With “Independence Day” on July 4th symbolising an end to Covid-19 lockdown, employees are still nervous about returning to work indoors.
Can my employer force me to return to the office?
Before coronavirus, the answer to this question would be yes. Most employment contracts require a person to be available for work at a specific location and during a certain time. If you refuse to do as instructed then you are breaching your employment contract, and face the possibility of being dismissed.
However, these are not normal times. Workspaces carry risk and the right safeguards and policies need to be in place before re-opening. You’re entitled to ask questions about these safeguards and policies.
Employers’ duty of care towards employees
The first thing you should do, if you’re not happy about returning to the office, is to identify your concerns and let your manager know about them. For example:
- are you concerned about taking public transport to get to work?
- are you likely to struggle with childcare or caring commitments?
- are you worried about having to share an open plan office with a number of colleagues?
Employers have a duty of care towards those they employ – to look after both their physical and mental health. They also have to abide by a variety of health and safety standards, such as ensuring that sanitation measures are in place, and that there are enough first aiders and fire wardens on site.
Employers have a duty to comply with equalities legislation and not discriminate against those who have protected characteristics, such as a disability.
All of this means that employers need to consider how to alleviate any concerns you raise about your health and/or your ability to do your job.
Ask for the office risk assessment and details of how the risks will be mitigated.
Under the government’s COVID-19 return to the office guidance, all businesses have a duty to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment. Staff groups should be consulted about the risk assessment and, if the business has more than 50 employees, it should be published on the organisation’s website. Ask your employer for a copy of the risk assessment and discuss it with your manager.
If you’re unsure whether the workplace is safe, ask your employer to explain the measures they’re implementing to bring the risks down to an acceptable level.
Making a flexible working request
If you want to work in a way that’s different from the one stated in your contract, ask your manager about whether this is possible. All employees have the legal right to request a new working arrangement. This is known as a flexible working request. You do not need to have a specific or special reason to do so.
Most organisations will have a specific process for dealing with such requests as legally they are required to approach the requests in a “reasonable manner”.
When making such a request, give your reasons for doing so and any evidence that shows how your new way of working will not impact on your performance. This will help your employer to consider the request, and if they do not agree with what you’re asking for maybe suggest a compromise.
If you want to discuss matters further then please do not hesitate to contact our employment law specialist, Justin Sadler, for a fixed fee meeting of one hour for £95.
More information from [email protected] – phone 0118 958 9711
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Justin deals with all aspects of Dispute Resolution for both businesses and individuals, including including Contentious Probate, Employment Law ( for both businesses and individuals) and Commercial Litigation. This means that he is familiar with the many different courts and tribunal as well as the many different methods for resolving disputes, including alternative dispute resolution such as adjudication and mediation.