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What to do if your employee doesn't want to go back to the office

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Many offices are considering reopening as lockdown has eased and COVID cases continue to fall in the UK. Photo: Getty
Many offices are considering reopening as lockdown has eased and COVID cases continue to fall in the UK. Photo: Getty

As managers begin to usher people back into the office, many people are experiencing mixed feelings. While people want to get out of their homes and see colleagues and friends, the prospect of working in the office full-time can be daunting.

A recent survey by Harvard Business School has found 81% of people who have been working from home through the COVID-19 pandemic either don't want to go back or prefer a hybrid schedule. Of the 1,500 remote workers polled, only 27% hope to continue working remotely full-time indefinitely, while 61% would prefer to mix working from home with going into the office part-time.

“As we're preparing to get back to business as usual, it seems professionals don't want ‘business as usual’,” Patrick Mullane, Harvard Business School online executive director, said in a statement. “They want flexibility from their employers to allow them to maintain the new work/home balance and productivity they have come to enjoy.”

While many businesses are making the transition to remote or hybrid working, not all employers are on board. So if you want your staff to return to the office, what should you do if your employees aren’t so keen?

“As more businesses reopen across the UK and we head towards normality or a version of it, employers may face situations where some employees feel reluctant to return to the workplace after working from home for a long time,” says Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR.

“Employers will need to determine why the employee is reluctant to return, and once this has been established, the right kind of conversation can then be had with them – keeping their specific circumstances in mind, as well as government guidance and the needs of the business,” he adds. “Notably, while these three things don’t always need to marry up with one another, government guidance should always take precedent.”

At the moment, government guidance across the UK still states that staff should work from home where possible. Where this is not possible, Covid-secure measures should be implemented in the workplace to reduce the spread of the virus.

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Read more: How to keep remote workers engaged and happy

“Employers are also being encouraged to implement mass in-house testing so that asymptomatic cases of coronavirus can be detected and communicate these measures to the reluctant employee,” Price says. “For example, in the form of sharing the company’s Covid risk assessment and testing policy with them. By doing this, a return to the office can be prioritised if homeworking is no longer feasible.”

Even if you have put these safety measures in place, Price says employers should be careful not to force staff to return if they can work from home. Although it may seem more productive to have workers in one place, forcing people into an office against their will can negatively affect morale and productivity.

“Employers should instead consult with employees to address when the company proposes they return, giving ample notice, and discuss any issues they may have about returning,” says Price.

“These issues may well be resolved by highlighting the measures being taken by the company to ensure that the workplace is Covid-secure. It may also be helpful to prioritise bringing back the reluctant employee after they have had their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine if this is something they wish to take up.”

It’s also important to remember that employees have the legal right to request flexible working for any reason. This can be to request a change to full-time or part-time work, job-share, work from home, or a change of working days or hours. Employers are legally obliged to consider flexible working requests in a ‘reasonable’ manner. However, it is down to employers how, where and when their employees work, subject to guidance from the government over COVID-19 restrictions.

Read more: Why it's normal to miss the office

If an employee still refuses to return to the workplace on the proposed return date without prior agreement, employers may be able to class this as a period of unauthorised absence.

“Unauthorised absences can result in disciplinary action being taken against employees who unreasonably refuse to return to work or other necessary action in compliance with company policy – the likelihood of which should be made clear to employees in the interest of full disclosure,” explains Price.

“To avoid this, employers may wish to consider alternative options where possible, such as taking up annual leave, continuing home-working until government guidance changes, or another more suitable adjustment.”

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