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It’s been almost six months of working from home for thousands of UK employees – but you could soon be asked to return to the office.
From September, the government will launch a campaign encouraging people to get back to the office. It’ll focus on the benefits of face-to-face contact, such as better relationships with colleagues, as well as urging employers to make workspaces Covid-safe.
It comes after the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned city centres were becoming “ghost towns” without employees using shops and sandwich bars.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps commented on the plans, telling Sky News: “Usually it’s going to be okay to return, unless somebody’s in a particular vulnerable state there is no reason not to return.”
HuffPost UK has heard from office workers who say they’ve been pressured to go back, despite being able to fulfil their job requirements remotely.
“I have gone in as my employer isn’t giving me any other option,” one employee, who works as an account manager for a food and drinks company, told us.
“When Boris eased restrictions and said some people could go back to work [on May 11], my employer expected us to return to our old working ways. I drive, so didn’t have to get on public transport, but I didn’t want to go back to the office, especially when I can do my job working from home.”
So, what are your rights if you’ve been told to go back when you don’t think it’s necessary?
The right to work from home is at the discretion of your employer, says Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Ruby Dinsmore. But that doesn’t mean you can’t argue the case for remote working.
“If an employer unreasonably refused the right to work from home in these circumstances, especially if you’re particularly at risk from the virus, it could be a breach of health and safety provisions and also the implied term of trust and confidence,” Dinsmore tells HuffPost UK.
Employers have a duty of care to protect their employees’ health and safety, so if you’re feeling pressured to return to the office, contact your HR manager (if you have one), who should take this seriously.
“If you’re really afraid to be at work your employer could offer you flexible working, the chance to take holiday or unpaid leave, or consider other roles which do not require you to be in the office,” Dinsmore adds. “Neither side have to agree to this, but you should explore options.”
There are some circumstances where you may be protected legally if you refuse to return to work. Before refusing to follow an instruction to return, you may want to seek legal advice, as this area of law is quite complex, says Dinsmore.
Legally, you can not “unreasonably refuse” to return to work, or you could face disciplinary action, but given the seriousness of the virus, it shouldn’t get to this standoff point.
“The government has emphasised that employers should accept employees have genuine concerns and may wish to stay home in circumstances where they feel unsafe in the office,” says Dinsmore.
“Employers should be abiding, not just with government guidance, but their legal duties which are likely to go beyond government guidance.”
For their part, employees should be given the means to raise any concerns easily and without fear of reprisals.
“If you have concerns about this process, it is always useful to keep a diary and notes on these conversations,” says Dinsmore. “Should you have any concerns about how the process of review is conducted in this situation you may want to seek legal advice or contact a union where appropriate.”