To Return or Not to Return to Work?

Sep 30, 2020

That is the question facing businesses worldwide in a way we never anticipated in early 2020. The pandemic pulled this hot topic of remote work from future privilege into present-day necessity.

As with all dilemmas, the question process is never as simple as, “Will we or won’t we?”

QUESTION 1: Is remote work is even feasible for your business?

Essential workers like doctors, firefighters, postal carriers, etc. have been putting themselves at risk, reporting to work since shutdown-day-one. Some industries, like retail and dining, have gotten creative at how to maintain business in a remote world, but a return to pre-pandemic normalcy is almost required for future sustainability. Other industries have proven, maybe to their own surprise, that their workforces are just as effective working from home as they are reporting to the office. The range of remote capability is wide.

QUESTION 2: How should I address legal considerations surrounding the return to work?

Employee anxiety is at an all time high. However, “Fear is not necessarily a legal reason not to return to work,” says Andrea Brummett, President & CEO of The Pabulum Group and Redde HR. If you are consistently following the most recent CDC guidelines and ADA accommodations and documenting appropriately, you are probably not at significant legal risk for requiring employee return.

Embrace that educating and communicating with your employees is the key to helping them overcome their fear. Create a safe, pandemic-conscious environment. Communicate regularly about the precautions you are taking to minimize risk. Encourage feedback from employees who feel unsafe to share what you could be doing to lower their risk even further.

Lastly, beware of how this new reality might lead you to treat your employees inconsistently. In several industries, management and administrative employees are the ones enjoying remote work. This can create a snow-balling disparity between at-home employees and the ones who are required to report on-site. Also, if you are considering the use of wrist bands or some visual to indicate an employee’s level of comfort with social interaction, another disparity is born. Either situation could create a class system and an according complication to the conversation of potential lawsuits.

If you have not already, now might be a good time to review your Employment Practices & Liability (EPLI) coverage. If you have a specific accommodation concern, consult your attorney. But we all know that the best employment lawsuit is the one that never happens. So act consistently. Communicate clearly. Adhere to guidelines. Document, document, document. And if your situation allows it, maybe consider this last question.

QUESTION 3: Could continued remote work actually improve your bond with your employees?

Is remote work really as detrimental as you first thought? If employees have proven themselves fully capable of doing their jobs from home, you might get understandable pushback on the requirement to return to the office. Some employers are starting to realize the potential benefits over the risks of expanding their work from home policy: real estate savings, business expense decreases, lowering the risk of virus spread, more flexibility for employees...

Employers need to look at their culture and make a thoughtful leadership decision on how to proceed. At the end of the day, if your culture is developed in the way your workforce interacts in the office or if employees need in-person contact with clients, continuing remote flexibility may not be the best fit. But from a human standpoint, you might increase the bond with your employees if you consider their perspective when determining the future of your work from home policy.


This post is part of New World, New Strategy – a blog series to help your organization persist and thrive.  Check out the other posts here:

The Real Cost of Pandemic Fatigue
Surviving in Open Enrollment Pandemic
Remote Employees: Cyber Nightmares or Warriors?
End the Fire Drill and Move Your Organization Forward
Stop Buying Insurance by the Old Rules – "Best Practices" Aren't Helping You Now
To Return or Not Return to Work?