No one should be penalised if they want to carry on working from home

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

If dating can sometimes feel like hard work, then playing Cupid is evidently no picnic either. Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder of the dating app Bumble, has just given her entire company a week off to recover from what one senior executive (in a swiftly deleted tweet) called “our collective burnout”, following similar gestures at Facebook and LinkedIn.

Related: Post-Covid work patterns must not be imposed by bosses with an eye on cost

Some may wonder what exactly they’ve all been doing to their staff to leave them craving a break. But if Bumble employees have emerged from a mentally and physically draining year of holding things together in a pandemic feeling frankly knackered, then they’re certainly not alone. The big thing Wolfe Herd seems to have got right, meanwhile, is making clear that this is time off for everybody.

It’s not designed as an opportunity for the psychopathically ambitious to make a point of coming into the office anyway, just to show how terribly committed they are. It’s not one of those paper perks that technically anyone could ask for but which would obviously spell career suicide in practice, with the result that everyone is too paranoid to actually take advantage, yet the company still gets to polish its halo in public. (Those “take whatever holiday you want” policies fashionable among tech companies in the noughties may sound generous, but in intensely competitive industries they can paradoxically lead to people taking less time off for fear of looking like the office slacker.) And as British office life emerges from hibernation, there’s a lesson here.

When lockdowns began to lift, this spring and last, some companies noticed a phenomenon of people coming into the office even when they weren’t obliged to, seeing it as a chance to hobnob with senior managers (often the only people still at their desks) and get one over on rivals still stuck obediently at home. The home worker’s perennial fear of being excluded from some loop that they didn’t know existed is seeping anxiously back, and may only increase when the “work from home” rule is finally abandoned (theoretically on 19 July, if the government sticks to its Covid roadmap).

Companies that are offering staff the freedom to choose whether they return to the office post-pandemic or carry on working mostly from home on a permanent basis may be doing so for the most generous of reasons. Yet as Prof Cary Cooper, the psychologist and president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, has pointed out, they risk inadvertently deepening the gender divide if it’s predominantly women with caring responsibilities who end up taking the home option. Unless men – young and old, senior and junior, fathers or not – also seize the chance to ditch the commute, move out of the city or make a lifestyle change, then the new flexibility will inevitably become associated with being on a “mummy track”, and be held against those who take it up.

It’s clear that many men do want something to change. One survey of people who had worked from home during the pandemic, conducted by the IT firm Atlas Cloud, found that 87% of respondents wanted to continue doing so at least some of the time. The charity Working Families found that 56% of fathers enjoyed spending more time with their children during lockdown, while men who pitched in with home schooling and housework may have seen some knock-on benefits for their relationships; two in five couples felt the domestic load was more fairly shared during the pandemic, and younger couples in particular wanted to carry on that way.

But history suggests that a fear of being judged at work often stops men doing what they might otherwise do. Only 2% of fathers take up their right to shared parental leave allowing couples to split maternity leave between them – which isn’t all that surprising, when many will have seen female colleagues’ careers suffer after having a baby. Working Families found that one in four men thought parenthood would make them more vulnerable to redundancy when furlough ends.

The equalities minister, Liz Truss, has sent some helpful signals that the government is considering introducing flexible working by default – normalising it for everyone unless there’s a good reason why it’s impossible, which would take the pressure off workers having to go into personal details to justify why they wanted it. Labour would go further, with a universal right to flexible working unless there’s reason to refuse. The political climate should encourage employers to be bold, knowing that change is coming anyway, and take advantage of potential cost savings on office space.

But senior men need to lead by example, making clear that younger men’s careers won’t suffer for taking advantage, and both companies and government must monitor very carefully the gendered takeup of home working and its impact on pay or prospects. Ministers should also publicly link the idea of more home working – which could mean less commuter traffic and reduced carbon emissions – to helping companies meet their own net-zero goals.

Ultimately, men may have to be as bold as women have had to be in the past, knowing that there’s safety in numbers. Of course, some workers can’t wait to be back in the office, after months of fighting their flatmates for space at the kitchen table, and that’s fair enough. But for the rest, the moral of the pandemic is arguably that life is short and too precious to waste. Take it or lose it – for this may be a once-in-a-generation chance for change.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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