Google is now mandating workers back to the office at least three days a week. The tech giant says in-office attendance records will now be considered in performance reviews—a move some staff has pushed back on.
Companies are mandating workers back. Across industries, three days a week seems to be the norm—but workers are struggling to adjust back to life in an office after three years of rearranging their lives around remote work.
Joining the ranks of Twitter, Apple and RBC, Google is now mandating workers back to the office at least three days a week. The tech giant says in-office attendance records will now be considered in performance reviews, and reminders will be sent to employees with frequent absences—a move some Google staff has pushed back on. “Of course, not everyone believes in ‘magical hallway conversations,’ but there’s no question that working together in the same room makes a positive difference,” Google’s chief people officer Fiona Cicconi wrote in a company-wide email in June.
But can workplaces actually mandate that employees work in an office for a set amount of time each week? The answer to this question is yes. And no. And maybe. It isn’t black and white, and the situation is still evolving.
Can your boss force you to return to the office?
“Many employees worked from an office pre-pandemic and were told their work-from-home assignments were only temporary,” says Marcus McCann, an employment and human rights lawyer based in Toronto. “Or they signed contracts that specifically said, ‘We can bring you back to the office at any time.’ For those workers, a mandatory return to office is probably within the employer’s rights.”
McCann says other employees might be in a different situation: If they were hired into what seemed like permanent remote jobs, or they were told by their managers that it was unlikely they’d ever return to the office, the employer could create liability for themselves by changing the conditions of work in such a significant way.
Additionally, McCann says, employers are obligated under the law to accommodate workers with disabilities or with caregiving responsibilities, allowing those employees to work from home unless it would cause undue hardship to the organization. (Given so many of us have spent a good portion of the past three years working from home, undue hardship might be difficult for an employer to now prove.)
“The understanding was that, when those Covid safety concerns ended, employees would go back to the office”
Toronto employment lawyer Howard Levitt says the answer to the question of whether or not you can be forced back to the office has recently gotten murkier still. “Up until a few months ago, the answer to whether or not your employer can mandate you back to the office was unequivocally yes,” says Levitt.
“The understanding was that, when those Covid safety concerns ended, employees would go back to the office. Now those circumstances have ended… and it is well past the window of having any legal necessity to keep people at home.”
Levitt goes on to explain that remote workers may now be able to argue that, since they were permitted to stay home well past the point that they had originally expected to return to the office, their terms of employment have changed by default. “They have become remote employees, so that now it is a constructive dismissal to mandate people back to work,” he says. “We are at that tipping point where that argument can begin to be made.”
Why are so many workers reluctant to go back?
As a writer in a traditional office, I’d wrestle with a single sentence for an hour, distracted by ringing phones and lively water cooler gossip within earshot. Once I began working remotely, I produced quality work at triple the speed. Working remotely works best for me.