How to Respond to “Don’t Make Me Come Back to Work!”

June 3 2021 | Committees

Employees all over the world were thrust into working from home abruptly at the beginning of COVID-19 in March 2020.  Many of those employees, at first, lamented the difficulty of working at home with lagging technology, lack of space, family responsibilities and other distractions, and lack of connectivity with their work and co-workers.

Yet, just as many employers are starting to expect employees to return to the workplace, those same employees now say they enjoy working from home and do not want to return to business as usual.  A recent Harvard Business School study found that 81 percent of workers surveyed either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward.  More than a quarter want to work remotely full-time, more than half would like to work 2-3 days from home, and less than 20 percent desire to go back to the office full-time.  Notably, parents with children at home were the most anxious to get back to work in the office full-time!

What Should Employers Consider When Deciding When and How to Bring Employees Back?

So if the vast majority of employees do not want to return to the office full-time and many do not want to return at all, how are employers to handle the difficult task of deciding when and how to bring them back?  As I discussed in a recent podcast interview, I believe that the decision to require employees to return to full-time work in the office involves weighing three primary considerations:

  1. Business Need.  What are the business needs to bring employees back to the workplace? What are the pros and cons from an operational standpoint to requiring work full-time in the workplace?  For example, perhaps productivity is down since employees started working from home. Or, conversely, perhaps once employees were settled into working from home with the necessary technology and equipment, they were equally as productive and the company has a way to effectively monitor that. Businesses should also weigh the potential financial costs or benefits of allowing employees to continue working from home. A reduced office footprint could save money on rent, furniture, and equipment; however, equipping employees at home with the appropriate software or equipment could increase costs. Perhaps there are compliance concerns like customer or client privacy and security that are paramount. Or, perhaps incorporating remote positions allows the company to attract and retain the best talent for certain positions without regard to the geographic location of the employee. The company should be prepared to articulate and to justify (to themselves and to their employees) the business need for employees to return to the workplace.
     
  2. Workplace CultureWhat will the impact of bringing employees back to work pre-pandemic “business as usual” be on company culture? How might the culture be enhanced by adding more flexible work schedules, but finding ways to maintain employee comradery, mentoring, and other important culture components. The Harvard study makes clear that many employees have come to value flexibility and work from home and adding at least some flexibility in this regard could be as important a benefit as a raise or promotion and costs the business little to nothing. Moreover, particularly for professionals who need little oversight day-to-day, flexibility may add the often elusive “work-life balance,” while demonstrating trust in the employees to get their job done. Put simply, the traditional 40-hour workweek for professionals is likely dead.
     
  3. The Law. The law is the third, but possibly least compelling, piece of the puzzle. The law provides only minimal compliance requirements around return to work.  Of course, employers must provide a safe workplace, and businesses should provide appropriate workplace measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The law also may require employers to allow employees to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation for a disability under the ADA, as discussed in more detail in this EEOC guidance. In addition, organizations may need to consider the implications of home offices being deemed the “workplace” for the purposes of OSHA, worker’s compensation claims, and other laws. If employers are considering mandatory vaccinations, the law and government agencies provide certain parameters for those considerations, including, for example, allowing exemptions for employees with genuinely held religious beliefs. If employers do incorporate flexible work, they may need to re-think other workplace policies, like timekeeping, particularly for non-exempt employees to accurately track compensable time and avoid violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Like recovery from any disaster, businesses have the unique opportunity following COVID-19 to re-imagine everything about the workplace, including physical office space, employee positions, schedules, operations, and so much more.  While it requires a lot of time and consideration to work through these issues, the exercise will be well worth the effort in the long run.

Have questions about COVID-19 return-to-work issues, including mandatory or incentivized vaccinations, flexible work policies, reasonable accommodations under the ADA, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and other related workplace issues? Kathlyn Perez is an employment lawyer and workplace consultant who assists businesses to develop and execute effective plans that consider the business culture and legal compliance, along with intentional and targeted planning for the future of the workplace.
 

Kathlyn Perez
Perez Law, LLC



« back to News