Returning to the office – what are my rights?

It was announced on Wednesday 19 January 2022 that Boris Johnson has scrapped the guidance that urged people to ‘work from home’ where possible, as Plan B measures come to an end in England.

Plan B measures were introduced in December to help slow the spread of the Omicron variant and reduce the chances of the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure, while buying more time to deliver more boosters. Workers were told to leave the office in favour of remote working, but Boris Johnson says cases are falling and the Omicron wave has likely peaked nationally, meaning rules can now be eased.

Employers will have the power to decide whether it is necessary for staff to be physically present at work or if they can continue working from home where they choose to.

Employment expert, June Salmon, outlines your rights when it comes to flexible working:

What is the official guidance?

In England, the official guidance to work from home where possible has ended and workers will be able to head back to the office.

Can I refuse to go back to the office?

Not without a sufficient reason. If your employer is asking you to return to the office and you refuse, without a good and justified reason, it could lead to a disciplinary or dismissal.

Can I ask my employer for flexible working?

Yes, you can.

Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs. All employees have the legal right to request flexible working – not just parents and carers. The only requirement is that employees must have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks prior to making the request.

You apply by sending a letter to your employer that is legally known as a statutory application. Some of the types of flexible working you can ask for include:

  • Job sharing: Where two people share a job and split the hours between them, either equally or unequally
  • Working from home: When it’s possible for you to do some or all of your work away from your normal place of work
  • Part-time: Working less than full-time hours
  • Compressed hours: Working full-time hours every month but over fewer days
  • Flexitime: Enjoying flexibility over start and finish times, but working agreed ‘core hours’ and working to the usual total of hours in your contract
  • Annualised hours: Like flexitime, but with the hours worked spread over a full year
  • Staggered hours: When you have different start, finish and break times from other workers
  • Phased retirement: Generally there is no longer a fixed retirement age, so this allows you to gradually reduce hours before full retirement*

Employers must deal with requests within three months in a ‘reasonable manner.’ Examples of handling requests in a reasonable manner include:

  • assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the application
  • holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee
  • offering an appeal process

An employer can refuse an application if they have a good business reason for doing so. If you feel those reasons are inadequate, we may be able to help you take your case to an employment tribunal.

What should my employer do to protect me at work?

Employers that do ask workers to return to an office environment have been told to put a number of measures in place to protect them from contracting COVID-19. These measures include:

  • Complete a health and safety risk assessment that includes the risk from Covid-19
  • Provide adequate ventilation
  • Clean more often
  • Turn people away with Covid-19 symptoms
  • Enable people to check in to the Covid-19 app at your venue
  • Communicate and train all workers and visitors in relation to how you are using safety measures

If you have concerns or queries about returning to the office, either as an employee or employer, contact our Employment Team for assistance on 01603 677077.

*Some employers have retained a set retirement due to the physical requirements of the role or for succession planning.