PHOTO: Workplace arrangements are changing with pandemic restrictions falling. Legal, HR and other experts encourage keeping communication open when discussing return-to-work plans, but employees may not have much choice unless there are specific circumstances. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
But Zaman said “employees do not have the right to choose where they work unless they already had that right” prior to the pandemic.
The prolonged stretch of time employees have spent working at home is part of a wider context of change.
Matthew Fisher, an employment lawyer and partner at the Toronto-based Lecker & Associates, said many employees have learned “there can be a different way, that there can be flexibility, that there can be remote work.”
He predicts 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.
In an interview with CBC’s Canada Tonight, Fisher said employees can tell their bosses: “You have broken a very fundamental aspect of our employment relationship that I do the best I can, but I have a level of flexibility that I can work remotely.”
Zaman said it’s more likely that will happen as such arrangements continue, particularly if the employer has not clearly communicated that alternative working arrangements are temporary.
“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 due to the pandemic and its after-effects, and that workers will be expected to return to the office at some point,” said Zaman.
Candido, founder and principal of an HR consulting group, said she advises clients to ensure this messaging gets repeated “a couple of times a year,” for the very reason Zaman outlined.
“Don’t draw a line in the sand — just try and negotiate,” said Candido. For example, employees can bring up the idea of easing their way back into the workplace, she said, and employers should make a point of hearing them out.
“Employers shouldn’t dismiss employee concerns and probably won’t if they’re presented in more of a co-operative manner.”
Retaining staff is also a consideration when employers make long-term work-arrangement decisions, experts said.
David Kraichy, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business, said employers who continue to offer flexible work plans may find it easier to recruit talent.
Employees who don’t agree with their current employer’s return-to-work plan “may have more of a desire to look elsewhere,” said Kraichy.