I’m being forced back to the office
I could not resist a wry smile on reading the news this morning that Zoom is compelling any staff that work within a 50 mile radius to return to the office 2 days a week. The company that introduced most of us to remote meetings and the video-sphere. They are not alone in wanting staff back on site. At one extreme we have Elon Musk at X wanting everyone back in all the time. Somewhere in the middle most companies seem to be taking a modest line with a hybrid arrangement. Some companies permit staff to choose which days they want to be in the office. Others impose fixed days.
At didlaw, the team has worked remotely and flexibly for some time now. Pre-pandemic I recognised that with so many mums in my team it would alleviate the stress of the commute to work from home. It also gives better work-life balance. Anyone joining didlaw has the option to choose how they work. More junior staff need more office time so that they can watch their seniors in action and learn so much by osmosis. But it’s still possible to give them the lifestyle balance of some home-working days.
Every member of my team has a full office set up at home and in the office allowing them to move interchangeably and without disruption. This works for them and it works for the business. It certainly works for me: I save 20 hours a week by not commuting. That is a lot of extra time I can use to work efficiently and enable some lifestyle balance.
What are my rights?
So what is the legal position if you are forced back to the office by your employer and you don’t want to or cannot? It’s complicated and very fact specific. Some headlines however that might be useful are set out here.
Read your contract.
If your contract states your working arrangements then you can tell your employer to read the contract and check what has been agreed. An employer cannot unilaterally change your contract without your consent (other than favourably i.e. to give you a pay increase).
My contract is not correct.
If your contract states a pattern or place of work that is different to what you are actually doing in practice your employer may have inadvertently varied your contract such that you can say you are no longer obliged to attend the workplace as previously. This could be a high risk strategy given that your employer has the power to withhold pay or worse, dismiss. A conversation about a compromise is recommended over getting into conflict.
Special circumstances – reasonable adjustments.
You may have specific needs that cannot be met if you are forced back to the office. For example, you might have a long-term health condition that qualifies as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 meaning that you can ask for different working conditions to your peers because there may be ways of working or a place of working that suits your needs better. If you want to ask for home working as a reasonable adjustment you will need to demonstrate that the adjustment you are asking for is capable of alleviating the disadvantage you say the employer’s proposed working arrangement causes. It is incumbent on you to prove that a different place of work for you will make it easier for you to participate fully in the workplace.
If you request a reasonable adjustment and your employer does not agree to it, your only recourse is to an Employment Tribunal or to leave your job and find a position in another company where your needs can be accommodated.
It’s not just staff with disabilities that get extra help with this. You may have other caring responsibilities – for children, for someone else with a disability. You have particular rights too including the right to request flexible working.
Can I resist a request to return to the office?
The difficulty overall with the back to work push is that if your employer wants this to happen they are going to make it happen. You can disagree and complain but where will that get you? Without sounding defeatist in a time of economic uncertainty and a shrinking job market, it might just be in your best interests to agree to a compromise with your employer. Employers will find that an inability to listen to what their staff need and want will see them walk and go to employers that are more amenable but in the reality of everyday life this may not be as easy as it might be hoped.
What about raising a grievance?
I am not a fan of grievances. They create a lot of work and they also create conflict. The process is not meant to be adversarial, it is meant to resolve matters, but in reality it rarely does. If you have an issue with your employer the best advice you can get is to talk to them about it. Talk to HR. Talk to your manager. If you cannot find a sympathetic ear then think about taking legal advice to understand your rights. But don’t start open warfare unless you really are prepared for battle and the uncertainty and stress this brings. I’m a big fan of talking things through. Not everyone is but it might make the world of work more tolerable if we were all a bit more open and communicative about our needs. We are people not chairs or robots.
Think. Then talk.
Think before you do anything. Don’t react until you have thought about what you want to achieve and how it might land with your employer. Talk to an employment lawyer if you think you can’t resolve things yourself. But start with a conversation.