• Returning to the workplace – managing reluctant employees

    Published: February 2 2022

    If you manage a business and are planning for a full time return of staff to the workplace, but have employees who are reluctant to return, we explore the steps you may wish to consider.

    Employees’ legal rights

    If an employee has been working for you for 26 weeks or more and hasn’t already submitted a request in the past 12 months, then they have a legal right to request flexible working arrangements. This request must be considered by the company.

    Where a valid request is made, as an employer you are entitled to refuse the request for any of the following business-related reasons:

    • The burden of additional costs
    • Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
    • Inability to reorganise work among existing staff
    • Inability to recruit additional staff
    • Detrimental impact on quality
    • Detrimental impact on performance
    • Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work
    • Planned structural changes

     Understanding your employees’ concerns

    When addressing the issue of employees reluctant to return to work, we recommend that you first try to understand why this is the case, and if there is a suitable alternative you can offer them.

    Such alternatives may include:

    • Hybrid working
    • Flexible start and finish times
    • A review of current workspace

    Perhaps arrange an informal chat with the employee in an environment where they can be at ease and be confident that they can truthfully confide in you. This should hopefully lead them to explain what is making them reluctant, and help you to consider your next steps, hopefully coming to a solution that works for you both.

    Welfare concerns

    The pandemic has heightened the concern for those who are either medically vulnerable themselves or are in close contact with friends or loved ones who are.

    Carrying out regular risk assessments and ensuring that your employees’ safety comes first is a good way to manage the concerns of worried employees.

    We recommend that you ask the employee what their specific concerns are and address them where possible. Although there may be items that don’t pose a significant enough risk for the risk assessment to trigger action, relevant amendments that can be actioned where possible should help reduce concerns.

    Work-life balance

    It has been widely reported that since the pandemic and subsequent work from home recommendations, many workers have enjoyed an improved work-life balance, with extra hours in their day from not commuting, in addition to many people saving money on childcare or travel costs.

    It is likely that you would have already considered this, but before enforcing permanent on-site working, do consider whether remote working has genuinely had a negative effect on your business.

    If it has had minimal or no negative effects in the past two years, it is reasonable that you could consider allowing more employees to work remotely or a combination in the office and remotely, known as hybrid working.

    Inflexibility regarding working arrangements means that you may run the risk of prompting a loss of experienced staff, where those who prefer more flexibility leave for opportunities where hybrid working is possible.

    Lack of flexibility may also prove to be a hindrance to recruiting new talent into your organisation, in an already challenging recruitment market for many sectors.

    Enforcing on-site working

    If you have decided that remote and hybrid working negatively impacts your business and you have done everything you can to make your office COVID-secure, then what are the next steps?

    You may consider disciplinary action as an option for those who are reluctant for non-health reasons. We would only recommend this if you have explored every possible avenue to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement with your staff.

    If you choose the disciplinary route, you must be aware that employees with protected characteristics such as pregnancy, or disability may be able to claim discrimination.

    If you find yourself in this situation, we highly recommend seeking legal advice, and suggest you contact our sister company, award-winning law firm Brachers, for an initial discussion before you take any action.

    Further support

    Whether you plan for everyone to return to the office, introduce hybrid working, or allow remote working fully, we can help you create the policies you require and update employee contracts as necessary or provide any additional HR operational support you may need.

    For further support, get in touch today via the contact form at the top of this page.

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