Should You Bring Your Employees Back to the Workplace?

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There’s not much to say about the last year that hasn’t already been said. From an employer’s perspective, “challenging” just isn’t strong enough, and anything stronger isn’t appropriate to print. Rather than looking back, let’s look forward to a time when we, as employers, get back to a pre-pandemic normal, i.e., optimism for the future, an economy hitting on all cylinders, strong sales and profits, and investment in our business’ future.

While we appear to be on track to get there, we still face many questions. One question that many employers will have to answer is whether or not to bring employees back into the workplace or allow some to continue to work remotely.

 

Understand Your Employees’ Concerns

Early in the pandemic, one of my clients, whose business is considered an essential business, called and asked if he was required to allow an employee to work remotely. The employee was the company receptionist, and to my surprise, my client was seriously considering her request. Her desire to work remotely was primarily related to childcare because the schools had recently closed. The client and I discussed some different options and at the end of the day, he agreed to a hybrid remote work schedule that met his and the receptionist’s needs.

This is a good example of what your remote employees are going to be concerned about if you tell them it is time to return to the workplace. Just as working remotely forced employees to rethink the way they managed their day-to-day responsibilities, so will returning to the workplace. Remote employees may have to rethink childcare or elder care arrangements, renegotiate home responsibilities with their significant other, etc. These changes will take some time for remote employees to figure out.

Another, less obvious, concern will be that some, if not many, remote employees have come to regard the opportunity to work remotely as a “benefit”. It isn’t a traditional benefit like health insurance or paid time off, but like a traditional benefit, the opportunity to work remotely may be hard to take it away from remote employees who like it and don’t want to give it up.

 

Pros and Cons of Remote Workers

The most popular benefit of remote work to employees is the freedom and flexibility to work from different locations as well as the ability to work at different times of the day or night. For some employees, typically introverts, working remotely can increase work productivity, job satisfaction, and the employee’s loyalty to the employer. For employers, offering remote work opportunities reduces the need for office space, provides flexibility in scheduling, and attracts more candidates to fill vacancies.

Speaking of candidates, it has been my experience that now, more than ever, people are interested in jobs that allow remote working options. This has become a routine question from job applicants, so it stands to reason that advertising remote work opportunities will attract more candidates to fill open positions.

On the flip side, working remotely has some disadvantages for employees and employers. Employers will have less oversight of an employee’s work and may feel a loss of control over the employee’s work product. Similarly, remote employees may feel less connected to the supervisor, co-workers, and company. Also, remote employees may have a difficult time focusing on work when personal responsibilities, are constantly vying for their attention. For some employees, typically extroverts, working remotely can negatively impact productivity, job satisfaction, and the employee’s connection with the employer.

Hybrid remote work schedules are an interesting idea. Allowing an employee to work remotely part-time and part-time in the workplace can meet the needs of employees and employers alike. Like some of my clients, my company has utilized this concept since the pandemic started and we have had excellent results with very few problems. Again, not all jobs can be performed from home and not all employees want to work from home, so a hybrid model may not always be appropriate.

 

Know Your Legal Requirements

Employers must follow the current legal requirements regarding building occupancy rates, social distancing requirements, mask and cleaning mandates, etc. Due to the ever-changing legal requirements, it is highly recommended employers regularly review their state and local COVID-related requirements, and only move forward with bringing employees back into the office when the employer can fully comply with these requirements.

Communication is Key

Once an employer has made a decision about bringing employees back to the workplace or allowing them to work remotely, the key to a successful transition is communication. It should be easy, right? Simply tell your employees, “As of X date, everyone will begin working onsite again.” The reality, however, is your remote employees may be hesitant to come back to the workplace. Simply telling them to return to work without addressing their questions and concerns will be met with resistance, and in some cases, refusal.

It is highly recommended that employers notify their employees, in writing, about the date(s) when remote employees are expected to return to the workplace and the consequences of failure to return to work.

Setting a return date in the future gives employees some time to make the adjustments necessary to return to the workplace. Employees who have been working remotely will have adjusted to that schedule. They will need some time now to adjust to the new schedule. The return date doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. If it makes sense to stagger the return between positions or employees, a timeline or schedule of return dates should be included in the written communication so that everyone is clear. There’s no rule of thumb as to how much notice employers should give… more notice is always better from an employee perspective.

Unfortunately, there may be some remote employees who are hesitant, or simply refuse, to return to work in the workplace. Their reasons may be legitimate from their perspective, but as long as the employer is not violating a law by requiring the employee to return to work in the workplace, the employer can take disciplinary action should the remote employee fail to follow the employer’s directions. Any disciplinary action the employer might take in this situation should be consistent with the employer’s policies regarding discipline and termination. Whether it is considered refusal to return to work, failure to follow orders, insubordination, etc., remote employees are not protected from disciplinary action and will, most likely, be denied unemployment benefits if terminated in this situation.

 

One Final Thought

The pandemic has forever changed how we work. Business communication technology has made remote work a normal way of doing business. Opportunities for remote work have exploded during the past year and there’s no reason to believe it is going to change. Obviously, some jobs cannot be performed remotely, but for those that can, employees will continue to expect and look for remote work opportunities. It is crucial for employers to find ways to take advantage of remote work if they want to remain competitive for the best talent. Remote work is the new normal and it is here to stay.

 

This article was originally published in Capital at Play magazine, May 2021 Issue. You may also read it online on Capital at Play’s website by clicking here.

Stephen H. Murphy, SPHR, is the president and founder of Carolina HR. He has been active in Human Resource management and consulting for over thirty years and brings his experience in a wide variety of HR situations to his clients.

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