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Can you Force Staff Back to a Workplace?

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With employers like Apple recently announcing that their staff must now return to a workplace at least 3 days per week, can you insist on your staff returning to a workplace? And if so, how best do you go about it? Darwin Gray’s employment law team set out some useful tips.

What have Apple and Tesla announced?

Tech giant Apple have recently told all of their employees that they should now work from a company office every Tuesday and Thursday, plus an additional weekday to be agreed between each employee and their line manager.

Along a similar theme, in June, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, told his staff that they should return to work from a company office or leave the company. This rather drastic message from Mr Musk was contained in a memo that was later leaked on social media.

But can you force your staff back to a workplace?

Whilst some employers are more relaxed about the issue (and have introduced flexible and agile working policies to reflect that), we’re advising more and more employers who are keen to see their staff return to a central workplace or office. However, how is it best to go about achieving this (particularly as many employees will have grown quite attached to working remotely)?

Here are some useful tips:

  • Start with the contract (and specifically the place of work clause within in). If an employee’s contract refers to an office or central workplace being their normal place of work, the contract becomes your most useful tool. Granted, an employee might argue that, through custom and practice over the past 2 years, their place of work has become their home address. However, given the unprecedented circumstances over the pandemic which forced that to become the case, I think you can still argue that, as long as the written contract refers to working from a central workplace, the arrangement of working remotely was a temporary necessity rather than a contractual change.
  • Have a good reason ready. Whilst the contract (as above) will help you, we’d also advise having a good genuine reason for requiring staff to return to a workplace. For example, is face-to-face interaction important to your business or organisation? Are you keen to harness more face-to-face and collaborative working? Do you want to support junior staff more by having more support face-to-face in a workplace environment for them? Are you concerned about the effects on the health and safety of your staff if they work remotely all the time? Ultimately, you’re going to get less pushback from staff (even from those who’d rather work from home) if they at least understand the reason you’re asking for their return.
  • Ensure that all appropriate health and safety measures have been adopted.  If you’ve taken steps to make it as safe as possible for staff to return (and kept a record of those steps) then you’ll have achieved 2 things: (i) you’ll have been able to show that you’ve satisfied your legal duty of care to look out for the health and safety of your staff, and (ii) by communicating those steps properly, you’ll have given staff the confidence to return.
  • Consider consulting with staff to identify any potential concerns they may have.  Staff will be more likely to want to return to a workplace if they feel their concerns have been voiced and listened to.
  • Consider introducing a phased and gradual return at first to ease staff back.

What if an employee refuses to return?

As long as you’ve taken action on the tips above, a failure to return can potentially be a disciplinary / breach of contract issue. Of course, an employee may have their reasons for not wanting to return so you’d have to consider those first – e.g. they may say that a medical condition is preventing them being able to commute. Always seek advice from an employment solicitor when things get tricky.

Do you need employment law advice?

If so, contact our employment solicitor, Owen John on [email protected] / 02920 829 118 for a free initial chat to see how we can help you.