Tips for Navigating the Race to be Last Into the Office

As we emerge from the pandemic life we’ve been living since March, you may be considering what’s next for your staff in terms of working from home. Yes, millions of us (eventually) figured out the art of telework; however, is it a model that is right for your business in the long term? Perhaps you want all of your employees back to pre-COVID-19 “Business as usual” with everyone in the office full time, or you realize some positions are better suited to remote work than others. What about those who are requesting an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or who fit the “People with Certain Medical Conditions” category according to the Centers for Disease Control?

There are a lot of moving parts in this matter; however, the following questions can help guide decision making to help balance employee preferences and needs with the needs of the business while also remaining compliant with relevant regulations and laws:

Why not allow the request? While, at first, the request may mean the job gets done differently than in our Pre-COVID-19 life, what efficiencies and efficacies are lost in doing so? Perhaps the list is long or, after further consideration, more is actually gained than lost. Studies have shown that telework can yield even more outstanding results for some employees and certain positions or industries than in-office work.

Specifically, what have the results shown? When considering an employee’s request to continue working from home, drill down into the specifics of their performance, goal attainment, deliverables, and impact on both the team and your bottom line – how do the results compare?

Were there missteps, lost opportunities, gaps in service, and glitches that affected the team and/or customer experience? Alternatively, what gains have been realized? Having documentation of such situations can help in taking a balanced approach in your determination.

Are there other options? Perhaps full-time telework doesn’t work, and the good news is, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Maybe one or two days a week from home can work for the employee’s position and situation. Many employers are considering allowing “hybrid” schedules of a few days in-office and a few days working from home, not only as a way to social distance and reenter the workplace safely, but also as a way to continue some of the gains in employee satisfaction and retention for those how have enjoyed working from home.

What does the law require? Yes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently stated that businesses do not necessarily have to approve employees’ telework requests going forward. However, when an employee’s request is related to disability accommodation, our focus should turn to “fact-specific determinations” to balance the request with any potential hardship that might present for the company.

Is in-person attendance an “Essential Function” of the employee’s position? Reflecting on what is stated in the employee’s job description can help with this determination. Speaking of that job description, has COVID-19 affected the way you do business? If so, that job description might need to be updated as well.

What next? The decision of whether an employee can continue working from home is far from a “One Size Fits All” determination. By starting with (re)establishing the essential functions of the job, employers can decide from there based on the needs of the business. Suppose the request is due to a disability accommodation. In that case, the employer can enter into the interactive process and assess whether the requested accommodation is possible or presents an “Undue hardship” for the company.

Our FYI on the Americans with Disabilities Act provides excellent information for exploring disability-related requests. Additionally, our FYI on Determining Essential Functions is quite helpful in making that determination as well. Finally, you can use our Request to Work Remotely​ form. Please contact us with your questions; we’re here to help.