Should You Mandate That Employees Return to the Office?

5 min read • May 04, 2021 • Derek Miller

As COVID-19 vaccinations increase across the country, there’s optimism that the worst is behind us. According to a March 2021 analysis by McKinsey & Company, Americans will likely reach herd immunity status by Q3 of this year. This progress is leading many businesses to reopen and allow employees back into the office.

While many of us are anxious to get back to some sense of normalcy again, it’s your responsibility—as the employer—to make sure you have a safe and responsible plan for bringing employees back.

It’s not as easy as just reopening your doors. Many employees are still worried about the virus and their safety, while others have become comfortable with their remote office and may want to reevaluate their options moving forward. 

So, as an employer, should you mandate that employees return to the office? Let’s take a deeper look to provide some context to help you answer this question for yourself.

Can You Discipline an Employee Who Refuses to Return?

The first thing to review is whether or not you can force your employees to return. This will determine the policies you make from the get-go. 

If you decide to bring employees back to the office and some refuse, you may be able to take disciplinary action against them and potentially terminate their employment. Janell Stanton, an attorney with Wagner, Falconer & Judd in Minneapolis, says fear of the virus alone isn’t enough to justify ignoring company guidelines. 

However, sometimes an employee is right to protest the return policy. If they have an underlying health condition or if your workplace doesn’t closely follow safety protocols, returning to the office is considered unsafe and risky. 

“In either of these instances, employers must be cautioned against terminating an employee, as it could give rise to discrimination or retaliation claims,” Stanton says. Additionally, you must consider the repercussions and impression this decision sends to your other employees or future hires. 

Internally, decide whether you want to discipline employees who won’t return. You may want to take an individualized approach with these workers to prevent potential discrimination claims and OSHA violations. 

What About Employees With an Immunocompromised Relative?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who cannot work in the current circumstances. In the case of the pandemic, working from home is fine. But what about healthy employees who live with immunocompromised individuals?

According to the ADA, employers are not required to accommodate healthy employees who have relatives with disabilities. If an employee is healthy, they may be asked to return.

Should You Call Employees Back to the Office?

The next question to ask is whether you should require employees to return to the office. This question is much more complicated. 

The first thing to do is to check your productivity numbers. Multiple studies have sought to answer the question: are employees more productive when they work remotely? Great Place to Work conducted one of the most comprehensive studies, evaluating more than 800,000 employees in 2019 and 2020. 

They found that working remotely significantly increased productivity from April through June of last year. Once employees got used to working from home, they settled into a routine. Even in typically low-productivity months like August, remote employees still fared better than their in-office counterparts.   

However, every company is unique. What works for one organization might fail for another. Evaluate how you define productivity and check these metrics to see how your employees performed. Did they continue to hit and exceed their goals without coming into the office? Were there any major hurdles to communication? If not, you may want to reconsider ending your mandatory return plans. 

Consider the Morale of Ending the Work-from-Home Period

Numbers can paint a picture of employee productivity, but they can’t show the whole story. Behind the hard workers fighting to reach their goals are real people who will have imperfect, human responses to change. This is why you also need to consider the overall morale risks of bringing employees back. 

Working from home has been a mixed bag. Some people have embraced the lack of commute and comfortable work environment–increasing their loyalty to their employer. Other workers have been unable to separate work-life and home-life, placing added stress on both elements. While some employees might curse the idea of returning to the office, others will consider it a wonderful blessing. 

Talk with your employees to see which side they are on. Learn whether people want to return and what they expect from the post-pandemic workplace. This process can help you anticipate problems as employees step back into the office. 

They Are Not Mutually Exclusive

There is a safe middle ground that you can choose when asking your employees to return. Instead of mandating fully remote work or fully in-person attendance, consider implementing a hybrid model

Employees can work remotely a few days per week and visit the office on the others. They can balance in-person meetings when they are in the office and focus on their projects remotely. After a few months of this hybrid model, you can decide whether you want your team to return fully. 

In the same way that American workplaces were unprepared for the pandemic, most don’t have a solid return plan. The situation is fluid depending on your company and local government. Take steps toward what works for you and your employees. 

Derek Miller

Derek Miller

Derek Miller is a writer specializing in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing. His work has featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp. He’s currently the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, and a marketing consultant for small businesses.