Do employees actually have to return to work after COVID-19? This is what experts say

It’s obvious the office will be different following the coronavirus pandemic.

Discussions about how the office should appear will be at the top. Companies that have squeezed workers in tight quarters to maximize space will likely need to revise floor plans, especially with health and safety at the top of everyone’s mind in the wake of the global health crisis. The innovative open office, where pods and huddles rooms were leveraged as an attraction to new talent, will need to be rethought and potentially dismantled to allow more space. The modern office kitchen, which appears in some places like an in-house cafe, too, will need to be reimagined.

As millions of Americans find themselves out of work, with a recession all but inevitable, the magnitude of how the novel coronavirus shapes the future of the workplace will likely be massive — and it could be in favor of the employee.

Social distancing is expected to continue once businesses reopen, which could mean there might be an opportunity to continue working remotely even after being called back into the office. There are legitimate fears from workers returning to work as the ongoing fight against COVID-19 continues, and even in offices that discouraged remote working strategies, perhaps the rise in remote working opportunities will encourage bosses to be more lenient with policies.

Gauging how employees currently feel about their work situation, a recent study by staffing firm Robert Half found that workers have a new belief in remote working. Sixty-three percent of American workers believe their job is doable outside the office, and more than three-fourths (79%) said they want their workplaces to allow them to work remotely more frequently after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long before the health crisis, remote working showed its benefits, from economic, environmental, to mental both for workers and employers. While companies may still be wary about productivity (working remotely actually improves production), the worries about distractions and misplaced work time should be calmed by now judging how most nonessential workers are working in the comfort of their homes.

Safer at home?

But what if a worker wants to continue their hiatus from the office after the pandemic eases? Are there any grounds in which they can tell their boss that they don’t want to return due to the unease of working with colleagues again due to fear for their health?

Cozen O’Conner attorney David Barron told Ladders there’s little that employees can do about coming back to work once businesses reopen despite the ongoing pandemic.

“I think you have to listen to people, listen to their issues, and if it can be accommodated and it’s reasonable, try to do that,” Barron said this week. “There’s no legal right just to stay home because you’re afraid. In those cases, those are a little more complicated and employers are going to take a hardline approach with those types of cases.”

Flexibility is key for employers after the pandemic, according to Barron. As legal obstacles could arise if an employer claims they were mistreated during the pandemic, Barron explained that reasonable accommodation is the best practice for employers to take when dealing with a worker who may think twice about the office, especially if they have a pre-existing condition like asthma or diabetes, which have been linked as COVID-19 risk factors.

Barron said the Americans with Disabilities Act is one way for employees with preexisting conditions to protect themselves and continue working from home. On Thursday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released guidelines for how employers must abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act for workers with underlying conditions, according to Reuters. Employees must have conditions that pose a “direct threat” to be sent out of the workplace. Employers should enact safety steps, such as providing workers with masks, gowns and other protective gear, while even creating barriers between employees with medical conditions and coworkers, according to the EEOC.

“From an employer standpoint, that’s really hard to say ‘no’ to,” Barron said. “We’ve been advising all kinds of companies who’ve been getting those types of requests and as long as it’s responsible and they can demonstrate that they can work effectively from home, many jobs have been proven that they can do their jobs from home. It’s hard to argue that it’s unreasonable to continue to let them do their job from home. That’s really the main area that people should know about.”

One other thought for employers

As some states have started phased openings of the economy, it’s an approach businesses can also take with their own employers.

Barron explained he’s told clients about establishing an A-team and B-team of workers that won’t be in the workplace at the same time. This structured approach is designed to keep productivity continuing in case there’s an outbreak in your office, which would require a two-week quarantine of your entire workforce. By having one team in the office and another continuing to work from home, it creates safety and promotes additional social distancing.

“There are still very good reasons why you wouldn’t want 100% of your employees all in the office at the same time. That’s how you end up with a meatpacking situation where your entire workforce is sick,” Barron said. “You want to keep that separation, that distancing as much as you can just to avoid that type of breakout until this thing is behind us.”