor Nick Bloom, a California-based Brit and the global authority on remote working, points out, ‘The appeal of home working is that it allows us to save the dead time previously soaked up commuting and getting ready for work’. An average Brit saves over an hour a day by not commuting and up to another 30 minutes getting office ready (half of that for men!). Not wanting to go in to the office isn’t laziness, it’s efficiency. In a world where work tells us to work smarter, we’ve found a way to do just that.

When workers aren’t showing up at their desks it is generally a reflection of what workplace research organisation Leesman describe as the absence of a clear ‘workplace why’. A colleague ordered to make the journey into their office for the day might weigh up a £25 travel bill and the loss of 90 minutes of time. The trip seems especially unnecessary if they arrive at a ghost town of an office and spend the day on Zoom calls with team mates who are at home.

Maybe some time surveying the open savannahs of empty offices this summer might give bosses time to think. The office has become a tool we use when we need it and knowing when to use a tool is the skill of a master. Firms who try to cut the pay of remote workers could find their finest craftsmen and women leave the building for good.

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