Can Employers Force Staff to Come Back to the Office?

 In News

Can Businesses Force Workers Back to the Office?

New rules will give bosses more leeway in requiring their employees to come back to the office, but many may choose to stick with remote working. 

Last Friday, Boris Johnson urged the nation to return to the office. From August 1st, he said, employers would have more leeway in requiring their workers to come back to the office. In doing so, though, he contradicted his own Chief Scientific Advisor, leaving some confusion about what businesses should do and what rights employees have. So, what are the new rules? Can businesses force their employees back into the office and is it a good idea? 

What the rules say

The current guidelines say you should work from home if you possibly can, but from August 1st that will change. Employers, he said, would be given ‘more discretion’ about where staff work and public transport will be open to everyone. The Government is sending a clear message: where productivity would be improved by working in an office, they want people to go back to work.

As an employer, then, this move gives you more options. You may decide to keep things as they are with your team or ask them about what steps they can take to get back into the office. 

In order to do so, you will have to satisfy certain requirements. 

  • Everyone in the office must observe the 1m plus rule of social distancing. 
  • You should introduce a one-way system to minimise contact. 
  • Communal areas, objects and fixtures should be cleaned frequently.  
  • Shops will have to store returned items for 72 hours before putting them back on the sales floor. 
  • Indoor pubs and restaurants will be restricted to table service only. 
  • Venues should collect the contact details of customers for NHS Test and Trace. 

With these measures in place, businesses should be able to bring employees back into the office, but this still raises a number of tricky questions. 

First, what happens if employees are not comfortable working in the office environment? This is an extremely difficult issue. 

If you’re an employer, you should be very careful about disciplining or sacking anyone who refuses to come into the office. Employment law allows people to walk off a job if they are in ‘serious and imminent danger’. 

If you’re an employee and you feel your workplace hasn’t taken sufficient precautions to ensure your safety, you can contact your local health and safety executive who can force a firm to take action. 

Secondly, there’s the issue of employees who may be more vulnerable than most to COVID 19. From August 1st, vulnerable people who have been ‘shielding’ will no longer need to do so and can return to work as long as their bosses have made it COVID 19 secure. However, as a business, it is important that you take extra care of these individuals and do everything you can to reduce their risk of exposure.

Is It a good idea? 

August, then, will see significant changes for workplaces. If you’ve got staff who have been furloughed, or you feel they would be more productive in the office, you have more leeway than before to bring them back in. 

However, just because you can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. There’s plenty of opposition to the decision. ASLEF, the train driver’s union, has warned it’s ‘too much too soon’. Asking millions of people to start commuting again will have serious implications for the public transport system. 

The TUC, meanwhile, has recommended all employers publish a detailed risk assessment about the measures they have taken to minimise contact and share these with their staff. Many businesses, they say, are not doing so. 

Johnson’s own declaration flies in the face of a statement from his own Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance who, 24 hours previously, had backed a continuation of the social distancing rules. 

The lack of clarity means there is still uncertainty about how risky a return to work will be and many employees will naturally be uncomfortable. Forcing them back to work when they still feel worried may cause friction in the workplace. Studies show happy employees are more productive. As an employer, you don’t want to risk alienating your workforce unless it is unavoidable. 

Benefits of remote working 

Many businesses will instinctively push to get the workforce back to normal as soon as possible, but others will have taken this opportunity to accelerate the transition to remote working. For example, the law firm Dentons recently announced it would be closing its Aberdeen and Watford offices and transitioning all staff, including the one receptionist in their Scottish branch, to remote working. All staff would be given the opportunity to work in the company’s Edinburgh or Milton Keynes offices when required.    

They are not alone. According to a recent business survey, almost 60% of businesses said they had not found remote working difficult and stated that they would be happy to continue the practice permanently.  

Today’s technology makes it possible for businesses to increasingly transition to a flexible working mode in which a growing proportion of the workforce is working from home. However, COVID 19 has accelerated this move with many businesses finding remote working offers compelling advantages. 

From a cost proposition, companies can save money on office space while employees will also save on the daily commute. It also widens the talent pool to a national or even international range rather than regional. Even before the pandemic, many businesses were investigating the possibility of remote working. Lockdown has accelerated this process by forcing many businesses to invest in the equipment and infrastructure required to work remotely. 

The biggest problem with remote working is the lack of face to face contact with colleagues and the difficulty of maintaining proper management oversight. However, both these issues can be solved with technology, such as video conferencing or cloud-based data management and accountancy systems. By providing more information about the state of the business, what people are working on and where revenue is coming from, businesses can keep work on track and identify whether remote working is delivering a positive return on investment.

In short, then, the new rules will be useful for those companies who require their employees to come back to the office in order to be at their most effective. However, for many others, lockdown has pointed the way to a more flexible way of working which will continue long after restrictions are eased.

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