Back in 2017 Nicola Thorp turned up for a temp assignment at Price Waterhouse Cooper staffing the reception desk. She was sent home for wearing flat shoes; the company dress code clearly stated that women employees must wear 2 - 4 inch heels. And despite the press reactions - photos of shapely calves in stilettos from the Sun, outrage from the Guardian - it quickly blew over. Dress codes were and are a quite legal and enforceable power of company HR departments. And it doesn't end with what employees can wear to the office. In the past twenty years they have ended the City's lunchtime drinking culture. The pubs heaving with suited traders getting a couple of pints down their gullets are a thing of the past - the HR departments decreed that, on Health and Safety grounds, the company had a new no-alcohol policy. Any employee with alcohol in their bloodstream was deemed to be an unacceptable risk in the workplace.
Of course it extended even further. Not only must employees not smoke in the workplace, they must not smoke in the vicinity of the workplace or when they can be identified as employees of the company, whether during their paid hours or otherwise. When your DHL driver finishes his shift, he can still be disciplined for having a fag in his liveried overalls in a Tesco car park.
And then there's social media. The reason I started blogging under a pseudonym was counsel's opinion that had been circulated to us confirming that contractors, IR35ers and employees could all be compelled to desist from expressing any form of personal public opinion that could be linked to the company. There's no point in Joe Potato going on Twitter with the bio "Structural Engineer with Thames Water - opinions are my own". They're not. His opinions belong to his employer. Of course, Momentum activists working in the NHS don't have this problem, as the employer doesn't mind being linked with them, but an NHS worker openly declaring membership of the Brexit Party on Twitter will certainly face disciplinary action - not for the membership, but they'll dig into past posts to find one that violates company policy. Offence archaeology. This last pernicious smothering of personal political opinion by corporate HR departments has surely been the most distasteful use of commercial power.
HR litigation has been a rich seam of earnings for law firms, so much so that the workplace has become an incredibly high-risk legal environment. In the past decade cases have even sought to establish that normal human contacts in the workplace can be a cause for action; don't even think about smiling reassuringly at the new girl or joking about the Transport Manager's weight.
And Covid-19 might just have driven a tank through the whole bloody edifice of corporate HR control.
Are female employees of PwC working from home still expected to wear 4" heels when Zooming from their sofa? Can you swig from a can of cold lager in the garden on a steaming hot day while engaged on a work voice call? Can you smoke whilst constructing complex company spreadsheets on the kitchen table, or if you develop lung cancer can you sue the company for secondary smoke from your wife's fag in the workplace? Can you playfully jiggle your spouse's breasts on company time?
And as work itself changes away from permanent employment in a workplace, as will be inevitable, will the legal relationships between employee / contractor and employer become more equal? Will employees cease to be a 'resource' like iron ore or petroleum feed stock or power or produce and start to become sovereign partners, if unequal in financial size?
I started work having an office, a desk with an ashtray and a culture of the three-pint lunch, of Christmas parties that provided opportunity for Bacchanalian fornication. The job of the personnel department was to write the salary cheques. Most people met their partners at work, and their longest lasting friends, bonded over beer and fags and Christmas lunches. It's now the turn of the Puritan zealots from the HR departments who ruined it all to go. They won't be missed.
I neglected to mention the effects of Covid on liability insurance premiums - general liability insurance, Directors & Officers insurance and Worker's Compensation insurance. In the end it won't be government legislation on distancing that kills the office workplace, but the unaffordability of the risk.