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Work from home? Your boss may be able to force you back to the office

A business manager overlooking a colleague struggling while working in the office.
An employer is well within their right to expect you to return to the office. (Source: Getty)

The much-anticipated - and perhaps dreaded - return-to-office protocols are coming into effect in organisations around the world with the COVID-19 pandemic gradually receding and organisations looking to restore pre-pandemic normality.

But can your employer force you to return to office even if you are in no mood to resume working life as you knew it?

When the pandemic broke out, organisations introduced the work-from-home revolution and employees were forced to restructure their lives to accommodate the new normal.

The majority of the workforce welcomed this new arrangement and settled into a rhythm, proving working from home was indeed possible.

Subsequently, your employer would have a tough time justifying your inability to work from home, especially if you have been able to do so in the past.

Now, as life limps back towards pre-pandemic business as usual, the question remains: can your boss coerce you to return to the office if you choose otherwise?

The simple answer is: yes.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsmen: "An employee can’t refuse an employer’s direction to perform work if the direction is reasonable and in line with their employer’s legal obligations."

Under certain circumstances, employees may be able to refuse to return to work, owing to a reasonable concern about their health and safety, or other legitimate reasons.

But, according to legal experts, the general rule is that an employer can insist you return to the office unless there is a medical issue or childcare obligations.

Employers need to ensure they meet all workplace health and safety (WHS) obligations required of them to facilitate returning to the office as the pandemic ebbs.

If an employee does not comply with their employer’s reasonable direction to return to work or the assigned workplace, the employer may take disciplinary action against them. In some cases, this could include termination of employment.

Employers need to make sure they comply with the general protections and unfair dismissal obligations in the Fair Work Act.

Knowing your rights

Typically, an employee does not enjoy many rights to deny returning to office if that is the expectation of the employer and if that has been categorically determined at the time of employment.

However, the employee can present a case for why they are unable to return and provide ample justification along with supporting documents in case of medical emergencies or any other related legitimate causes.

Alternatively, there is strength in numbers - employees can reach out to their colleagues and peers and understand if they are also unwilling to return to the office.

If the majority of people do not want to return, and if they wish to work from home without compromising productivity, then the employer may be swayed to consider allowing them to do so.

However, the employer's discretion will take precedence.

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