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HR Outsourcing

What if employees don’t want to return to the workplace?

As businesses reopen and look towards recommencing their normal operations in accordance with their State or Territory’s framework, there will come a time where employees will be asked to return to the workplace.

There are businesses that require employees to attend the workplace in order to operate, such as waitstaff, nail technicians and retail assistants, where the instruction to return to the workplace will be clear and straightforward, subject to the business having developed a ‘COVIDsafe plan’. But what about those employers whose reintegration of staff into the workplace is not so clear, such as office staff?

It is undeniable that COVID-19 has forever altered the way that certain sectors operate. Businesses have had to rapidly shift to remote models of work, sometimes for the first time in their history, and although the technology to facilitate this move has existed for some time, COVID-19 has forced businesses to consider the ability for work to be performed away from the workplace.

For some, these changes have created the realisation for both the employer and the employee that staff can effectively perform their jobs from home. On 12 May 2020, tech-giant Twitter announced that they would permanently move towards a ‘Work From Home’ model for any staff that wished to continue with this arrangement. The company cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the move, having allowed the business the opportunity to test remote working for their workforce on a large scale.

Since working from home became the norm thanks to COVID-19, staff too have come to the realisation that they can indeed do their job remotely, with no commute, casual-Friday attire worn everyday while putting on a load of washing boiling the kettle to make themselves a (much-cheaper-than-your-local-coffee-shop) coffee. For these reasons, they may look to delay, or avoid altogether, their return to the workplace.

Similarly to Twitter, many businesses have already began making plans to continue these working from home arrangements for their staff after the pandemic ends, even if on a part time basis. They have noticed the positive effects that this has had on their staff and their work-life balance and wish to continue offering it as an employee incentive. They have also realised that there exist bottom-line savings associated with reduced costs in heating/cooling, commercial rents and staff expenditures like milk and coffee. Further to this, any reintegration into the workplace will need to be in combination with increased sanitisation procedures to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19, which will come at an increased cost to the business.

But what happens if an employee refuses to return to the workplace once the business determines it is time?

The business will need to carefully consider the circumstances for the refusal. Does the role need to be performed from the workplace (such as wait staff) or can the employee perform their role from home? Can any allowances be made?

If an employee refuses to return, the first step is for the employer to refer them to the business’ ‘COVIDSafe plan’. This will require you to assess the public health orders in place at the time and ensure that you are planning for, and adhering to, the relevant restrictions.

This may include consideration given to:

  1. How employees will commute to work and their use of public transport
  2. Managing employee numbers in the workplace at any given time
  3. The workspace and how it can be reconfigured to adhere to social distancing requirements
  4. How work will be performed in groups
  5. The use of shared spaces such as lifts, foyers, kitchens and breakout areas
  6. A marked increase in sanitisation processes
  7. The requirement for employees to maintain high levels of personal hygiene
  8. The possibility of further outbreaks that may affect your workforce

For a thorough guide on planning for the reintegration into workplaces, Liquid HR has developed a resource you can access as a client.

The above measures will largely be driven by your State and Territory’s health advice at the time, so ensure that your plan allows for this level of flexibility.

If your employee, or someone in their family, is considered high-risk and they do not want to return to the workplace, you may need to assess their application on a case-by-case basis, especially if they present legitimate medical evidence (such as their doctor’s advice) that recommends the employee continue working remotely. Be careful you do not make hasty decisions in relation to these employees as it may lead to allegations of discrimination and adverse action.

Subject to having a ‘COVIDSafe plan’ in place, when assessing any application to continue remote working arrangements (on medical grounds or otherwise), the business will need to assess the employee’s level of productivity at home versus the workplace, whether the employee needs to be in the workplace for supervision (either to be supervised or to provide supervision) and the need for the role to interact face-to-face with others, and if so, how much? Can part time remote work be an option for that individual?

Ultimately, if the business has appropriately prepared to transition staff back into the workplace, you can issue a direction for employees to return, with any refusal by employees to follow reasonable direction dealt with through your disciplinary process. However, it is important that this is done with all due consideration given to the employee’s personal circumstances and after the business has thoroughly assessed the pros and cons of remote working, both as Australia emerges from lockdown and into the future, with the understanding that the way the world works has likely changed forever.

Further questions? 

For more information on the topic, please contact us on 1300 887 458 and speak with one of our HR Consultants. If you are interested in learning more about our HR services, including HR Outsourcing, HR Consulting, HR Advisory Services, contact us at