empty office desk

Can Employees Refuse to Return to the Office?

By Kimberly Kafafian


Returning to work (RTO) is a divisive topic. It’s also a very personal one, as needs and desires vary across your workforce. Parents might enjoy the flexibility working from home affords, while younger workers may wish to physically collaborate in person amongst their peers. Others enjoy the freedom it brings, while at the same time some miss the structure of the office. 

Add to all these feelings the fact that workers and employers don’t necessarily agree on the importance of returning to the workplace and the topic becomes even more contentious. Over the course of close to four years, employees feel they have more than demonstrated that they can do their jobs remotely, while managers believe the change in where we work has caused productivity to drop. We are at a standoff and it’s impossible to make every worker happy. 

When my clients started to initiate return to the office policies, they sought advice on how to address the pushback from those who want to control where they work. Their main question on the topic has been: “Can an employee refuse to return to the office?” While you can’t force a worker to physically work in your office, you can take action if they refuse to do so. 

As an employer, you have the authority to set your own work policies, and that includes where and when people work. As long as you’re following employment law rules and providing a safe workplace, you can require your workers to return to your office. If an employee refuses to comply, you can consider that an act of subordination, which is grounds for termination. But what happens if a large number of employees refuse to return? Are you going to terminate all of them? That could be very bad for your business.

Just because workers don’t have legal rights to demand they be allowed to work from home, don’t ignore the power they wield. Working together, they can use their collective pressure to strike, whether they are unionized or not. They also have the option to leave you in the lurch seeking better perks elsewhere. 

As the call to come back to the office is getting louder, the standoff ensues. Unfortunately, there is no clear winner. If you insist workers return, you have seats in your chairs and teams in the same physical environment, but how has that impacted morale? Is the productivity you think will improve actually sinking further because unhappy employees no longer want to give their all?

The better option may be to put a hybrid work policy in place. This gives your workforce some flexibility in where they work, while enabling the in-person collaboration management desires. Plus, it can give you a competitive advantage in the recruitment process and help minimize the costs associated with high turnover.

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