Can employers require employees to return to the office?

Published on in Attorney Articles News Articles

by Julie Lauria

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a unique shift to the world of work, with many organizations adopting work-from-home (WFH) policies to ensure business continuity and employee safety. However, as the world adapts to the new normal post-pandemic, many employers are now asking whether they can mandate a return to the office. This transition has sparked a range of reactions among employees and raised legal and practical considerations. As businesses evaluate the feasibility and implications of such mandates, understanding these dimensions is crucial for making informed and compliant decisions.

In most cases, employers can legally require employees who were not originally hired for remote work to return to the office. Subject to some exceptions, employers are not obligated to allow employees to work from home and do not have to retain an employee who refuses to return to the office. 

Legal considerations: Understanding the boundaries 

Employment contracts and agreements: Employment contracts often define the terms of work locations. A deviation from these terms will likely require renegotiation or amendments. If an employee was hired for remote work and remote work was stipulated as a permanent option, enforcing a return to the office could be legally challenging. 

Disability and accommodation laws: Legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) necessitates that employers reasonably accommodate employees with physical or mental disabilities. The ADA also prohibits firing an employee because of a disability. Employees may make requests for an accommodation related to returning to the office. In some cases, a reasonable accommodation could include allowing the employee to continue working remotely. Employers should be ready to engage in the “interactive process” with employees seeking reasonable accommodations to address their needs and concerns. 

Discrimination laws: Employers must be cautious not to discriminate in their return-to-the-office policies. This includes ensuring that policies do not disproportionately affect one group of employees over another based on race, gender, age, disability or other protected characteristics.

Health and safety compliance: Employers are obligated to provide a safe working environment, adhering to occupational health and safety regulations. In the context of a pandemic, this extends to ensuring that office spaces comply with health guidelines to protect employees. 

Practical considerations: Balancing needs and realities 

Work-life balance: Many employees have come to value the flexibility that remote work offers. This balance is a significant factor in job satisfaction and employee retention. 

Define the objectives behind the decision to reinstate office-based work: Employers should provide clear reasons for their decisions and be open to feedback. Many employers want to implement return-to-office policies to foster collaboration and teamwork, build a strong company culture, and improve communication and oversight. 

The hybrid model: Many businesses are exploring a hybrid model, combining remote and in-office work. This approach offers flexibility, catering to the preferences of different employees while still enabling in-person collaboration when necessary. However, implementing a hybrid model requires careful planning and clear communication to ensure fairness and consistency.

When implementing a return-to-office policy, transparent communication with employees is essential. Effective communication and consultation with employees can help mitigate potential legal issues and foster a more cooperative transition. The decision to mandate office work is multifaceted, involving various considerations. Employers must carefully evaluate their specific circumstances, legal obligations, and the needs and well-being of their employees. Open communication and flexibility can be key in navigating this transition effectively. In many cases, a hybrid model, offering a blend of remote and in-office work, may be a viable solution that balances the needs of both the employer and the employees. As the world of work continues to evolve, staying adaptable and responsive to these changes will be crucial for businesses looking to thrive in the new normal. 

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Author: Juliana K. Lauria is an associate at Burch & Cracchiolo who focuses her practice on employment law and litigation.

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