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Can Employers Force Employees to Work in the Office Full-Time?

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As an employer, you are likely aware that working from home is part and parcel of modern working. However, it is not always viable for employers for various reasons, including resourcing, productivity and compromised oversight of their employees. Nevertheless, you can obligate employees to work in the office full-time. However, this must be lawful and reasonable in the circumstances. This article will explore the legalities of working on-site and the expectations for employees and employers. 

Directing Employees to Work in the Office 

An employer is entitled to give lawful and reasonable directions to their employees. However, what is considered lawful and reasonable will depend on the circumstances. Consider the following example. 

Alexandra is a full-time employee working at a marketing agency. Alexandra’s employer asked her to work from home due to COVID-19 government health orders. When restrictions eased, Alexandra’s employer created a return-to-office transition plan to gradually and safely return all employees to work. Alexandra refuses the direction, stating she is more productive working from home because of the time saved on the long commute to work.

Nevertheless, the direction to return to work is reasonable and in line with the employer’s legal obligations, including under:

  • Alexandra’s employment contract;
  • workplace health and safety laws; and 
  • any enforceable government directions. 

Hence, her employer could take disciplinary action if she refuses to return to work. This may include a formal warning or, in some circumstances, termination of employment.

Request for Flexible Working Arrangements

A flexible work arrangement includes modifications to working conditions, including:

  • work patterns, such as working “split-shifts” or job-sharing agreements;
  • changes to hours worked, such as a reduction in hours worked or changes to start/finish timings; and
  • shifts in the workplace, such as working from home or another location. 

Employees must have at least 12 months of continuous employment with their company before requesting a flexible work arrangement. An employee may request a change to their working arrangements from their employer if they:

  • are the parent, or have responsibility for the care, of a child who is of school age or younger;
  • are a carer;
  • have a disability;
  • are 55 or older;
  • are experiencing violence from a member of their family; or
  • provide care or support to a member of their immediate family or household who requires care or support because they are experiencing violence from their family.

Additionally, casual employees are entitled to make the request if:

  • you have employed them on a regular and systematic basis for a sequence of periods of employment of at least 12 months immediately before making the request; and
  • there is a reasonable expectation of continuing employment by the employer regularly and systematically.

Nevertheless, you can deny a request for flexible working arrangements on legitimate business grounds, including but not limited to if the change would:

  • be impractical and expensive;
  • require hiring new employees to accommodate the new working arrangements; and
  • have a detrimental effect on customer service.

Employers must approve or reject a request for a flexible work arrangement in writing within 21 days of receiving the request. If you reject the request, you must provide a justification on business grounds. 

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Implementing a Return to Work Plan and Consultation with Employees

It is best practice to consult with employees regarding workplace changes. Therefore, when returning to the office after a long period of working from home, it would be helpful to communicate with your workforce to understand their preferences when returning to the workplace. 

This could involve an informal chat or survey on your internal messaging system asking which days each employee would prefer to come into the office. Consulting with your employees creates a transparent environment for them to feel comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns. Additionally, a staggered return to the workplace is a common way to address the apprehension of returning to the office. 

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Key Takeaways 

As an employer, you can direct employees to work in the office full-time if it is lawful and reasonable in the circumstances. If an employee refuses a lawful and reasonable direction, you may give a warning or take disciplinary action. Nevertheless, employees who meet specific criteria may be able to request a flexible working arrangement, including the option to work from home.

If you have questions about a lawful and reasonable direction for employees to work in the office, our experienced employment lawyers can assist as part of our LegalVision membership. You will have unlimited access to lawyers to answer your questions and draft and review your documents for a low monthly fee. Call us today on 1300 544 755 or visit our membership page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a flexible working arrangement?

A flexible working arrangement allows employees to modify their existing work schedule to suit their needs.

When must employers respond to flexible work arrangements?

Employers must approve or reject a request for a flexible work arrangement in writing within 21 days of receiving the request. If you reject the request, you must provide a justification on business grounds.

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