Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Are You Legally Obligated to Return to The Office?

The joy of zero commutes for staff who enjoy permanently working from home will likely change in the coming years. KPMG’s recent report indicates that 64% of CEOs internationally foresee their employees returning to the office full-time.

CEOs are being careful in how they implement this undesirable change by incentivising employees’ return. The most standard approaches have been incorporating either leisure areas, free food, travel compensation, and adjusting salaries.

While there are pros and cons in returning to the office, we’re here to discuss the legalities behind the commonly asked question of employees. Can my employer legally ask me to return to the office full-time?

The legalities

In Australia, if your reason for working from home was due to Covid-19, then your employer can legally ask you to return to the office. Your original contract will have likely highlighted your primary place of work, and a company has every right to enforce it.
According to the law, so long as your directions are “lawful and reasonable”, then businesses can enact a return. Naturally, not everyone is on board with this notion, and a survey found that one-third of companies that enforced a return to office lost at least one employee.
However, this doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to continue working from home.

Employee Rights on Workplace Flexibility

If the job advertisement you applied for stated work from home flexibility, and was assured during the interview, then be sure to have it written in your contract. 

Any employee contract that states your work location can’t be changed unless you consult and agree upon it. But if that’s not the case, you can still discuss the possibility of maintaining remote flexibility with your employer.

Workers can raise the fact that they are able to be more productive, reduce children-related stress, and mitigate lengthy commutes. A manager can easily still refuse to provide remote working conditions without consideration, however this changes under certain circumstances.

According to the National Employment Standards, employees who have been with the same company for at least 12 months can request a change in their working environment to accommodate a circumstance.

This includes:

  • Having a disability
  • Becoming pregnant
  • You are now a carer
  • You are providing support to a family or household member experiencing domestic violence.
  • You are 55 years of age or older
  • Experiencing domestic violence
Any request needs to be formally written, and the reasoning for the change must be included in the letter. The employer has up to 21 days to respond, and if they refuse, it should be because of legitimate reasons that would impede business functions.
This might include a loss in productivity, increasing costs, poorly impacting customer service, and role incompatibility.

Are The Mandates Working?

For every study that supports working from home, there’s one that suggests otherwise.
Recently, the University of Pittsburgh found that return-to-office mandates did not make significant improvements to firm performances. 
Around 137 of America’s largest corporations were analysed, with the final verdict being no dramatic changes in profitability or stock market valuation.
A few months ago, it could be argued that the employees controlled the job market and the number of options was significant. It allowed them to easily reject jobs that didn’t offer flexibility, but what if the ball is back in the court of employers?
Most employees would not apply for a job if flexibility isn’t available. But now that up to 90% of companies foresee remote work becoming a relic of the past, there might not really be an option.
Overall, the dissatisfaction with return-to-office mandates has been made evident by employees.

How Can We Make It Work?

It will take more than bean bags in the corner of an office to make the mandates work. 
Employers might think, “Why do I need to make it work?” It’s their company, and they are offering employment to people.
This is true, but unsatisfied employees lead to quiet or loud quitting and demotivated staff – directly impacting productivity levels. Companies need to offer something to make an employee’s life easier.
What does that look like?

Whether it’s free snacks, gym facilities, laundry services or a breakout relaxation area, it’s time to get creative.

Is your office design sterile and remind employees of a hospital? Consider improving the workplace by adding greenery, open spaces, outdoor workspaces, better ventilation, and other nice touches to make people excited to come in.

Flexible workers dislike commutes, but it can be improved by offering incentives. Free parking, public transport subsidisation or even free Spotify subscriptions are a great start.

Arrange team lunches and activities that unite everyone. Creating a team culture of togetherness is crucial to making returning to the office desirable. Having a close-knit team who get along will encourage them to come to the office.

Providing professional development through mentorship programs or upskilling your employees is an invaluable method for bringing in staff to the office.

Returning to the office after a long hiatus doesn’t sound enticing, but it can work out perfectly if companies offer the right incentives. Both parties must be willing to work together and keep expectations realistic – stay patient.

Check out our 7 tips for returning to the office.

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