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Comment: A personality crisis and the great WFH salary cut brouhaha

Hasn’t what I’m snappily calling ‘Stephenson Harwood WFH pay cut-gate’ caused a furore?

In case you’ve missed it, the RollOnFriday report that the City firm is offering staff the option to work from home full time – but with a 20% salary reduction – has sparked righteous indignation, the level  of which has not been seen since… forever.

For the record, fair play to the management of Stephenson Harwood for having the guts to make a decision on the thorny issue of post-lockdown working, albeit that it has opened the door to much derision.

Getting people comfortable with going back to the office was always going to be a political minefield. On a recent visit to one City firm, the party line being spun was that everyone has embraced office life again with open arms. This message was not borne out by the pin I heard drop in reception, followed by the tumbleweed I saw wheel by the meeting room.

I am especially alive to the benefits of working from home after a recent train journey featuring a fellow passenger clipping her fingernails in the seat behind me. The public transport that most of us rely on is jam-packed with people we’ve managed to avoid for two years. People can be awful.

But then again, I thought I heard it said that law is a people business? We are already facing a personality crisis in the industry more generally. Law firm ‘characters’ – the bon viveurs, the raconteurs – are already in short supply these days and have been since the tacit decision was taken to professionalise and turn firms into businesses. I’m not saying we go back to the days of non-stop boozy lunches and parties – and with it some unacceptable behaviour at times – but there was a lot to be said for the normal human connections forged in less formal surroundings in the past.

Lockdown has created a workforce ill equipped to tolerate other people’s foibles as they were once obliged to do and worse – exacerbated a diminishing of social skills and reluctance to engage beyond absolutely necessary communication. The technical training conundrum and the career progression dilemma are well-worn arguments but no one really talks about the far greater threat to personality development.

Anyone would think from the severity of the backlash that Stephenson Harwood had delivered an ultimatum – either work full time in the office or at home. That doesn’t appear to be the case, since full salaries will still be taken home by those working three days a week in the office.

Everyone knows that staff are as productive, if not more so, at home – wherever home happens to be. There’s always been a London weighting on salaries for the simple fact it costs more to live here, not to mention the added anxiety of a Dante-esque commute. Not to sound like a snowflake-basher, but is this petulance over making any compromise whatsoever in the pursuit of an extremely lucrative career not the last word in selfish entitlement? One might also question the stance taken by the anti-pay cut camp that their whole career raison d’etre seems only to be racking up as many billable hours without leaving the house. Sartre famously said that hell is other people and he wasn’t wrong.