I'm a homeworker - and I agree with 'couch potato nation' warnings: Jayne Dowle

New rules on flexible working risk turning Britain into a ‘couch potato nation’, the founder of a law firm has warned. I’m inclined to agree with him.

I’ll lay my cards on the table and admit that I’ve worked fully from home since I gave up part-time teaching in a Yorkshire university a decade ago.

Although I accept and endorse the flexibility ‘WFH’ brings, especially when it comes to raising children – mine are now 18 and 21 and always appreciated their mother being home when they came home from school – I am also well-placed to comment on the drawbacks.

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The ‘couch potato’ point that Donal Blaney, the founder of Griffin Law, raises is very true. It is all too easy to slip into bad habits when it comes to exercise; to my shame I admit there are several days a week when my step count barely reaches three figures.

New flexible working laws are expected to result in more working from home.New flexible working laws are expected to result in more working from home.
New flexible working laws are expected to result in more working from home.

I try to make up for this by being as active as possible at the weekends and sticking to a spartan week-day diet – banana for breakfast, soup or bread and cheese for lunch, and a cup of tea and some dried fruit or nuts mid-afternoon. No biscuits. No random coffees (bad for the heart-rate). No chocolate unless in a dire emergency.

When I tell people this they barely believe me. But it’s true. Effective working from home demands discipline, and yes, denial. It’s not about becoming so sofa-ridden that you can’t even be bothered to go to the supermarket for a few bits. If the incessant presence of Just Eat delivery drivers picking up groceries for customers in my local store is anything to go by, this lack of mobility is already well-entrenched.

WFH is no easy ride and there are many times when I’ve wished I could walk out of the house and go to an office, because yes, isolation is not always good for either your waistline or sound mental health.

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One thing I have learnt is that ‘WFH’ should not be an excuse for indulgence and idleness. But then again, I am self-employed. I have no employer supporting me through the tough times, the days when I’ve been ill or had to deal with family traumas such as bereavements. If I don’t work, I don’t earn. No annual leave, sickness cover or indeed, paid flexi-time.

I recognise that I’m in danger of sounding rather like pompous former business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who says that the new rules on flexible working will present a “bureaucratic burden for business which is unnecessary”.

The new measures introduced at the start of this month mean employees have the right to ask for flexible working from their very first day in a new job.

This could include requests for remote working, staggered hours or job sharing. The changes are fuelling fears that it could increase red tape for companies as they receive an avalanche of requests, which is what Rees-Mogg is referring to.

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No doubt some businesses, especially small businesses, will find the changes difficult to incorporate. This shift might also prejudice employers against candidates they deem most likely to demand flexible working, such as parents (particularly mothers, sadly) of young children.

Employers are alert. Employment law specialist Christine Young, a partner in Herbert Smith, argues that possible rejection of flexible working requests could pave the way for an indirect claim on the basis of sex, age, disability or religion: “This may arise where refusing the request would particularly disadvantage a group sharing a particular protected characteristic so that an employer would have to objectively justify its decision to defend a claim.”

However, let’s put aside the specific concerns of employer/employee relations for a moment and consider the net effect of promoting WFH culture. For the government to allow the changes right now, with business and trade minister Kevin Hollinrake saying the new laws will give families greater security and flexibility, seems highly cynical, if not detrimental.

Aren’t we facing huge issues in public services, such as the Civil Service and HMRC – where there was a recent row over staff being allowed to ‘rollup’ their hours in order to take long summer breaks?

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The shortage of such staff in actual offices has been proven time and again to lead to delays in dealing with business and contributing towards a general air of stagnation post-Covid.

If I was an employer, I would try to accommodate the needs of my staff as much as possible, but perhaps now is not the best timing when it comes to laying down rights in law.

The long-term effects of WFH culture are already shifting the parameters of British life, from the lack of post-pandemic economic activity in town centres contributing to the closure of shops, cafes and restaurants to the impact on school attendance.

Pupils taking Fridays off regularly because their parents do too contribute towards a laissez-faire attitude towards the classroom that is sending teachers – who don’t have the WFH option – to despair and presenting a detrimental effect on learning.

More understanding policies towards all workers would be welcome, but as the critics point out, we should be careful what we wish for.

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