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Should Employers Require Employees to Come Back to the Office Post-Pandemic?

Today's post comes to us from our brand new board member Kate Bischoff, founder of tHRive Law & Consulting.

There is a life motto I have always believed in: Just because you can do things does not mean you should do things. For example: Just because you can eat an entire jumbo bag of Gummi Bears in one sitting doesn't necessarily mean you should do that.

The same thing is true for employers ”“ they can do things, but should they? For example, requiring folks to be back in the office post-pandemic is one of those things you can do, but is it something you should do?

In 2020, managers were forced to quickly learn how to manage differently, moving from a traditional command-and-control model where you knew someone was working if they were at their desk, to a more trust-based, production-based model (e.g. ”œI'm going to trust you to get the work done even though I can't see you”). For some, this transition was harder than others, and with vaccinations helping control the pandemic, these managers may be itching to get everyone back in their seats.

So, can an employer require employees come back to the office? The simple answer is: Yes. The law allows employers to demand that folks return to the office with limited exceptions. 

One exception is if an employee has a medical condition that places them at greater risk of COVID-19. In this case, an employer must reasonably accommodate them, possibly even if the employee is vaccinated. Likewise, if an employee cannot get vaccinated due to the employee's religion, the employee may request to continue to work from home until it is safe for them to return post-pandemic. An employer will go through the traditional interactive process to make these accommodations. (Note, if employees have been working from home for the past year, continuing to work from home is going to be a reasonable accommodation ”“ it's going to be nearly impossible to prove an undue burden.)

So, employers can require folks to come back to the office, but should they?

The urgency to get back to work seems to be driven by the idea that ”œbutts in seats” will be a sign we are back to ”œnormal.” But ”œnormal” is not what we're going to be going back to. Every study out there shows a lot of employees ”“ even healthy ones ”“ are hesitant to return to work full-time, instead opting to stay at home more often with increased flexibility. Some fear returning to work while the pandemic is still raging. Others have enjoyed their yoga pants, pet cuddle breaks, and being available to handle personal matters (including kid pick-ups) during the day while still being productive team members. These employees may even start looking for a new job if they are forced back to work full time.

This poses a new conundrum for employers ”“ if we require people to come back, will they leave us?

We know that a booming economy is both great and risky for employers. Sales are up, but employees may be looking for greener pastures. If employers are going to keep employees, they'll need to create a workplace where teams can determine for themselves what in-office schedule works best for them and their team.

We have lived through a year of great uncertainty. As the pandemic starts to come to an end (fingers crossed), employers should consider the needs and wants of employees as we all struggle to put on regular pants. Or, put another way, just because employers can require folks to be back in the office, doesn't mean they should.

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