Should Home Workers be paid less than their Office Based colleagues?

A classic newspaper QTWTAIN (Question to which the answer is No), following reports in today’s newspapers in which an unnamed government minister suggested that civil servants who work from home should be paid less than those who come to the office. Given the speed with which policy U-turns take place, the Business Secretary has now said  a few hours later that this will not happen.

However, as I’ve seen similar arguments advanced in other business magazines, notably in the US, it’s worth thinking through the logic of this argument from a business, ethical and legal perspective.

The business arguments seem to be two-fold.

Firstly, people working from home are not commuting so are therefore saving money. Consequently they don’t need as much salary.

However, this fails to consider that people working at home will have higher utility bills (heating etc) and in many cases are expected to pay for their own office furniture, IT equipment, and other associated costs. So the net effect may be far less, even if you ignore the bigger question of what salary is paid for.

Secondly, it is suggested that people who work from home aren’t as productive or as willing to put in extra effort as those who attend the office. Setting aside the fact that I’ve yet to see any research or evidence to support this point, it starts from the assumption that people only “work hard” if they are closely supervised and will “slack” if they aren’t. Yet many jobs today (wherever they happen to be based) don’t require that level of micromanagement because they are task or outcome based – performance is measured on results rather than whether someone is sat at a workstation for 8 hours.

Ethically and legally, it is very difficult for a business to justify paying staff who do the same job in different locations (home or office) at a different rate, and since it’s still the case that a majority of home-based staff are women an employer who thinks of doing this is leaving themselves open to Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination claims.

The legal process for reducing someone’s pay is also a difficult and time-consuming one for an employer. Contractual changes need to be consulted on and if an employee doesn’t agree then businesses are left in the legally-fraught ‘fire and rehire’ scenario. Even if you get away with this legally, cutting people’s pay is far more likely to demotivate them and affect their productivity.

There are big issues for businesses who may be trapped in long-term leases for warehousing or office space they no longer require, as well as those businesses (such as coffee shops and sandwich bars) which are set up to service office workers who may no longer exist. This also leads to a broader policy debate about what our city centres and business districts can or should be there for, if their current purpose is no longer required. But that falls outside the remit of an HR blog post, although I might respectfully suggest it is something government ministers might want to pay more attention to.