Employers: don't rush your staff back into the office

Employers should think carefully before summoning staff back to the office, says David Prosser.

Masked people in an office
Maybe they’d rather be working from home
(Image credit: © iStockphoto)

Plan B measures introduced to combat the spread of the Omicron variant, which included compulsory mask wearing, vaccine certificates and guidance to work from home, ended on 26 January. However, the fact that you are free to ask staff to come back to the office does not mean you have to do so, and if employees are anxious, it makes sense to tread carefully.

In fact, around half of small businesses are not planning to order a full return to the workplace in the weeks and months ahead, according to research just published by Hitachi Capital Business Finance. Some plan to stick with their current work-from-home arrangements, while others expect to move to hybrid working, with staff only expected to come in for some of their working hours.

Know the law

The legal position for employers wanting to get their staff back in the office as soon as possible is not necessarily straightforward. While the government has changed the rules, employers will need to look at their employment contracts. Even if these specify the office as the normal place of work, employers may have changed contracts verbally by giving staff assurances about how they would work following the pandemic, which could have prompted employees to make lifestyle changes, such as moving home.

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It is also possible that by forcing through a return to the office with unreasonable haste or lack of flexibility, employers could leave themselves open to claims they have breached trust and confidence with staff. In which case, employees might choose to claim unfair dismissal. Similarly, employers have a legal duty to provide a safe workplace. Those that do not consider this in the context of Covid-19 before ordering staff to come back are likely to be on dangerous ground.

Remember too that employees with six months’ service or more have a statutory right to apply to work flexibly. Employers don’t have to say yes, but they will need reasonable grounds for denying such applications.

There is also the issue of staff retention to consider. Many employers are struggling to recruit the staff they need. More than half of surveyed workers suggest they want to continue working from home for at least some of the time. So does it really make sense to push through an unpopular return to the office?

The more pragmatic solution is to move in small steps, based on continuing dialogue with employees. If staff have practical issues preventing them from reverting to pre-pandemic norms, are there compromise solutions, such as hybrid working? What can employers do to allay particular safety concerns? This might include improving ventilation, reducing the number of people in the office at any one time, or allowing staff to come in at different times if they’re worried about commuting on crowded public transport.

Consider a new approach

It’s worth bearing in mind that there may be advantages to sticking with a more hybrid approach. For example, one reason that small businesses in Hitachi’s research cited for not planning a full-scale return to the workplace was the opportunity to continue making savings on office space. If all staff are not in the office all the time, it is possible that employers can move to smaller – and cheaper – premises.

The bottom line is that moving with caution and consensus, wherever possible, is going to be the best way forward for most employers. Firms may technically be entitled to take a more confrontational approach, but might want to think very hard before doing so.

David Prosser
Business Columnist

David Prosser is a regular MoneyWeek columnist, writing on small business and entrepreneurship, as well as pensions and other forms of tax-efficient savings and investments. David has been a financial journalist for almost 30 years, specialising initially in personal finance, and then in broader business coverage. He has worked for national newspaper groups including The Financial Times, The Guardian and Observer, Express Newspapers and, most recently, The Independent, where he served for more than three years as business editor.