My employee doesn’t want to return to work: what can I do?

Ruaidhri Murray

May 11 2021

Less money spent on childcare. More time in bed. And a non-existent commute…  

Those are just some reasons why one in four UK workers would rather quit than return to the office after lockdown.  

But if your team work best in the office, you’ll want them back when restrictions lift. Here’s how to manage staff who’d rather stay remote…

Can I expect staff to return to work when restrictions lift? 

Currently, the government is still encouraging remote work “wherever possible”. So while this guidance is in still in place, you should allow your staff to work from home for now.  

By late June, however, all lockdown restrictions are set to lift.  

So, when there’s no more ‘work from home’ guidance, you can ask staff to return to a COVID-secure office. But since employees are entitled to request remote working, they could push back.  

And while you’re free to deny a remote working request, you should support staff who are anxious about returning. If you discover an employee is reluctant to return, you’ll need to understand their perspective to see how you can help.  

Understand why your employee is reluctant  

First, you need to know why your employee is reluctant to return.

Heading straight down the disciplinary route could mean you lose hardworking staff. And if your employee is hesitant due to safety reasons, they could claim for unfair or constructive dismissal.   

Have a chat with your employee and see what’s holding them back from the office. To help them open up, stay calm and supportive about any concerns.  

Your next steps will depend on what they say…

“I’m clinically vulnerable so I need to stay home…”  

The right to shield in Northern Ireland ended on April 14th, 2021 and is no longer viable. Yet, if your employee has a serious health condition or had to shield during lockdown, it’s understandable they’re anxious. 

And although clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people can now return to work, they still need to take extra precautions.  

To help protect vulnerable staff, you should allow them to work remotely if they can. If that’s not possible, listen to their safety concerns and ask how you can reduce risks in the workplace.   

“I’m worried about catching the virus…”  

Whether staff are vulnerable or not, it’s normal to be concerned about getting ill or passing the virus onto loved ones.  

To boost back-to-work confidence, involve your staff with your COVID-19 risk assessment. Are there any risks they’re particularly concerned about? Understanding their specific worries means you can do more to support anxious staff.  

For example, an employee might be worried about crowding if everyone arrives at work at the same time. If you stagger shifts, this could put their mind at rest.  

Once you’ve completed the assessment, share it with your team. Being open about COVID-secure measures should ease worries about returning. 

“I just prefer remote work…” 

It’s no secret that some staff enjoy remote work. With less commuting and more flexibility, your employee might just prefer working from home.

If that’s the case, consider whether offering remote work could negatively impact your business.  

Because while you can refuse a remote working request, there’s also nothing stopping staff looking for a new job as a result. 

If flexible working wouldn’t hurt your business, you could consider a ‘hybrid’ return to work. This means staff have the option to split their time between the home and workplace.   

And if that’s a possibility for your business, you could enjoy a number of benefits: 

  • A less-crowded workplace can reduce the risk of COVID-19. 
  • Flexible remote work could prevent your staff from leaving. 
  • It could boost productivity and employee morale.  

“I need to be home for my kids…”  

As parents stayed home with their kids during lockdown, they saved heaps on childcare. So it’s no wonder many parents want to continue working remotely. 

If your staff had no real issues working at home during lockdown, you could consider offering flexible remote work during school holidays. This has the added benefit of preventing annual leave clashes – as parents won’t need to rush to book the same days off.  

Can I discipline staff for not returning to work after lockdown? 

So, you’ve done everything you can to make your office COVID-secure. You’ve taken extra steps to protect staff with health conditions. And, after thinking about it, you’ve decided remote work just isn’t right for your business.  

But if staff are still reluctant for non-health-related reasons, disciplinary action might be your only option. 

This could mean withholding pay or issuing a written warning. Dismissing staff should be your last resort, as this could lead to unfair or constructive dismissal claims.  

Remember, staff who believe that the workplace poses a genuine risk (that they can’t reasonably avoid) can’t be disciplined. And when staff are pregnant or have a disability, they have protected characteristics – so disciplining these employees could lead to a discrimination claim.   

Plan a phased return to the office

After a year of lockdown, returning to work can feel stressful – for both you and your employees. To ease your staff back into the office environment, consider starting slow and small. 

Many businesses are trialling a phased return to the workplace. This could mean opening up for a small number of employees or allowing staff to gradually increase their days in the office. 

Speak to your staff now to start planning ahead 

You should ideally speak to your staff about returning to work before restrictions lift. This gives you time to plan any adjustments and address staff concerns.  

And whether you’re back at the office or going remote, our HR and health & safety experts are here to support you. For a smooth return to work, we can: 

  • Guide you through your COVID-19 risk assessment.  
  • Create a remote working policy and update employee contracts. 
  • Offer 24/7 advice to help you through any staff conflict or concerns. 

To get started, call us on 0800 917 0771 today.  

Suggested Resources