This week I was chatting with a mom about an issue that I normally do not encounter as an employment lawyer.
“My employer called me back to work, and I don’t want to go. How do I say no?” the mother of two asked, explaining that after telecommuting on a flexible schedule for over a year and even though she made much less money, she no longer wanted to return to her previous working life if it meant physically going back to her workplace.
Clearly there is a burgeoning contingent of workers who do not want to return to the workplaces of yore. The issue is, many employees will have no choice but to return to the office in some capacity. If the call to return to work is refused or even delayed, employees may be deemed to have resigned.
But even as flexibility has become the gold standard of post-COVID workplaces, employers remain firm that brick-and-mortar workplaces are here to stay and not relics of the past.
According to PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, few executives surveyed think company culture will survive a purely remote working set up. In fact, 29% of those surveyed believe employees should be in the office three days a week while 21% believe employees should be in the office five days a week.
Notably, the report also found the least experienced workers need the office the most – 30% of workers with 0-5 years’ of professional experience prefer being remote no more than one day a week and are more likely to feel less productive while working remotely.
Kurt DelBene, executive vice president of Microsoft, penned a post on the Microsoft website in March 2021 about the company’s philosophy on its hybrid workplace.
He said, in part, “The modern workplace requires companies to meet new employee expectations”, signaling that Covid has reshaped our relationship with work and that employers must respond and evolve.
Interestingly, the piece also hinted at Microsoft’s preference for where its employees should work: “We believe in the value of bringing people together in the workplace.”
DelBene also pointed to the 2021 Work Trend Index. The report focused on one major trend: “leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call.” The report points to the trend that 61% of leaders say they are “thriving” right now, a clear 23 percentage points greater than those without decision-making authority.
While leaders may be more productive as a result of fewer office distractions and in-person meetings, the fact is, employees are receiving less management and face-to-face mentorship in remote work situations. The social component of work can often be the secret sauce to employee satisfaction and retention. During COVID, most employers were unable to maintain a social ecosystem for employees.
Employers need a return to work strategy that considers working from home options to optimize retention and attract talent. Employees have permanently changed the way they work during the pandemic. Forcing an abrupt 100% return to work rollout will be costly. But on the other hand, for employees who expect to thrive at work, remaining open to in-person work is key to growth, promotion and potentially your own work life satisfaction.
On to your questions from this week:
- I have been emailed by my employer to go back to work. I was laid off since March 2019 and was never asked to come back to work before now. Do I have to return right now? My kids aren’t done with school, and it isn’t the best timing for me or for my family. My husband’s business is also very busy right now, and I’ve been helping while taking EI. I would consider returning in July or August.
- You should talk to your employer as soon as possible about your return. If you need childcare accommodation, your employer will have to work with you to find a date or schedule that accommodates this. If you don’t communicate or fail to return without providing a reason, your employer may deem that you have resigned your employment. If returning later this summer is simply your preference, your employer will likely not be required to accommodate this and require you to return to work sooner.
- My manager wants to plan a barbecue at a park now that the stay-at-home order has ended. I don’t know who is vaccinated and don’t want to go. I believe the barbecue will happen during working hours. Do I have a choice?
- Yes. If you feel uncomfortable attending or have safety concerns, raise them to your manager and decline the invitation. If it is mandatory or work-related, ask if there is an alternate way you can participate. You can also ask if your employer has a vaccination policy to help you better understand if vaccines are required in your workplace.
By Sunira Chaudhri. PHOTO BY SUPPLIED PHOTO/Levitt LLP. Article originally appeared in the Toronto Sun: https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/chaudhri-is-the-end-of-telecommuting-near
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Sunira Chaudhri is an employment and labour lawyer and partner at Levitt Sheikh Chaudhri Swann.