The government has now lifted its pandemic requirement for people to work from home where possible, instead advising that employees may begin to return to office life. But in recent weeks the push for workers to gradually return to their desks is starting to feel like more of a shove.
According to screenshots seen by Reuters, Google employees could see differences in pay going forward if they work from home long-term. The brand has reportedly introduced an internal pay calculation tool that lets staff work out how their location might affect their wages.
But this isn’t just Silicon Valley. An unnamed senior cabinet minister suggested on Tuesday that civil servants who work at home have had a “de facto pay rise” because they don’t pay commuting costs, adding that this was “unfair” to those who have returned to the office.
Dragon Den’s Touker Suleyman also wrote this week that there was “no excuse” for people without health exemptions to “not to join the march back” as around 75 per cent of UK adults have now been fully vaccinated. He wrote: “If the only way to bring this about is to set one salary for people who work from home, and a higher one for those who come into the office and spend – in some cases – thousands of pounds a year commuting, then so be it."
Employees have hardly rushed back to the office. In fact, data has shown that the number of staff in the office since 19 July has risen marginally to 11.7 per cent, from 11.1 per cent before official guidance changed. But over the course of the pandemic, priorities among office workers have shifted. Research by networking firm Future Strategy Club found that 57 per cent still do not want to return to their 9-5 role, whilst 58 per cent want flexibility in their current role.
Now, employees are questioning the motive behind suggesting pay disparities going forward between people working from home versus working in the office, with many arguing that wages should be determined by the value of one’s work, not their location. And others questioning the legality of changing salaries if job descriptions and workloads stay the same.
Jo Marie O’Reilly, a PR strategist who is currently based in Chester, said it is starting to feel as though some companies are trying to “bully” staff to return to the office. She told The Independent: “Suggesting those who commute into the office should be paid more feels like an attempt to divide the workforce, and imply that those working from home are somehow doing less work or that their work has less value.
“I don’t know a single person who, like me, was plunged into working from home unexpectedly in March 2020, that is desperate to get back to the 9-5 presenteeism of office life,” she said. “I think this pandemic has shown us that another way is possible and that we can and should be judged on the quality of our work and not the hours we spend sitting in a chair.”
Nicole Kow, a marketing consultant who has worked remotely all her working life, agreed: “Some companies [do] make a very good case for why they have pay discrepancies and cost of living is always a big thing, but what if someone decides to move from a rural area to a city? Will companies bump up wages then? What will this conversation look like?
“And I don’t understand this idea of paying someone less because they don’t want to go into an office. If your output and the value you bring to the company doesn’t change regardless of where you work, why should your compensation be impacted?”
Others pointed out that if employers want to strong-arm workers back into the office, the cost of commuting should be taken into account. In pre-pandemic times, London commuters spent an average of £5,114 in travel costs, equivalent to 18 per cent of an average annual London net salary after tax.
However, remote workers argue that it isn’t cheaper to be at home because the cost of commuting has been largely redistributed into utilities in the home, such as electricity, heating, water and internet access. As well as any potential adjustments needed to working spaces.
Writer and researcher Chloë Maughan said: “People who work from home are doing the same job and arguably they’re saving their employer money by using their own utilities. I do think there’s another question to ask about whether employers should pay where they’re forcing people to commute.
“The past year has really made the time and cost penalty of commuting feel even more stark. People who are forced back to the office will feel like they’ve lost hours with their family each week.
“This will be on contracts where employees are told their salaries are for 37.5 hours a week, or more, and yet in reality they might be losing an additional five hours plus each week just to get to and from the office at no benefit to them.”
Employers who are considering paying staff differently according to their location have been advised not to by some experts, as this could throw up a myriad of legal issues. Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, told The Independent: “It is not advisable that employers pay staff less for working from home permanently, even on a hybrid basis, if their role will remain the same as when they were fully office-based – unless the employee agrees to it or their employment contract stipulates that such a thing can be done.”
He explained that a change in pay may be classed as an unlawful deduction in wages if the employee is working the same number of hours and has the same workload, and is held under the same obligations as when they were in the office. Employers may also receive “indirect sex discrimination claims”, given the fact that more women work from home than men, as well as claims of constructive dismissal if an employee is forced to resign due to a pay cut.
"It is important that employers check their employees’ contracts before making any changes,” said Price. “For example, if a person works in a London based office but lives outside of the city, can an employer reduce or remove London weighting?
“If the contract stipulates that the employer can change pay if the employee is living outside of London, then perhaps removing London weighting could be possible. Even then, employers should be careful.
“If staff normally based out of London are paid the same as those in London doing the same work, it wouldn’t be advisable for an employer to enforce a pay reduction.
“On a similar note, if employers give some contractual perks with a financial value to those working in the office which are then removed because of homeworking, they may need to think about offering some compensation for this,” he added.
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