The great back-to-work debate; time to get tough

Post-Covid employees refusing anything but remote working? Now's the time for employers to take back control

The great back-to-work debate; time to get tough

Post-Covid employees refusing anything but remote working? Now’s the time for employers to take back control 

The lifting of Covid restrictions in July saw many business owners breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, the chance to get back to ‘normal’. Offices will again buzz with teams ready to get stuck back in. However, for many employees, there is no going back – at least, not back to the office. 

For employers relief has given way to confusion. How to navigate business recovery with the demands of employees resolutely focused on remote working? No employer wants a frustrated and unhappy workforce. Equally, they have businesses to run. 

As an HR director helping numerous business owners over this period, my message is – it’s time to get tougher. Your business does not exist to please your employees. It is there to create value. Value can be measured in many different ways, including the value you create for your employees, but this can’t outweigh everything else. You cannot be held ransom.

The pandemic shone a light on the more draconian working practices endured by office-workers; it’s no wonder that so many have wholeheartedly embraced remote working. However, many now feel a right to create their own ideal working conditions, forgetting they have a contract of employment with formal procedures to request flexible working. 

Alongside issues of remote working, at the end of September, furlough will end. In June about 2 million people were still on furlough, with some 28% of employers still furloughing staff. This is a ticking time bomb. Will yet more employees refuse the invitation to come back?

As an employer you will get excuses and guilt-tripping thrown at you about why someone cannot work from the office, or return from furlough. You must remember who is in control here ‘ you. If you allow every employee to determine what is right for them you will have anarchy. It is time to regain control of what flexible working is in your business and in what circumstances employees can claim flexible working. 

Let’s not also forget that ongoing flexible working attracts legal implications, for example contractual locations, tax and insurance are all affected by where your employees work from. Think through these issues now, before agreeing to long term remote models. Setting expectations now will prevent the pain of back-peddling later. 

What is a legitimate reason not to return to the office?

If someone refuses to return to the office on grounds of ill health, for example long-Covid, or is concerned about safety it starts to feel complicated. But it’s not ‘ either they are signed off by their doctor or they come back to the workplace. The same legal obligations and responsibilities as ever were. 

Of course safety and support is vital. You may need to look at temporary or permanent adjustments to accommodate ill health just as you would with any other sickness absence returnee. If they are signed off, then a period of absence management begins which may ultimately result in their dismissal and which may or may not include getting doctor’s information or involving an occupational health consultant. 

It is different if someone refuses to return to the workplace on grounds of pet care or family care. Then, again, don’t overcomplicate it. If an employee wishes to apply formally for flexible working to accommodate their caring duties, then they can do that in line with legal flexible working requests. If there are legitimate business reasons to reject it, that is ok. 

That’s not to say that employers should run roughshod over employees or dismiss their individual needs. Retaining, motivating and recruiting good staff requires employers to show empathy and build inclusive cultures. However, in all this debate  there has been a lot of focus on employers’ responsibilities ‘ covid adjustments and assessments, wellbeing focus, legal compliance, new working models… the list grows. 

Every right you have as an employee though comes with an associated responsibility. If you have the right to work from home, you have a responsibility to be available and communicative. If your employer asks you to return to the office, they have a responsibility to make that office an inclusive, supportive place to work. We would all do well, as employers and employees, to remember that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities – one cannot exist without the other. 

Helen Jamieson
Helen Jamieson

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