Employers Shouldn’t Be Able to Unnecessarily Force Their Employees to Come to Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented time of uncertainty and challenge. But simply put, employers should not be able to force their employees to come in-person to work right now. Restaurants or other businesses requiring in-person work to make the products or services are one thing. But if it’s a knowledge work business that doesn’t directly serve customers in person, why are employers currently allowed to force employees into work? Many employers are taking the right approach, going remote-only or in some cases making it 100% optional for employees to return to work — but other employers are taking a seemingly backward approach.

I know some people who are in this position right now. One works for a company that does not require in-person work by any means. The team has been happily working remotely for months. However, now, the employer has now forced employees to come back in-person to the office. Why? Because the employer believes it will lead to greater productivity. Meanwhile, in the week leading up to a forced return to the office, another friend was working overtime because she said she knew that she’d get so much less done once back in the office. And now that she’s back in the office, she’s having to go home and get work done after hours because she’s not able to get much done at the office. The book Remote states that the real danger of remote work is not underwork — it’s overwork. And I’ve certainly seen this in my own business — I’ve seen my employees’ ‘green dots’ indicating that they’re online on Slack on at many different times, and have implored/asked them to seek a good work-life balance and take vacations. Other employers I’ve spoken to have said that since switching to remote work they’ve seen productivity go up, not down — they’ve seen this on objective measures like number of sales calls made. According to surveys, 90% of employers say that working remotely hasn’t hurt productivity. In fact, some companies have reported an increase in productivity of 13% or higher.

Essentially, by forcing employees back to work with the stated goal of enhanced productivity, this employer is saying “Hey, I don’t trust you — so I’m going to force you to put your life at risk because of my mistrust of you.” If you don’t trust your employees enough to work independently at home, why not just fire them? Surely this forced unnecessary return to work is going to create enough animosity that productivity is going to tank, perhaps permanently — not to mention the prospect of losing good employees who may decide to quit as a result of this, for very good reason.

And on the first day back at the office, my other friend’s boss blatantly disrespected local COVID-19 protocols by removing their masks in a meeting. This is insane. Imagine having to ask your boss to put on a mask. They also hadn’t set up plexiglass barriers and had people working together less than 6 feet apart, not following physical distancing rules. If the current ‘modified stage 2’ protocols in Ontario currently ask people to only have close contact with people in our direct households (or in the case of people who live alone, with 1 other household), why are we allowing employers to force their employees back to work and then remove their masks at work? If gyms and dance studios are shut down, why are employers allowed to force employees to come into the office for unnecessary reasons? And what forms of recourse do employees have? They don’t really seem to be very protected in these situations. In an era where there is an incredible and unparalleled amount of job insecurity and job losses, are they really going to rat out their employer and face the prospect of losing their job? Plus, most refusal to work claims are being denied. This means that COVID at workplaces is currently the wild west — especially for small companies that may or may not be following (or even aware of) the laws, may not have an HR department or even representative, etc. Plus, now employees are having to make their coworkers their ‘bubble’ (nevermind the fact that the concept of bubbles in Ontario is no longer allowed!) and answer all sorts of health and life-related questions that were previously never acceptable for an employer to ask (my other friend’s employer is asking for a detailed run-down of where he’s been, with who, and so on). How is this going to be healthy for their mental health, and what about those that want to spend time with their family, particularly elderly and/or immunocompromised family members.

Having an office space sitting empty as an excuse is not an acceptable reason for asking people to risk their lives. Having an office space rented is a sunk cost, not necessarily made more utilized by having people sit in it. You can attempt to sublease the space or take advantage of rental subsidies from the government. And if you don’t qualify for the rental subsidies because your revenue hasn’t gone down enough, is your business really that badly off that you feel you can use the office space expense as an excuse to force employees back?

Ontario should bar employers from forcing employees back to work if it’s not necessary for the delivery of goods and services — or at the very least require each workplace contemplating doing this to submit an application for inspection of COVID protocols and get approved before being allowed to do this. And in those cases, employers should consider not taking a blanket approach of asking employees to come back full-time — they can consider asking them to come into the office when necessary, e.g. once a week or something when necessary / as needed. Companies should make it optional and use this period to realize flexible work practices are a win-win for all.

Employers should also be aware of the fact that currently in Ontario, if an employee or customer gets COVID at their workplace, the employer can be held liable — even if the employer is following all COVID-related precautions. Honestly, if someone ends up getting COVID at a workplace where the employer has forced staff back to work for no good reason, and that employee then ends up suing the employer because of it — I think the employer deserves it.

Employers should check out some of the amazing ‘virtual office’ options available to them and give this route strong consideration before taking this sort of action. I don’t have any affiliation with these companies, but I tried one the other day and think they’re awesome. For example, Remo offers an amazing virtual office setup that’s almost like being in person. You can sit at a virtual ‘table’ with other people, and click to join another table and then get placed into a video room with the other people at the table. You can even share your screens simultaneously. To me, this simulates working at an office almost perfectly — each person can sit at their own virtual ‘desk’, and then join into virtual ‘conference rooms’ to have meetings. Here’s an example of what Remo looks like:

Another alternative, Sococo even has the ability to virtually ‘knock’ on someone’s virtual office. You can also recreate your office layout in the cloud! As the website describes it, “Sococo. Aha! That’s the moment you realize the blinking avatars in your workspace are actually your colleagues working. Caroline joined Jenny and Jon in the Conference Room for a client presentation. The marketing team is brainstorming in the Rec Room. Developers are heads-down in the Media Lab. Brian and Emma grabbed Breakout 1 to quickly resolve an issue. Ali just popped into the Lobby.” This is AMAZING. Check it out:

To me, these alternatives are even better than in-person collaboration right now. Why? They allow employees to feel safe and respected, you can see facial expressions (!) which you aren’t able to do with masks, and they simulate the office. You can safely get much closer to each other’s voices and intents than you could staying 6 feet apart with masks. Surely this can lead to greater collaboration, productivity, safety, and retention.

Plus, no commute means that employees have to spend less time overall devoted to work — and that there are less emissions contributing to climate change. Studies have shown that employees are more productive when they have better work-life balance and less work time — working above 40 hours makes you less productive, not more. In France they take long holidays, long lunches and finish at sensible times. In the Netherlands, a lot of companies shut down the computers at a certain time. Countries have taken this idea to heart, and now so can employers — and many are doing amazing things like reducing workweeks to 4 days.

We’re in a new world — let’s embrace it instead of clinging to antiquated, outdated and insecure ideas of productivity.