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Work from home: Can your boss force you back into the office?

A lawyer reveals when you can and can’t refuse to head back into the office.

Australian workers walking in the city. Work from home and office concept.
Work from home could soon be coming to an end. So what are your legal rights? (Source: AAP)

The days of work from home could be coming to an end, with nearly two-thirds of Aussie bosses believing workers will return to the office full-time within the next three years.

Nearly 90 per cent of Aussie businesses have now imposed mandatory in-office days for staff, with three or four days in the office the most common requirements.

If you are one of the many people who have loved the convenience of working from home, this will probably be unwelcome news to your ears.

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So, what are your legal rights? And can your boss actually force you to return to the office?

Is it legal?

The short answer is yes.

There is a term implied in every employee's contract, requiring them to follow the “lawful and reasonable” directions of their employer. This term is implied unless your contract or applicable workplace instrument, such as a modern award, expressly states otherwise.

“A direction to return to the office will be lawful and reasonable except in extreme cases - for example, where it is contrary to a government directive or another law,” McCabes Lawyers principal Tim McDonald told Yahoo Finance.

“This means that your boss can legally make you return to the office, provided that your employment contract or other applicable workplace instrument does not say otherwise.”

Have you quit your job after being told to return to the office? Share your story with tamika.seeto@yahooinc.com

Are there any circumstances where I can refuse?

There are some very limited circumstances where employees can refuse to return to the office.

If you are capable of doing your job at home and you have a legitimate reason to do so - such as an underlying health issue that hinders your ability to come into the office - and it does not impact operational requirements, McDonald said you may have grounds to argue returning to the office was not “justified or reasonable”.

“Such cases would be very exceptional and if their employer took a reasonable approach to a return to the office, it would be difficult for an employee to refuse,” McDonald said.

Can I be fired?

Unfortunately, yes.

“An employee’s failure to follow a lawful and reasonable direction, such as to return to the office, can constitute a valid reason for dismissal,” McDonald said.

“To establish this, the specific directive is generally required to be fundamental to the employment contract.”

But even if your boss has legitimate reasons for firing you, if your dismissal is carried out in a “harsh, unjust or unreasonable manner” this could potentially result in an unfair dismissal claim.

What about asking for flexible work arrangements?

Employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements if they:

  • Are a parent, or carer, of a child who is of school age or younger

  • Are a carer

  • Have a disability

  • Are aged 55 or older

  • Are pregnant

  • Are experiencing family or domestic violence

  • Are caring for or supporting an immediate family or household member experiencing family or domestic violence

“Employees need to have completed at least 12 months’ service with the employer before being entitled to make the request,” McDonald said.

“Requests must be in writing, and may ask to work fewer hours, different hours, or in different locations, as is appropriate to meet the particular needs of the employee requesting flexibility.”

Employers must respond to requests within 21 days. If the employer does not approve or refuses the request, they may set out any alternative working arrangements that they have agreed with the employee.

McDonald noted that employers can only refuse the request on “reasonable business grounds” and must have taken certain steps, including discussing the request with the employee.

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