As businesses reveal their return-to-office plans, we’re seeing more and more employees pushing back on them. In fact, this pushback has been high enough that “The Great Resignation” of 2021 is now trending globally. This can be frustrating and confusing for company owners and managers who want the best for their business. To help you move forward successfully, we’ve addressed the following concerns:
- Why are employees reluctant to go back to the office?
- Do they have a right to work from home?
- How should you respond to these requests and move forward?
- What’s the best direction for your business to succeed?
Once you’re equipped with the answers to these questions, it’s vital you address the situation head-on and swiftly. The way you respond could make or break your talent acquisition and retention efforts, which ultimately dictates your overall company success.
Why Are Workers Pushing Back Against a Return to the Office?
To understand what you need to do about workers pushing back on returning to the office, you first need to know why they are. Before COVID-19, 47% of US employees didn’t work from home at all, but during the pandemic, a shift occurred with 44% working at home 5+ days a week. The situation was similar in the UK where the number of workers who did any work from home increased from 27% in 2019 to 37% in 2020. Having experienced a new (some might say “better”) way of working, it’s unsurprising that many workers are hesitant to go back to the way things were.
Flexibility & Work-life Balance
Flexibility is a hot topic at the moment, and for a good reason. Ultimately, it’s just a euphemism for ‘work-life balance,’ but having the chance to actually experience it for the first time in many cases, the desire has become more tangible in a larger population. The shift to home working during the pandemic has shown employees that flexibility and a work-life balance is truly possible.
Working from home has allowed staff the freedom to fit work around their personal lives, working more flexible hours and at times that suit their lifestyles. By removing the morning and evening commute, they’ve saved an average of one hour per day, granting them more time to be with loved ones, exercise, and simply catch up on life. A return to the office would mean a return to fixed hours, commuting, and lost time.
While lockdowns are a distant memory in some countries, the effects of the pandemic, along with associated governmental responses, are far from over. Many employees have anxieties about returning to the office and exposing themselves to an uncomfortable level of risk.
At the same time, employers are concerned about the friction they may introduce by mandating certain actions they believe will mitigate risk. While certain countries, like the USA, may give employers the right to demand employees get vaccinated, other countries don’t. Additionally, high-risk individuals may be particularly fearful about returning to public spaces due to the potential increased severity of complications arising from catching the virus. For many, working from home may be the safer option.
Accessibility & Preferred Working Styles
Offices generally aren’t well designed for all types of workers, particularly those from marginalized communities, such as disabled, neurodiverse, trans, and/or non-binary employees. These workers may experience accessibility issues in an office environment, such as a lack of elevators and gender-neutral toilets, or sensory issues. While employers shouldn’t use working from home as a way to get out of making their workspaces accessible and inclusive, certain employees may simply feel more comfortable working in a familiar environment.
What’s more, office environments aren’t optimal for everyone. Some employees may simply do their best work at home. Introverts, caregivers, parents, and others may prefer to work at home where they feel more comfortable or are better able to balance personal and professional commitments.
Learn how to equip work-from-home employees compliantly here.
According to a study by FlexJobs, remote workers typically save around $4,000 every year by avoiding costs associated with commuting, eating out, and professional wardrobe attire. That’s a significant saving, so it’s not surprising that many employees don’t want to lose it.
Mass working from home has also initiated a trend towards moving out of big cities in search of more affordable and spacious homes. A full-time return to the office may hinder employees’ plans to move out or push them towards longer, dangerous, more expensive, and polluting commutes.
Unless companies offer substantial financial incentives for a return to the office, many will choose to simply look for remote-friendly opportunities elsewhere.
Do Employees Have the Right to Work from Home?
To find out if your employees have a right to work from home, you should first look at each employee’s employment contract to understand whether flexible or home working is part of the agreement. If it is, you’ll have to continue to honor the existing agreement or request to renegotiate the terms.
If home working isn’t included within the employment contract, the employees’ right to work from home is dependent on local employment laws, which vary from country to country. As mass home working is still fairly new, specific remote work laws are yet to be established in many countries, and may never be created in others.
In the UK, workers have the right to request flexible working - like working from home - but their employer can say no based on permitted business reasons, such as performance and cost. The situation is similar in Australia, where certain categories of workers (including parents, caregivers, and disabled people) can request to work from home. Again, employers can deny this request on business grounds.
Because of the at-will employment laws in the USA, there is no specific right to work from home, which is the case in many other countries.
In certain jurisdictions, there may be COVID-19-related laws that prevent you from bringing employees into the office while a lockdown is in place, or if you haven’t implemented appropriate COVID-safe measures.
Should You Let Your Employees Work from Home?
There are three ways you can react to employees pushing back on office returns:
1. Ignore them and make back-to-office mandatory (unless it’s against their contracts or worker rights)
2. Give employees what they want and continue to let them work from home permanently
3. Compromise with a hybrid work model where employees can work from home if desired, but come into an office for specified tasks or meetings.
Keep in mind, if you want to retain your top talent, choosing to ignore their desire to work from home isn’t a good option. After all, your competition is likely waiting on the sidelines, ready to snap them up with a better offer.
A great way for your company to grow and win is by listening to your employees and taking their feedback seriously. But, that doesn’t mean you have to take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to going back to the office.
You could go completely remote - our own globally distributed company is proof that it does work! - or you could opt for the middle-ground: a hybrid work model, which empowers your teams to make the best decisions for themselves, while allowing for in-person collaboration as and when required.
Thankfully, there are many benefits to letting your teams work from home, including increased productivity, reduced business costs, and a much wider talent pool to draw from. An office-centric approach may have sufficed pre-pandemic, but the future is flexible and your teams know it.