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Law firm highlights tension between hybrid and remote working

Law firm Stephenson Harwood has been criticised for its decision to offer a lower rate of pay for full-time remote workers, but research shows some workers may take up the offer.

The firm made headlines this week for offering employees an ultimatum on remote working, and that if they wanted to work from home full time they would get a 20% pay cut.

Criticism of the firm has been particularly pointed on social media.

Research, however, has shown that employees may actually be willing to take a similar cut to work from home full-time.

A study by James Walker, professor and head of research at Henley Business School and Rita Fontinha, associate professor of international business and strategy at the school, showed that more than a quarter (27%) of employees would be willing to have a pay cut so they could work from home.

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Stephenson Harwood already offers its employees flexible working arrangements, and allows all employees to work two days each week at home. 

With the new ultimatum, Walker suggested the firm may be attempting to set boundaries with staff.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “What they appear to think is unreasonable is that employees should consider working at home full time as it undermines their workplace environment - particularly for more junior colleagues who tend to benefit more from being in the workplace and developing networks.”

By putting a price on working from home, he added, the firm may hope to keep a substantial portion of their staff in-office.

Walker and Fontinha’s research found that the workers willing to take a pay cut for working from home would be happy to give up on average more than £3,300 of their salary each year.

For context, Walker added that the average cost of commuting by car is £1,768 per year, and the average family spends more than £3,700 on transport a year.

Stephenson Harwood, he said, has admitted it does not itself expect much uptake of the policy.

Martin Williams, head of employment at law firm Mayo Wynne Baxter, said it begged the question: why has the policy been offered in the first place?

He said: “The question is, if working from home is going to have a detrimental effect on meeting customer demand or quality of the work produced, how does paying someone less overcome that problem?

 “It is hard to see how taking money away solves any of the issues an employer thinks they might have with people working from home – especially when they are saving money on office space.”

Williams added that an employee who has been productively working remotely would have the right to make a flexible working request and any employer would have difficulty declining it.

Walker added: “It would be surprising if the bulk of its employees took up the opportunity to work from home full time any time soon.”

“What Stephenson Harwood's actions have done is draw a definitive line in the sand for any employees wishing to work from home full time.”