Amanda Hamilton: Can your employer force you to work from home or the office?
Working from home or office – can your employer force you into work?
By Amanda Hamilton, NALP
With rules relaxing and as we gradually return to some kind of normality. The question arises whether or not your employer can force you to continue working from home if you don’t wish to do so, or vice versa?
The answer depends, in a small way, on whether you have an employment contract which states where your place of work will be. Of course, there is always room to negotiate if your employer is approachable enough. Unprecedented times demand unprecedented negotiations!
Returning to the office
Many of us may not yet be happy to commute on public transport to work like we used to do. On the other hand, you may be lucky enough to be within walking or cycling distance of your place of work. But how safe do you feel about returning? Especially if you know that the office, factory, studio or whatever the place of work may be, has numerous staff or employees? Or perhaps you have been shielding because you have a serious health condition or disability. How would you feel if your employer demanded that you return to your workplace, but you still feel uncomfortable about it?
On the other hand, many people are very keen to get back to the office and their work colleagues and may well be wishing to go back to the office before their employer asks them to.
Staying at home
If you have been working from home and have the facilities to do so. And the employer has been quite happy with your productivity. Then there should be no reason why you can’t negotiate with your employer to continue doing so. While government guidelines are still recommending people work from home. Then your employer will be hard pushed to force you back to the office.
On the other hand, if a job cannot be done satisfactorily from home and your employer can demonstrate this. Then it may be difficult to claim any rights to continue working from home if your usual place of work, pre-COVID, was your employer’s office.
But what if you’re sick of working from home? You miss your workmates, the children are driving you mad, you cannot get that work-life balance right and you enjoy going to work, but your employer tells you to continue working from home, can you be forced to comply? This will depend on what place of work (if any) is specified in your contract of employment.
What does your contract say?
If, for example, your contract states that ‘your place of work shall be xxx’ then that should be where you will be working. However, if the employer has taken the unilateral decision (perhaps because of a drain on finances due to lockdown) to cancel the lease on the work premises (without consultation) and there is no longer a possibility of working from xxx. Then there could arguably be a claim for breach of your employment contract and wrongful dismissal at common law.
Regardless of your employment contract, while the government guidelines say ‘work from home wherever possible’. Your employer may be able to justify his/her insistence that you continue to work from home, even if your contract stipulates your place of work is elsewhere.
What can you do?
If you feel you cannot work in the new way your employer has stipulated and this, in turn, makes you feel you have no choice but to leave. You may have a constructive dismissal case against your employer.
However, you need to bear in mind the government guidelines (as mentioned) and try to understand your employer’s difficulties. Acting in a reasonable manner, under all the circumstances, should be the order of the day. Also, if matters do end at a Tribunal. Your attempts to be reasonable and find a solution will work in your favour.
Nevertheless, it’s a delicate and unprecedented situation. I have seen some business owners ask their employees what they would prefer to do. Quite often this works out well, as some will want to return to the workplace and others will not.
Alternatively, some employers have a rota system in place, where employees come into the office two or three days per week. By taking it in turn, this helps to maintain safety, and distance guidelines.
Whatever the situation is, we would hope employers are sensitive to the wishes of their employees and vice versa to try to reach an amicable arrangement.
However, if you find yourself in a difficult situation in relation to your employment contract, and need assistance with the legalities, you can call on the services of a paralegal.
A paralegal is a legal professional who is not a qualified solicitor, and therefore, will not charge the earth to help you sort things out on the legal side of things if you need them to do so, and may help to diffuse any possible adverse situation by negotiating on your behalf.