Can employees refuse to return to work?

With recent announcements of lifted restrictions and the return of some ‘normal’ work routines, we might find ourselves in unique scenarios where some of our employees are choosing to stay home, and some completely refuse to come back at all. So, where does this leave the employer?

Firstly, employers will need to consider the reasons why an employee may not want to return to the workplace. Carer responsibilities, disabilities, and poor health may classify your staff as ‘vulnerable’ and are grounds for an employee to request extended leave or flexible working arrangements. You will also need to consider how your employees travel to work. If they travel by public transport, will they be exposed to unnecessary health risks? It is risky business for an employer to flatly refuse these requests. As the employer, you are susceptible to allegations of discrimination or adverse action.

So, what is the solution to this conundrum?

Employers and employees will need to work together to adopt a flexible approach to working practices. There are many variations of how flexible return-to-work arrangements can look for you and your employees:

  • Staggered start and finish times for your staff
  • Hybrid work from home and office roster
  • Rotational roster – employees might come into the office every second day
  • Employee carpooling arrangements
  • Continued work from home arrangements
  • Agreed temporary or permanent reduction to working hours (both parties must agree to this one!)

For staff returning to the office, it is your duty of care, as an employer, to provide a safe place of work. This includes travel and ensuring your staff are not exposed to unnecessary health risks whilst performing their usual work duties. If you can adhere to the social distancing requirements at work and provide a safe and hygienic work environment, then employers can commence a graduated return-to-work program.

How do you gradually re-introduce your staff to work?

Start a conversation with your staff around return-to-work protocols and their current circumstances. Have an open discussion around the arrangements that work for each of your employees and select employees who are happy to return to the office.

How do you select the employees to return to work?

Foolproof your return-to-work plan by considering the nature of the work to be performed and the working preferences of your employees. Here are a few things you should be thinking about:

  • Who are the extroverted employees who perform best with social interaction?
  • Which positions require teamwork for productivity or success?
  • Can we return people in pairs through a buddy system?
  • Do my introverted staff want to return to the office yet? If they are thriving and productive from home, leave them there!
  • Are any of my employees struggling with social isolation due to personality, type of work, or inexperience?
  • Can you check in with your staff weekly to see how they are going working from home or the office?

The most important and effective strategy you could adopt with this process is having an open mind and taking a flexible approach to changing work arrangements as required. You can also use this opportunity to survey your employees around their working practices post-COVID to identify more cost-effective and productive ways of working.

The post-COVID return-to-work arrangements and practices can and should look different. I have conducted many conversations with employees and leaders over the past couple of months where the feedback was overwhelmingly associated with staff requesting to skip the daily commute and work from home a few days a week, or more. This presents an opportunity for employers to re-think their investment in office space and resources and to open their minds to a new world order. If working from home makes employees happier and saves you money, why not leverage off these changes?