Calling all teleworkers: Back to the office!

Here are some suggestions for making it painless.

Although the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a feeling of "impending doom" about COVID-19, many employers are ready to get back to normal.

And for many employers, that means ordering telecommuting employees back to the office. The real office. As in, the building. None of this "virtual" malarkey.

"Back to the office, you WFH slackers!"


Many employees will be happy to return to their offices, with convenient on-site equipment and supplies, structure to the workday, a change of scenery, and in-person reunions with delightful co-workers.

But for some, returning to the office will mean long commutes in heavy traffic, renewed drama with co-workers who were never particularly delightful, and leaving the freedom and quiet of home (assuming they don't have toddlers) or the companionship of significant others.

Employers generally have the legal right to require employees to come back on site if that is what they want to do. (Check the laws in your jurisdiction to make sure.) But there are ways to do it that can cause friction, and ways to do it that will make for a smooth transition back. Here are some suggestions for the latter:

No. 1: Provide a reasonable notice period. Don't announce on Friday afternoon that everyone is expected to be back in the office starting at 8:30 a.m. Monday. Going from an office setup to an at-home setup took us all some time. Doing the reverse will also take some time. Employees may have computer monitors, printers, office furniture, and equipment set up in their homes that will have to be disconnected, disassembled, loaded into the car, and schlepped back to the office. Those with long commutes may need to take their cars in for the oil change that they've gotten away with postponing for the past year. (Wow, has it really been a year since my last oil change?) More importantly, your employees may have to make arrangements for child, after-school, or elder care. These won't be problems for everybody, but consider making your "hard" deadline about a month from the date that you announce the end of telework. (Employees can voluntarily come back earlier if they're able.)

No. 2: Be willing to make reasonable accommodations in appropriate cases. Telework can be a form of reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it will be harder than ever to prove that it isn't "reasonable" or is an "undue hardship" if the work has been getting done remotely for the past 12 months. You should also consider letting employees continue teleworking as a reasonable accommodation for pregnancy or a related condition, or if an employee has not been vaccinated for a religious or medical reason. Beyond disability, pregnancy, and religion, you can take a harder line, but there may be other extenuating circumstances that would be worth accommodating even if they aren't legally protected. For example, you may have employees who want to stay home because they're too young to be eligible for vaccination. And be sure to check your state laws and local ordinances, because they may have more stringent reasonable accommodation requirements than federal law.

via GIPHY

No. 3: Try not to make employees go cold turkey. Maybe you're ok with some telework, even though you miss your beloved employees and would like to see them at the office once in a while. If that's the way it is, consider letting employees work remotely one or two days a week and come to the office the other four or three days. That might make things less traumatic for everybody.

No. 4: Recall what made your office such a great place to work, and bring that back. What did you all do for fun in 2019? Did you order pizza on birthdays? Did you serve tequila shots after 5 p.m. on Cinco de Mayo? (Within reason, and with company-paid rides home, of course?) Think about reinstating events like these as best you can. Even with masks and social distancing, they can't be worse than those pathetic Zoom parties of 2020.

No. 5: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If everybody is doing great working remotely, consider . . . letting it continue indefinitely. Don't order people back to the office just as a matter of principle. At the very least, think of what you'll save on rent!

Eventually.

After your lease expires.

NOTE TO READERS: If you have been celebrating Passover, we hope you are having a happy one. If you will be celebrating Easter this weekend, we hope it will be a joyous one. And if you're on spring break, or just having a normal weekend, we hope you have a blast.  

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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