Could working from home cause a divide in the engineering workforce?

If there is one thing Covid-19 has irreplaceably changed, it is attitudes to remote working. Pre-pandemic, just 1.7 million worked mainly from home; by January 2022 YouGov data revealed that 39% want to work from home permanently, with hybrid working being the overwhelming preferred option.

It is not difficult to see why. The average British worker saves £44.78 a week by not commuting or buying lunch out; recovers nearly an hour each day previously spent commuting, and gains control over their day by working from home. That is – of course – for staff who truly have the luxury of being able to work from anywhere.

In engineering, this has long been a problem. Even pre-Covid, engineering firms were the third worst for offering employee flexibility at work (including working from home). And while a 2020 poll by The Engineer magazine found that 67% of engineers felt able to perform most aspects of their jobs remotely, a significant 25% still said this was impossible for them.

The risk in these statistics is clear: that it potentially creates a two-tier workforce – of those who can save time, money and stress by working remotely, and those who simply cannot. So should employers address this rather than pretend this division does not exist?

Greg Russell, Production Director of Nottinghamshire-based Aluminium Bending, says he certainly recognises this problem. “While some people might not actually want to work remotely, some may feel they are missing out on perks such as a work/life balance and a decrease in commute time,” he explains. “Resentment could come from some individuals.”

Russell adds: “If, for whatever reason, working from home became a necessity for some and caused a divide, it’s important for workplaces to communicate their thoughts and keep everyone happy, no matter their role.”

Can employers be too fair?

According to Progressive’s Business Manager Mhari-Claire Doolan, who oversees recruitment into engineering roles, what she calls an emerging “class divide” has become so bad firms have taken evasive action: “We’ve seen a growing number of companies deciding to take away flexibility from everyone, which we have seen create further disengagement with those that are able to work from home, and is subsequently a risk of churn to competitors who are willing to be flexible”

But, she argues, this extreme response – justified in the name of fairness – is just as divisive. “Taking away flexible working is a ticking time-bomb,” explains Doolan.

So would a better solution be giving compensatory perks to those who cannot work remote?

This could create “more division than it’s worth”, according to Brian Young, Business Support Manager at the British Engineering Manufacturers’ Association. “There will be plenty of businesses where the remote working contingent is tiny compared with those where ‘bums on seats’ are needed.” In these cases, he suggests “the divide is more just talk at the water cooler than anything more serious.” He adds: “I formally worked at a tier one supplier to Rolls Royce. Out of 200 people, only 12 could work at home anyway, so it was never an issue.”

Young says most staff appreciate the mental health advantages being on site together gives, while Russell is also unsure about mixing perks. “We haven’t felt the need for new perks because we already offer flexibility, and we prefer people to be together anyway,” says Russell. More worrying elements of a two-tier workforce would be “things like unequal employment, pay and benefits, which isn’t what any business should be thriving to achieve,” he adds. And having some people working remotely does not really hit this threshold.

To those who might suggest levelling out perks is necessary, because it is part and parcel of creating a balanced offering for the entire workforce, Russell explains it is just not possible anyway. “A consistent offering for all is almost impossible as you have to consider how long someone has worked at a company, how much they have achieved and what they have given to the business,” he says. “People do have to work their way up and although this doesn’t mean unfair treatment, there will be some areas that are unbalanced – for example, pay and holiday allowances.”

Balancing home and on-site advantages

So what should companies do on a practical level? As well as being more open in their communication to staff, they should seek to address some unintended consequences of workers being split between locations.

For instance, those who gain work-life balance by being remote may miss out on the training, career development and promotional opportunities gained from being on site. Work experts are calling this ‘proximity bias’ – where those most ‘seen’ get more advancement.

“Employers certainly need to have policies and manager training in place to ensure remote staff receive the same support and opportunities as on-site colleagues and mitigate the risk of unfair treatment of workers,” says James Tamm, Director of Legal Services at employment services firm WorkNest.

In a survey that WorkNest recently conducted among a mix of workforces divided between home and on-site locations, only 44% of businesses admitted they were confident employees will be treated evenly when it comes to progression and promotion prospects.

Doolan says this disparity, as a minimum, must be addressed. “Solutions we’re seeing companies come up with include offering at least some more progressive perks – such as more flexible hours (to give non-remote workers better work life balance), and giving workers more time off between on-site shifts,” she adds.  

Doolan concludes: “Another consideration HR must face is that without giving some sort of flexibility, firms will find they are only able to hire certain people – which will not support businesses or engineering in general bridge the diversity gap.”

With working from home clearly here to stay to some degree and a competitive employment market for engineers, it is worth taking the time to consider all the ways the onsite vs remote divide could play out within your organisation.

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