Should workers be forced to return to the office?

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Mike Janssen, using DALL-E 3

This article first appeared on the author’s blog and is republished here with permission.

Before COVID, working from home was a rare benefit for employees. But now, some don’t want to return to the office despite employers’ concerns.

This issue revolves around trust.

Employees who want to avoid long commutes say bosses don’t trust them to complete their work at home. Employers are concerned that workers will take advantage of the situation and focus less on their work.

In my opinion, there are lots of good reasons to have everyone return to the office:

  • There is less collaboration when people only have contact with others via Zoom. Research has proven that.
  • There is less camaraderie. 
  • Career growth can be stifled. Management can’t tell who the hard workers are, and casual training opportunities are less frequent. This includes mentoring young professionals.
  • And some people do goof off and don’t work as hard at home.

But the argument can also be made that not requiring everyone back to work makes sense:

  • There are fewer unplanned interruptions from colleagues when people work in their own space.
  • Not everyone does their best work in a 9-5 schedule.
  • Long, costly commutes and parking fees are avoided.
  • Working in your sweatpants and having your dog around makes you feel better.

So, the decision to require everyone back to the office remains difficult. Some organizations have found a midway point by requiring everyone to be in the office two or three days a week. 

The best advice I offer to clients who are struggling with this decision is to try the hybrid approach but require that everyone have measurable goals so that work can be measured. In most cases (unless you are customer-facing), there is little need for structured “office hours.” Having these goals and holding people accountable is key to avoiding concerns about those who are taking advantage of the WFH situation.

Regular check-ins between workers and supervisors are necessary to ensure constant communication and progress toward goals.

Use required in-the-office days for team meetings and social interaction.

Focus on outcomes, not input. Employees like to feel trusted that work will be completed.

But what if an employer mandates a return to the office? Can an employee refuse? Sure, they can. They can quit. Unless you are covered by a labor agreement, workers have little or no legal power to refuse an order to return to the office. “There is no right to work wherever you want,” said Laura Reathaford, a partner in the employment practice group at California law firm Lathrop. “They have the right to work for someone else.”

Dave Edwards helps public media professionals become more effective leaders through executive coaching and consulting services. He previously transformed WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio into one of the country’s most successful public radio stations and was chair of the NPR Board of Directors. He is the author of The Public Media Manager’s Handbook.

2 thoughts on “Should workers be forced to return to the office?

  1. I would highly encourage people to read more on this topic from the invaluable “Ask a Manager” blog. Turns out just today there’s a post on the subject:

    And many, many other posts over the last several years:

    I will say at WNPN/The Public’s Radio, we made a virtue out of necessity. Our studio/offices were trying to accommodate 20+ people in a space designed for no more than 13. It wasn’t good. When COVID hit, we made an executive decision to stay WFH until a better office could be found.

    We were fortunate, though: in Oct 2019 we migrated all staff to new laptops, ditched our PBX for VoIP, and switched all our documents, calendar, and email to Google Workspace. We already had company-paid and -issued cellphones for everyone. We were pretty well-positioned to have everyone work from home on very short notice. And we got a grant from a local foundation to buy several Comrex AccessNX kits that we use for pledge drives and other remote broadcasts. Later we got into Slack in a big way, too.

    A few people, mostly the on-air news anchors, still have to come in every day. And a few folks voluntarily prefer to work from the office in a hoteling environment. But most of us *like* WFH and it works quite well for us.

  2. “But what if an employer mandates a return to the office? Can an employee refuse? Sure, they can. They can quit. Unless you are covered by a labor agreement, workers have little or no legal power to refuse an order to return to the office.”

    The collective bargaining agreement between NABET-CWA and National Public Radio protects many workers ability to work remotely as much as they would like for three years. For others, it puts a cap on the number of days per year of required work in office.

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