The necessity of doing your job away from the workplace is ending as restrictions and mandates ease and employers focus on getting people back to work in person.

While employers can wind down temporary measures, they should also consider how the work environment has changed since COVID-19 took hold early in 2020, and how employees feel about going back to in-person work, experts in Canada say.

Janet Candido, a Toronto-based human resources (HR) consultant, said that employees have shown that they are as productive if not more productive working from home.

That’s the location of the pushback.

Agreements are agreements

Rudner Law in Markham, Ont., has seen an increase in return-to-workplace questions recently.

Employment lawyer Nadia Zaman says that, generally, ’employees do not have the right to choose where they do their jobs unless they already had that right’ before the pandemic. (Submitted by Nadia Zaman)

“If there was an agreement to the contrary, employers can generally dictate whether the employee can work from home or must return to the office,” he said.

There are some exceptions that are limited to legitimate needs.

Employees don’t have the right to choose where they work unless they already had that right, according to Zaman.

A changing work world

The time employees spend working at home is part of a larger context of change.

Matthew Fisher, an employment lawyer and partner at the Toronto-based Lecker & ASSOCIATES, said that many employees have learned that there can be a different way of working.

WATCH | What will a return to the workplace look like?:Nita Chhinzer, Associate Professor for human resources and business consulting at the University of Guelph and Matthew Fisher, employment lawyer at Lecker and Associates Law, join Canada Tonight’s host, Ginella Massa, to talk about how the pandemic caused work culture to shift and what the future of work might look like.

He predicts that some employees will point to the success of alternative arrangements when employers ask them to get back to in-person work, and that may be part of eventual legal challenges alleging constructive dismissal when an employee feels they’ve been forced to leave the job because of job requirements.

Fisher said in an interview with Canada Tonight that employees can tell their bosses if they have broken a fundamental aspect of their employment relationship, but they have a level of flexibility that they can work remotely.

If the employer has not clearly communicated that alternative working arrangements are temporary, it’s more likely that will happen as such arrangements continue.

“One way that employers can make sure that they are protecting themselves is to clearly communicate to employees that remote work is only continuing as an interim measure, and that workers will be expected to return to the office at some point.”

According to the founder and principal of an HR consulting group, she advises clients to make sure this messaging is repeated a couple of times a year.

Persuasion can be helpful

If only to drive home the fact that change is coming, employers have reason to convey their plans to employees, according to experts.

Winny Shen of York University’s Schulich School of Business encourages organizations to explain to employees why they want them back in the office — even if that’s not what some of them want to hear. (Submitted by Winny Shen)

An associate professor of organization studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business recommends that organizations share with staff why workplace requirements are changing.

“I think sometimes organizations just say, ‘We want everyone back in the office’ but they’re not very explicit on why.”

The communication gives employees a chance to assess the information and possibly provide feedback, which could include employees highlighting some of the things the organization hasn’t thought of.

Look to negotiation

Under the circumstances, both sides should look at what’s possible when there are differences between what employees want and what their employers want.

Even in returning to the office, there is a demand for flexibility.

With pandemic restrictions easing across Canada, companies are preparing to welcome employees back into the office. But many are pushing back and asking for flexible work arrangements, while others are looking forward to going into the office again.

“Just try and negotiate, don’t draw a line in the sand”, said Candido. She said that if employees bring up the idea of easing their way back into the workplace, employers should hear them out.

Employers shouldn’t dismiss employee concerns and probably won’t if they’re presented in a co-operative manner.

When employers make long-term work-arrangement decisions, retaining staff is also a consideration.

Flexible work plans may make it easier for employers to find talent, according to an assistant professor.

Employees who don’t agree with their current employer’s return-to-work plan may have more of a desire to look somewhere else.