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11 August 2021

The inconvenient truth is that working from home can make parents better employees

Firms such as Google are failing to recognise that the flexibility of WFH has made many parents more productive.

By Emma Haslett

Last week, I interviewed Bill Browder, a campaigner against Vladimir Putin’s regime, about his career, the death of his lawyer in a Russian prison and how he is holding the state to account. I then closed my laptop, went into the next room, plopped down on the rocking chair, picked up a copy of the book Mog and read my wriggly two-year-old her bedtime story.

Somewhere between Mog falling asleep on Mrs Thomas’s hat and my daughter doing an impression of her “biggest meow, very sudden and very, very loud”, it struck me. Eighteen months ago, I would have had to choose: interview, or bedtime? Something would have had to give.

The pandemic has taken away a lot. But it’s given us something back, too: post-pandemic, I – and millions of other working parents – can enjoy these special moments. “I saw my little one’s first steps,” replied one new father when I mentioned my observation on Twitter. “I clocked the time, and realised I would have been on my commute and missed it.”

My heart sank this morning when reports indicated that Google is encouraging employees to return to the office from October: the company is said to be considering cutting the salaries of those who work from home permanently, and has even built an internal “pay tool” that allows staff to calculate how much their pay may drop if they choose not to return to the office. 

The news comes in the week the government clambered back aboard its “return to the office, or else” high horse. Ministers appear to be trying to lead other employers by example, issuing loose threats about career prospects if civil servants don’t go back to the office.

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[See also: Is this the moment for a flexible work revolution?]

“People do build relationships and build networks through face-to-face contact,” business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Times Radio. “People who come into the office may – I’m not saying they will in all cases – have an advantage in that.”

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Sadly for ministers (and Google), remote working is a genie they can’t put back into the bottle. Even after “Freedom Day” on 19 July, when most Covid restrictions were removed, people failed to rush back to their workplaces: data from Remit Consulting published last month indicated that the number of staff in the office was 11.5 per cent at the end of July, up very slightly from the 11.1 per cent before the guidance changed.

report also published in June, by the office research company Leesman, shows that 83 per cent of employees believe their home environment allows them to work productively, compared with 64 per cent who believe the same of their office. That may be an inconvenient truth for the employers who are leading the charge back to the office.

Anna Whitehouse, a journalist who has been campaigning for flexible working since 2015, wrote on her Instagram: “It feels like a lot of hot air from archaic minds who fear change. They see flexible working as some kind of revolution when it’s actually about evolution in a digital world that is ready and willing to break free from the constraints of the industrial revolution where it was born.”

[See also: The future of work: the problem with millennial productivity books]

Work from home isn’t perfect: my little office in my new suburban home in Whitstable, where I moved during the pandemic, can feel claustrophobic. I am lucky to have a whole home, plus a garden – those without the luxury of space, many of whom are still at the start of their careers, are struggling badly.

It can be lonely, too. My husband often works away from home, which means that most weeks, the only adult conversations I have for days at a time are with the women at my child’s nursery; the only subject I talk about is the baby – what she had for lunch, new language developments and how many nappies she’s been through that day.

But the fact that I can have the choice to do bedtime, that I’m not rushing to catch a train because nursery is about to start charging for overtime, that I can spend my lunchtimes doing chores so when I get my daughter home it can be her and I, playing together on the floor, right up until story time – I am grateful for the fact my employer trusts me to work at home. 

Interestingly, Google’s Silicon Valley neighbours TwitterFacebook and Salesforce have all doubled down on their flexible working policies.  As one Salesforce employee said on Bisnow’s Office Politics podcast: “Employees can say, listen: I just worked from home for a year and I did the best work of my life. So why are you telling me now that I have to come back in?”

[See also: How mass remote working is setting the UK up for an employment skills crisis]