Remote Row | Employment judge rejects senior FCA manager's bid to WFH full-time

Employment judge rejects senior FCA manager's bid to WFH full-time

A senior manager at the UK’s financial watchdog has lost a legal bid to be allowed to work remotely permanently.

Elizabeth Wilson, a senior manager at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), took her employer to an employment tribunal after her request to work from home permanently was turned down.

Bosses had said the switch could have a “detrimental impact” on her performance and that, as a senior manager earning a reported £140,000 salary, she should be more present for the sake of junior colleagues.

This was despite the firm admitting Miss Wilson had previously demonstrated the ability to work remotely while maintaining good workplace relationships.

The employment judge overseeing the case, Robert Richter, ruled in favour of the FCA, saying remote working makes it harder to build relationships with colleagues and that virtual contact with colleagues made it more difficult to read body language.

The background

According to the tribunal, Miss Wilson has been employed by the FCA since 2005. Her initial contract indicated that her normal place of work would be at a physical office location.

In early 2020, however, there is also agreement between the parties that there was a recognition that the Claimant would work from home for ‘health reasons’. These reasons were not elaborated upon but appear to be connected with the growing awareness of the COVID-19 virus at the time.

When lockdown measures eased later that year, the FCA reviewed their working practices and settled upon a policy that staff should attend office locations for 40% of their working time with 60% of their hours to be worked remotely. Senior FCA leaders were expected to attend an office for 50% of their working time, although this did not include Miss Wilson.

This was the working policy in place at the time Miss Wilson submitted a request to work from home remotely full-time.

In February 2023, Miss Wilson met with her line manager, Miss Lipscombe-Mitchell who was responsible for deciding the application.

Days later, she received a letter rejecting her request, which explained: “Approving this request could have a detrimental impact on performance or quality of output, as you will not attend face to face training sessions, departmental away days/meetings, and you will not be able to provide face to face training or coaching to team members or new joiners.

“Your ability to input in Management strategy meetings and be involved in in-person collaboration will also be negatively impacted.”

It went on: “This is particularly felt as you are a Senior Manager and play a vital leadership role for the department. It is a reasonable expectation that junior colleagues would have the ability to meet senior managers in person from time to time. By agreeing to this request, this would not be possible. I believe this would have a negative impact on the department.”

This was despite the fact that, in Miss Lipscombe-Mitchell's own words, Miss Wilson had “performed very well” during the period she had worked from home, and had “built effective relationships with colleagues despite not meeting in person.”

Miss Wilson appealed the decision, but this was also turned down, prompting her to launch tribunal proceedings. She told the tribunal panel that the FCA's “excellent technology” meant her switch to WFH would not present any performance issues.

The decision

Despite Miss Wilson’s arguments, Judge Richter said the tech needed to facilitate remote working was “not well suited to the fast paced interplay of exchanges which occur in, for example, planning meetings or training events when rapid discussion can occur on topics.”

He explained there was “...a limitation to the ability to observe and respond to non-verbal communication which may arise outside of the context of formal events but which nonetheless forms an important part of working with other individuals.”

Despite ruling against Miss Wilson in this case, the judge accepted that the WFH vs in-office debate would go on, and that cases should be debated on an individual basis.

“This is a case which raises a key issue in the modern workplace and which will no doubt be the subject of continued litigation,” he said.

“The availability of good quality technology to link people together has had a wide ranging impact on the traditional structures of business operation.

“The need for staff to provide a physical presence at an office location is a debate which many companies are now engaged in and which the solutions arrived at will no doubt differ considerably from employer to employer, there will not be one solution which will work for all companies or even for all roles within a company.”

“There is at the heart of many of these considerations a ‘qualitive debate’ as to whether face to face or virtual contact is better. Ultimately it maybe the case that each situation requires its own consideration.”

Miss Wilson received £640 compensation as the FCA took too long to handle her WFH request, the tribunal heard.

The FCA declined to comment.

Is the future of work office-based?

As the debate over the future of flexible working shows no signs of slowing, this decision in favour of the FCA highlights the ongoing challenges companies face in striking a balance between remote and office-based work.

Working from home is a modern phenomenon. Prior to 2020, working from home was the exception, not the rule. The proportion reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 5.7% of workers in January/February 2020 to 43.1% in April 2020, according to data from the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data.

However, whilst 58% of workers preferring to work in a hybrid model, only around 14% of the UK workforce are currently working from home more than they go into the office, according to ONS data.

Therefore, the tension between employer directives and employee preferences is clear. And, it underscores the continued turbulence facing business as the evolving nature of work arrangements in a post-pandemic world shift and adapt.

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