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UK judge rules against FCA manager who wanted to work from home

Case brought by senior employee at financial watchdog is one of first to deal with back-to-office push

A judge has ruled against a senior manager at the UK Financial Conduct Authority who wanted to work from home full-time, finding that the office was a better environment for “rapid discussion” and “non-verbal communication”.

In a decision that will be watched closely by other employers trying to push staff back to the office, employment judge Robert Richter found that the financial watchdog was within its rights to deny Elizabeth Wilson’s request, saying there were “weaknesses with remote working”.

“It is the experience of many who work using technology that it is 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 wrote in the judgment, which was made last month and published this week.

He also pointed to “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”.

The case before the employment tribunal in Croydon — itself heard remotely, with evidence given over video link — is one of the first since the pandemic to deal with the question of working from home.

Lawyers said they expect more legal disputes over the issue as employers increasingly demand staff spend more time in the office now the Covid-19 health emergency has abated.

“This is a case which raises a key issue in the modern workplace and which will no doubt be the subject of continued litigation,” wrote Judge Richter. “Ultimately it may be the case that each situation requires its own consideration.”

Companies including Lloyds Banking Group — which has offered staff free food in its offices — and Citigroup are among those that have pushed UK workers to turn up more frequently.

Ms Wilson — whose £140,000 salary is twice the FCA’s average pay — brought the case after managers rejected her request to permanently work from home following the easing of pandemic restrictions, despite glowing performance reviews.

Employees in England and Wales have no general right to demand exclusive remote work unless it is specified in their contract, although employers are required to consider requests and are only able to refuse them for good reasons.

In the FCA case, Judge Richter found that the watchdog was within its rights to deny Wilson’s request, although the judge ordered that she should receive £640 compensation because the regulator took too long to handle her application.

Wilson’s line manager agreed that Wilson had “performed very well” when working from home, according to the judgment, but told her that making the arrangement permanent would have a “negative impact on the department”, citing managerial responsibilities and noting she would not attend face-to-face training sessions and meetings.

Wilson directly managed four staff and had indirect responsibility for another 10, according to the ruling. She was part of a team of about 650 that authorises companies and individuals who want to do business in the financial sector. It is an area that has come under fire from politicians and companies for delays, though its recent performance has improved.

Wilson told the tribunal that the FCA had “excellent” technology and that many purported disadvantages of remote working were “not real”, according to the judgment. She also noted a lack of physical meeting space at the FCA.

The judge said the FCA had sought to “genuinely consider” the request.

The tribunal cannot compel an employer to allow a member of staff to work from home permanently, but it does have the power to order it to reconsider and award compensation.

The FCA declined to comment. The regulator introduced formal hybrid working policies in September 2022 requiring staff to be in the office for a minimum of 40 per cent of the time over a month. Wilson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The regulator has struggled with employee unrest in recent years, particularly since it moved to east London from Canary Wharf in 2018. Staff picketed its offices in 2022 to protest against a contentious restructuring plan.

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