Ending Remote Work Can Become Contentious

Financial Post Newsletter contributor Howard Levitt — a senior partner of Levitt Sheikh LLP, employment and labor lawyers — stated in a recent opinion piece that some businesses don’t appreciate the reasons why some employees who were forced to work from home during the pandemic are resistant to returning to the workplace. That’s because from the business’ vantage point, a return to the office has overwhelming benefits for the employees and the employers.

“In-person interaction provides a huge boost to employee morale, presents increased opportunities for career development and helps foster an environment for effective collaboration, all of which encourage real connections and can build confidence,” Levitt wrote.

“While we understand why many individuals have become accustomed to the flexibility that a remote-first workplace provides, we are firmly in the camp of those who believe that there is a major benefit to the separation of your workplace from your home. Many employers have concerns about decreased productivity in the remote workplace as their employees become increasingly detached from their colleagues and employer,” Levitt wrote.

In planning with employers on how to implement a return to in-person work, many have opted for a flexible transition where the business adopts a hybrid model.

Levitt wrote that while an employer can recall its remote staff to the in-person workplace, how it is done will affect how employees will react. As with any corporate reshuffling, the key is to act early and consult with an employment lawyer, because if it isn’t handled strategically, the result could produce legal challenges.

“Although a company’s specific needs will vary from workplace to workplace, we encourage all employers to remain mindful of the following when implementing a recall to in-person work,” Levitt wrote. His points include:

  • Provide sufficient notice – Although it may not be a permanent term of your existing staff’s employment, providing ample notice of the recall to the workplace will allow for everyone impacted to make any necessary adjustments after two-plus years out of the office. A phased approach may allow employees to recalibrate and adjust their budgeting of time and resources. Most important, even if the recall is a constructive dismissal based on what had become employees’ terms of appointment, reasonable notice will eliminate any constructive dismissal claim.
  • Accommodate (if required) – It is critical to remain mindful of the obligation to accommodate protected grounds under human rights legislation (i.e., disability, family status) to the point of undue hardship. While there may be a kneejerk reaction to dismiss a request for accommodation from an employee who clearly prefers to work remotely, employers are obligated to consider each request for accommodation on its merits and how that accommodation may be provided without undue hardship to the employer. If you don’t even consider the request, that could attract punitive damages.
  • Communicate – Even if there is not an obligation to accommodate an employee, listen to and discuss the underlying reasons for the requested accommodation. Oftentimes there may be other ways to address an employee’s concerns other than allowing them to work remotely. For example, a modest transportation allowance may alleviate some of the additional costs associated with commuting amid rapid inflation.

Image by Maria Hergueta