After two long years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers have become accustomed to performing their job duties entirely from the comfort of their own home. Although remote work has come with its share of challenges, it has also offered a host of benefits such as greater work-life balance, flexibility for family and childcare responsibilities, and less time and money spent on commuting. Now, with the pandemic appearing to wane, companies are beginning to transition their employees back into the office. Many workers are now wondering: if I would rather continue working from home, can my employer legally require me to return to the office?
Unfortunately for employees, the short answer is yes. Your employer is generally allowed to dictate where and when you are required to perform your duties. If you refuse to return to the office, this will likely be deemed a resignation in most circumstances.
However, there are a few caveats that both employees and employers should keep in mind when pondering the switch back to the office. Although your employer can ask you to return, they are still required to comply with their contractual and statutory obligations.
First, if your employment contract states you will only perform your duties remotely, your employer cannot unilaterally change the terms of your employment to require you to attend in person. However, if you were expected to work in the office prior to the pandemic, then a remote working arrangement would only be considered temporary. In that case, your employer can require you to return in person.
Second, if you cannot return to the office due to a medical disability—or due to another protected reason under human rights legislation—your employer has a duty to grant reasonable accommodations up to the point of undue hardship. However, your inability to return in person must clearly be connected to a protected ground – the employer’s duty to accommodate will likely not be triggered for individuals who have general fears or anxiety about the risk of COVID-19 transmission, or who simply prefer working from home based on convenience.
Third, employers have a legal duty under occupational health and safety legislation to provide a safe working environment. Workers also have a legal right to refuse unsafe work. As public health regulations continue to evolve, many companies are assessing that the health risk has now decreased to such a point where they can safely transition their workers back into the office. However, companies should continue to monitor public health guidance to ensure their workplace policies adequately address the public health risk at any given time.
Nevertheless, aside from purely legal considerations, pragmatic employers may want to consider offering remote or hybrid working arrangements to their employees, so long as they do not have adverse impacts on business operations. Now that workers have a taste of the flexibility that comes with remote work, many are choosing to resign and go elsewhere rather than return to the office full-time. Although a return to in-person work is inevitable in some sectors, a hybrid work model is likely to be an enduring legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you need legal advice about how to navigate a return to the office, we are here to help. We advise both employers and employees, and we can provide sound advice that is specific to your situation. Please call our team of experienced employment lawyers today.