Can employers ask remote staff to return to the office?

  • Employment Contract
Alan Price - Peninsula's Chief Operations Officer and CEO of BrightHR

Alan Price, Chief Operations Officer

(Last updated )

Remote working is a hot topic right now.

With Lord Alan Sugar recently labelling remote workers as “lazy layabouts,” many employers have weighed in about the pros and cons of homeworking – including Peninsula’s Kate Palmer, who appeared on BBC Breakfast to discuss the growing divide.

And the rise of remote work seems to be slowing down – particularly among employers. Over the past few months, household names like Zoom have asked employees to return to the office.

But when workers continue to prioritise flexibility, is it risky to follow suit?

A landmark tribunal signals a shift in opinion…

The tribunal involving the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) recently hit the news.

Following the pandemic, FCA employees were fully remote. But when the FCA had concerns about staff productivity, they re-introduced office work for two days a week.

In response, an employee requested to continue working from home on a fulltime basis. The employee had proof that she was performing well – so any concerns about productivity were invalid. But the FCA still rejected the request - leading the worker to take the FCA to tribunal.

And the result?

The FCA won the case. The judge ruled that the employer was “right to identify weaknesses with remote working.”

That was despite the worker’s evidence that she was performing well.

Why does this tribunal outcome matter?

This is big news for every employer in the UK.

Why? Because it empowers business owners who have doubts about remote work – and whether they could ask staff to return to the office.

It also shows that employers don’t necessarily need to provide tangible proof of any issues. It may be enough to simply say you don’t agree with remote work and its challenges.

So, if you were considering asking your employees to return to work, there is scope to do that. As long as you follow a fair and correct procedure…

Be careful with contractual changes

Take a look at your staff contracts.

In any statement of main terms, you should specify where staff will carry out their role i.e. at your office or from the employee’s home.

If you rolled out remote work due to the pandemic, staff may not be contractually entitled to it – as this was just a temporary measure.

However, if your staff contracts do include homeworking, it gets a little trickier.

In this situation, you’d need to update your employee’s terms and conditions if you wanted them to stop working from home. And like with any contract changes, you’ll need your employee to agree to the update in writing.

If staff aren’t happy about returning to the office, this process could be challenging.

For example, forcing staff to agree to unpopular changes can lead to resignations, retention issues, or even constructive dismissal claims.

Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

The benefits of face-to-face interaction are difficult to ignore. So it’s understandable if you’re keen to bring your team together under one roof.

However, remote work is a popular perk for staff.

And for many employees, it could help them save money or improve their work-life balance. So removing this perk could come with challenges.

While you may be concerned with issues like productivity, consider whether the potential gains could outweigh the risk. For example, any increase in staff productivity may come at a cost – like if your staff decide to quit as a result.

Prepare for flexible working requests

If remote work is no longer working for your business, you’ll need to ask staff to come back to the office.

However, be prepared to receive flexible working requests as a result. Your employees may decide to submit a formal request to continue enjoying the benefits of remote work.

Even if you’ve removed remote working for all staff, you must seriously consider any individual flexible working request. When an employee makes a request, you can only refuse it for one of the eight statutory reasons.

Plus, to meet upcoming flexible working changes, you’ll need to:

  • Respond to the request within two months
  • Consult with the employee before you refuse the request

So, make sure you’ve updated your HR procedures to handle these requests in line with the law.

Explore alternatives to remote work

Remote working isn’t the only perk that’s appealing to staff.

So if remote work is no longer working out for your business, you could mitigate any fallout by offering a different form of flexible work.

Alternative options could include:

  • Compressed hours – letting staff work fulltime hours over fewer days
  • Hybrid work – letting staff split their time between the home and office
  • Flexitime – letting staff choose when they start and finish their shift

Otherwise, consider looking into other benefits, such a financial incentives, generous annual leave, or healthcare perks.

This could help you maintain a positive and appealing place of work.

Making the change? Speak to an HR expert now

Changing how your staff work will always be a big decision. And if that requires updating your staff contracts, it also comes with legal risk.

So, talk through your decision with an employment law expert.

They’ll identify any potential pitfalls – helping you roll out any changes without risk. From helping you discuss changes with staff to updating your HR policies, get expert feedback and advice to protect your business.

Contact your Peninsula advisers now, of if you’re not a client, tap below to book your free advice call:

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