Will landmark legal case tilt balance toward a return to the office?

A British employment tribunal has ruled that there are ‘weaknesses with remote working ’ – but that doesn’t necessarily mean full-time office working is back on the horizon

When Elizabeth Wilson, a senior manager at the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, sued her employer earlier this year for refusing to let her work from home on a full-time basis, few eyebrows were raised when she lost her case.

Now, however, the employment tribunal ruling that rejected her request is being viewed as a landmark case that will embolden companies to stand firm in the face of employee demands for greater home working and, in some instances, roll back the flexible privileges gained in the pandemic.

According to The Guardian, employment lawyers expect to see a rise in employment tribunal cases as companies step up the pace on the return to the office. In the Elizabeth Wilson case, presiding employment judge Robert Richter said there were ‘weaknesses with remote working’ and predicted continued litigation around the issue.

Tilting to employers?

The legal ruling throws a new light on the long-running cultural battle between business leaders who want to move towards a full-time return the office, and employees who want to preserve the right to work more flexibly. But does the case now tilt the balance decisively in the direction of employers? Evidence suggests that things are still in flux, particularly so in the UK where a 2,500-company survey published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) shows how UK managers expect working from home to stay.

According to the CEPR, UK managers forecast levels of remote work in 2028 within their own firms that are almost identical to the levels in 2023 – and aggregate working from home could even increase as younger firms tend to make more use of remote working, and they are likely to grow more quickly in the future.  And let’s not forget the new UK legislation backing the right to flexible work which came into effect in April this year.

Divergence of opinion

Even among high-profile business leaders, there is a divergence of opinion. On one side, the new part-owner of Manchester United, entrepreneur Jim Radcliffe, has banned remote working by the football club’s employees, citing high volumes of email traffic and telling the 1,000-strong workforce to seek alternative employment if they’re not willing to turn in person at the club’s premises.

On the other side, the relatively new UK chief executive at Spanish bank Santander, Mike Regnier, has said publicly that he would never have taken the top job if he hadn’t been allowed to spend at least some of his week working from his north of England home in Harrogate. Santander’s office-based workers are only expected to be onsite two days a week.

While some employers are inclined to follow the lead of British pharmacy chain and beauty retailer Boots, which has ordered its 3,900 head office employees back to the workplace five days a week from 1 September 2024, there are others that remain reluctant to mandate a full-time office return for fear of losing high-performing talent.

Boots has promised to significantly enhance its head office environment and amenities as part of the new policy. Other companies might choose to keep their hands in their pocket and rely instead on employment law rulings to persuade people that fighting to work remotely isn’t worth the effort.

Find exclusive content in the


Premium content for Global Partners, Corporate and Community Members.
The latest analysis and commentary on the future of work and workplace in five distinct themes: Research & Insights, Case Studies, Expert Interviews, Trend Publications, and Technology Guides.