Can I be forced back into the office after remote working?

For many of us, the thought of returning to an office environment might be worrying. You may be concerned about your own health or have a vulnerable relative, or maybe you’re just enjoying remote working. For some, working remotely means:

  • getting more done
  • no office politics
  • no wasted commuting time
  • saving money on travel
  • more efficient use of lunch breaks or
  • easier childcare arrangements. 

So it’s understandable that not everyone wants to return to the office, but can your employer force you to?

Check your contract

The starting point is your contract. It will probably specify a place of work. If you’re normally based in the office, your employer is entitled to call you back to the office. However, it must be safe for you to return - we’ll discuss this in more detail below. 

So what can you do if you don’t want to return to the office? The next step might be to make a flexible working request

Make a flexible working request

If you’ve been employed for 26 weeks, you have the right to make a flexible working request, which can include a change of location for all, or some, of your hours. You can only make one request per year. If you don’t meet these conditions, it’s worth checking if your employer has a flexible working policy, as some employers might let you make a request anyway.

Your employer doesn’t have to say yes, but they do have to consider your request fairly (following the relevant ACAS Code of Practice) and give you an answer within 3 months (including responding to you if you appeal against the original decision).

Your employer can say no for ‘business reasons’ including:

  • cost
  • workload distribution
  • negative effect on quality / ability to meet customer demand
  • performance
  • planned changes / reorganisation. 

Your request must be in writing. You need to say you’re making a statutory flexible working request.

In your flexible working request, make sure you include:

  • the date of the request
  • the change you’re asking for and when you want it to start
  • how you and your employer can manage the change
  • the date of any previous flexible working requests you’ve made and
  • if your request is connected to discrimination law, for example because you are making a request for reasonable adjustments.

It’s also a good idea to include any benefits the change could have.

Your employer should talk with you before they make a decision on your request. If you’ve been working from home during the pandemic, you might have examples which show the arrangement is successful - you should mention these.

If your employer agrees to the change, they should update your contract with the new arrangements. If your request is rejected and you think it was handled incorrectly, it’s always best to try to discuss this with your employer informally first. If that doesn’t work, you may be able to appeal the decision, raise a grievance or bring an Employment Tribunal case.

If you make a claim to the Employment Tribunal, you normally need to contact ACAS within 3 months less 1 day of the final refusal of the request.

It’s important to note: if your employer says yes to flexible working, it doesn’t give them the right to unilaterally change any other terms of your contract, such as pay. 

Learn more about making a flexible working request from ACAS.

Investigate hybrid working

Hybrid working means splitting your working hours between the office and home (or some other remote location). Hybrid working can reduce costs for employers while offering flexibility to workers, but there’s a lot your employer needs to consider to make sure you are supported while working remotely. 

As a result of the pandemic, some employers are offering hybrid working arrangements and consulting with employees and unions on the introduction of a hybrid working policy. 

This may be something you could discuss with your employer before making a flexible working request, or if you’re not eligible to make one. 

Check health and safety advice

The shielding programme has now ended which means that even if you’re considered extremely vulnerable, you’re able to return to work. However, your employer has a duty of care to protect you from harm in the workplace. This includes:

  • doing what they can to protect your health, safety and wellbeing at work
  • regularly completing a risk assessment and implementing it and
  • consulting you on decisions involving health and safety.

Your employer must follow the relevant government and Health and Safety Executive advice on working safely during Covid. This might be:

  • providing hand sanitising facilities
  • ensuring adequate ventilation
  • social distancing or 
  • allowing you to work from home, if that’s possible. 

If remote working isn’t possible and there’s a particular aspect of your job you’re concerned about, you should discuss this with your employer. Don’t be afraid to say what you need - your employer has a legal duty to discuss health and safety matters with you. 

If you don’t think your employer is protecting your health, safety or well-being at work, you may want to raise a formal grievance.

Request reasonable adjustments

If you’re disabled, you can ask your employer to make a reasonable adjustment to your working arrangements to reduce the effect your disability has on your job. This could include working from home or hybrid working. 

The public service union UNISON carried out a survey in 2020. They asked disabled people about their experiences working remotely. 73% of those surveyed felt they were more or as productive. Reasons included reduced pain caused by commuting and less sickness time off because they were able to better manage their conditions. 

Read our case study about Kirsty, who asked for reasonable adjustments from her employer, here. 

Need to raise an issue? Valla has you covered

If you’re thinking about making a flexible working or reasonable adjustment request, or raising a formal grievance with your employer, we can help. At Valla, we offer a secure platform where you can gather your evidence and get your story straight. Sign up for your free account.

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