The Minefield of Returning to the Office

Joan McGuire

Employers should be aware of workplace regulations and employee concerns before taking action. 

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A recent national poll of 1,200 office workers asked how they felt about working from home during the pandemic, and it found that most — 60% — were either discouraged or felt trapped.    

Another 25% of workers said they were doing well working from home but saw advantages to returning to the office. Only 20% were categorized as thriving or doing better working remotely.

The findings of the survey, conducted by The Martec Group, a market research firm, support the notion that it is justified for employers to start bringing employees back to the office after a year of working remotely.   

But the return to the workplace is also fraught with difficulties for the employer. Companies have to comply with stringent guidelines for creating safe post-pandemic workplaces, making the reopening full of pitfalls.

Before deciding to bring workers back to the office, employers should survey their employees to gauge their readiness and need to return, says Jim Durkin, founding partner of The Martec Group.

The office-worker survey, which polled a variety of employees from different socioeconomic and demographic groups, shows workers have vastly different experiences of working from home. And the large percentage of employees who find the experience less than optimal indicates telecommuting was less common before the pandemic than previously thought.

“Almost one-third of the sample we labeled as ‘trapped employees,’” says Durkin. “They have a lot of problems working from home and would benefit from being back in the office. Not only do they miss social interaction and structure, but they are also more likely to have issues with distractions, don’t have a good home-office setup, and technology is not that great.”

But employers also need to be aware of workplace guidelines before they attempt to bring employees back. Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implemented temporary regulations last fall that employers need to adhere to until May 1. Clay Creps, partner at Tonkon Torp law firm, says the OSHA regulations will likely be extended beyond May 1.

Those regulations stipulate employers need to carry out safety measures, such as physical distancing, contact tracing, mandatory mask wearing, proper sanitation and ventilation, among others.

Employers have quite a bit of leeway in requiring employees to return to the office. An employer, for example, can require that employees — with certain exceptions — are vaccinated before they return to work. Companies can terminate employees who refuse the vaccine if they do not have valid reasons such as a disability or religious beliefs.

Employers can also terminate employees who refuse to come back to the office if there is no regulatory prohibition on the return to work.

Despite these freedoms, employers will likely face a more cautious workforce, which is more likely to complain to OSHA if they think their employer is violating the rules, says Creps. He expects an upsurge in complaints to the regulatory organization.

“With the return to work, many employees are choosing to resign rather than return because they don’t feel safe yet,” says Creps. “If an employee is forced to return, that is going to be an employee who is not happy being there. They will be hyper vigilant.”  

Before vaccines are widely distributed and infection rates drop to low levels, employers are advised to be more flexible over their requirements for returning to work. After all, they do not want to lose employees who are essential to operations.

“Most businesses I talk to are clearly opting for an optional return to work,” says Creps. 

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