Returning Remote Workers to the Office

In this episode of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank and employment law expert Jennifer Shaw discuss the challenges some employers are facing as they ask remote workers to report back to the office, and provide takeaways for dealing with employees who refuse to return to the workplace.


It’s been many months since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and many offices are opening back up and companies are taking the necessary precautions to ensure their workspaces minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. One of the biggest problems that employers are seeing, Frank tells podcast listeners, is that when remote workers are asked to return to the office, some employees are refusing to come in.

Shaw says employees will use a variety of excuses to get out of coming back to the workplace, even asking for an “accommodation” when there is no medical condition present.

Other problems employers are experiencing include: employees not abiding by mask and precaution rules; remote employees asking to return to the workplace even though the office remains closed; and employees seeking to form labor unions.

Companies are also experiencing pressure to offer remote work opportunities thanks to news reports that some large employers are permanently offering telework or are offering telework late into 2021. But this work model does not work for everyone.

“Every workplace is going to be different,” Frank says, and many of the companies offering permanent remote work are companies where telework is already suited to the company’s culture.

Moreover, working from home is not what everyone wants, Frank points out. News articles have documented burnout among workers because when one is working from home, there is little separation between work and home.

Additionally, Shaw says, there are people suffering from domestic abuse who do not want to be at home. There also are people who need the social interactions that being at a workplace provides.

Returning to Work

Many employers are finding that there are aspects of the physical workplace that cannot be replicated at home. Some departments simply work better when people are back in the office and collaborating in person, Frank explains.

Hopefully, she adds, once remote workers return to the office, they too will notice the positive effects of face-to-face teamwork. But what can an employer do if an employee keeps saying they are not comfortable returning to work?

Shaw answers that if the employee gives no reason other than “I just don’t want to,” the employer should make it clear to the employee that they are making a choice about whether they want their job. Employers should not be reluctant to tell the employee that if they don’t report to work on a certain date, the employer will need to find someone to replace them. After all, Shaw says, you have a business to run.

What should an employer do, Frank asks, if an employee says they want to work from home because coworkers are not following safety protocols in the workplace?

Shaw explains that employers need to make sure employees are not breaking safety rules. Even if the employee who is complaining is bossy, “if they’re right, you’ve got a problem.”

If the employer finds that workers are not complying with the rules, the employer needs to fix it, she says. If, however, it is determined that all employees are abiding by the rules, the employer should sit down with the employee who was complaining and stress that there is no legitimate reason they need to work from home. The employer should also emphasize that if a coworker is breaking a safety rule, or the company is not doing something it should be doing, the employee should let the company know about it so that the company can take the proper steps to rectify it.