Many organisations have had to move their teams to working from home in response to government restrictions or simply to provide for a safe and healthy work situation. With Government restrictions easing and reported cases of COVID-19 being significantly reduced in Western Australia, many businesses are now planning for the return of all employees back to working in the office.

There are many ways to approach this return to work, and you can read about some practical considerations when making plans in our recent blog Return to Work after Covid-19.

How do you inform employees that they need to return to work?

When transitioning employees from working from home back to working in the office it is important to:

  • Give employees notice of the change to their working location
  • Check for any consultation requirements in the applicable modern awards and make sure that these are adhered to
  • Consider a phased approach, such as rosters alternating between working in the office and from home
  • Communicate the reasons employees are required to return to the office and clarify any expectations around behaviours in the workplace
  • List the measures you will be taking to ensure their health and safety while at work
  • Clearly outline any specific dates and times that apply to each individual

What if employees want to keep working from home?

Some employees will be eager to return to the office environment, while others may be resistant to this change. Acknowledge there are some genuine concerns that employees may have around their safety, and some may be enjoying the benefits of working from home such as saving time and money on the daily commute, or finding they are more focused and productive while working at home.

If employees are concerned about their safety in the workplace, it is important to communicate what measures your business is taking to provide a safe working environment to put employees’ minds at ease about returning to work.

Employers should be prepared to respond to any requests to continue to work from home and if the business is unable to accommodate such requests, outline the reasons why this cannot be accommodated, citing reasonable business grounds and operational requirements.

When is it reasonable to enforce a return to work?

If faced with employees resistant to return to work, you may find yourself enter into a discussion or consultation process with the employee. It’s important to listen to their reasons for wanting to maintain working from home, and appropriately address these. It may even be suitable in some cases to establish an individual flexibility arrangement for individual employees, however in many cases the work from home arrangement was a temporary and necessary action, and transitioning back to working in the office is required.

If the business requires the employee to return to the office, to meet the requirements for the role, and there are no genuine reasons for the employee to not return to work, employers may have grounds to enforce this direction to return to work, however, we would suggest treading very carefully here. If employees are failing to follow reasonable instructions regarding any return to work, this may become a disciplinary matter which needs to be addressed with the employee. Again, the employer would need to consider any responses provided by the employee.

What about employees who are more vulnerable?

Employees who are considered vulnerable to contracting Coivd-19 may have a reasonable case for continuing to work from home, given the government guidelines state these people should strictly limit contact with others. Those considered to be vulnerable include those who:

  • Are aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions),
  • Are under 70 with an underlying health condition (such as those listed below),
  • Are instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds,
  • Have chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis,
  • Have chronic heart disease, such as heart failure, chronic kidney disease, or chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis,
  • Have chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy,
  • Have diabetes, sickle cell disease or a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and Aids, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy,
  • are seriously overweight (a BMI of 40 or above), or
  • are pregnant

Given the extent of this list, it is critical employers consider the concerns of any of their employees when requiring them to return to work in an office environment and consider these concerns on a case by case basis.

Consider the mental health impacts of returning to work

While businesses implement measures to ensure the safety of their employees at work, taped distances on the floors, protective screens between workstations and repurposed meeting rooms, together with the imposed distancing can make the work environment seem ‘alien’ to returning employees. Acknowledging the challenges of returning to a once familiar work environment that has significantly changed, and the potential impacts on employees’ mental health is going to be important in the coming months.

If you need help planning an effective return to work strategy or assistance managing the return to work for any of your employees who request to keep working from home, contact our team today.