Why Boris Johnson is wrong on people working from home

The Prime Minister’s comments on people working from home have been described as unhelpful and divisive by leading mental health campaigners.

Jodie Hill established Thrive Law in 2018.

Boris Johnson urged young people to get back to offices or risk being gossiped about by colleagues during his speech at the Conservative Party Conference last week.

Jodie Hill set up her own law firm in 2018 after suffering a mental breakdown. The founder of Leeds-based Thrive Law, which employs around 15 people, has given her staff the option of either being in the office or working from home.

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She told The Yorkshire Post: “I feel as though it causes a divide if you’re saying people are going to talk about them because they are not in the office.”

Ian McCann, CEO at Legal Studios, shares similar views on flexible working to Jodie Hill.

Ms Hill says there was a stigma to home workers before the pandemic struck with the assumption that those not being seen to be doing the work may be slacking,

She added: “That’s not what was happening. People now see that that was not the case. It has certainly helped a lot of organisations.

“Comments like that aren’t helpful because there are people who do need to work from home because of a disability, because of childcare, or just because that suits their lifestyle.

“Some people are protected under the Equality Act and that might be a reasonable adjustment for them. Then if you’re making them feel guilty about working from home, that can really damage their mental health.”

Richard Michie: “None of the team have a Peloton, I think, but if they did and wanted to grab 10 minutes in the middle of the day, why would that be a problem?”

The lawyer was diagnosed with ADHD last year. Working from home allows Miss Hill to complete certain tasks without distractions.

“What it has done for me is it has provided me with a psychologically safe place to work,” she says. “It really helps with my mental health.”

Staff at Thrive are also happy with the flexible approach and the business has seen productivity rise through the pandemic.

Ian McCann, CEO at Legal Studios, shares similar views on flexible working to Ms Hill.

Jodie Hill's firm adopted flexible working before the pandemic.

He is worried about “losing the advantages that we have gained through what has been an incredibly challenging 18 months”.

Mr McCann believes that there is some merit in having younger staff members in offices so that they can learn from more senior colleagues.

However, he says that point is redundant if senior staff are working from home while younger employees are forced to come into the office.

Mr McCann added: “If the culture of your organisation doesn’t transcend an office building then you don’t really have a culture.

“If you’re working in a place where people gossip about you because you’re asking for reasonable adjustments or flexible working because of your life situation, I think you’re in the wrong job.”

Not everyone has been able to make the switch to home working. Manufacturers in particular have had to continue on-site operations throughout the lockdowns.

Ben Wilson, managing director of Pudsey-based fibreglass mouldings manufacturer MPM, is sceptical about home working.

While he is able to work from home himself, Mr Wilson says innovation can be stifled as spontaneous conversations can’t take place.

He added: “When someone is on the shopfloor, you want them producing things all day long. That’s what keeps prices commercially viable in shops.”

None of his staff are working from home and he says even those who do work in back office functions have chosen to work from MPM’s base.

Despite this, Mr Wilson said:“It baffled me why the leader of the country would come out with something that throws everything in the face of mental health – increasing anxiety rather than reducing anxiety.”

Last week at the Conservative Party Conference, Oliver Dowden, co-chairman of the Conservatives, told people to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks.

Responding to those comments, Will Ockenden, head of HR and director at Leeds-based Prohibition PR, said: “Why should they? Staff should be judged on their achievements and outputs – and what’s wrong with a healthy and fit workforce?”

Richard Michie, who runs a marketing business in Leeds, has switched to flexi-working. The CEO of The Marketing Optimist said: “None of the team have a Peloton, I think, but if they did and wanted to grab 10 minutes in the middle of the day, why would that be a problem?”

Ms Hill says that the first lockdown, when parents were juggling home-schooling with their job, showed people’s commitment to making flexible working work.

“The reality for most working parents was they were probably doing their hours while the kids were asleep,” she said. “A lot of people are really loyal.”

Economic reasons

The overriding feeling amongst businesses that have adopted flexible working is that the reason for the rhetoric from the Conservative Party on returning people to offices is down to fears over the economy.

Will Ockenden said: “That position stems from a lack of trust, and fear. The assertion that exercising at lunchtime – or whenever in the day – somehow means an individual is not doing work, is simply incorrect.

“But more than that, it seems like an economic argument. It’s better for business and tax if people are taking public transport, paying congestion charges and eating at sandwich bars each day, so of course they want us back in the office.”

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James Mitchinson