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What to do if your company backtracks on remote working

remote working Beautiful young woman working on laptop while her dog sits in her lap. Young woman working at home with her shih tzu. Businesswoman using laptop while she is in home isolation during coronavirus/COVID-19 quarantine.
Some 41% of workers said they wanted to continue remote working and didn’t want to return to the office at all, according to a poll. Photo: Getty (VioletaStoimenova via Getty Images)

Being able to work remotely used to be a rare perk until the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees were forced to swap their offices for remote-working arrangements almost overnight, setting in motion a cultural and structural shift in where work takes place.

Although many businesses embraced working from home and hybrid working after the lockdowns were lifted, some are now asking employees to return to the office. Twitter, Starbucks (SBUX) and the auditing firm KPMG are among many companies forcing employees to do more in-person days. Last year, Goldman Sachs (GS) announced it wanted employees back in the office five days a week.

In a 2022 survey of 31,102 workers by Microsoft (MSFT), around half of leaders said their company requires or is planning to require employees to return to in-person work full-time. However, this number stands in sharp contrast to what employees want — flexibility.

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According to a poll of 3,000 employers and workers, 83% of businesses want employees to be mostly based within the office, but only 20% said they would do it. Meanwhile, 41% said they didn’t want to return to the office at all.

So why are businesses mandating in-office working? And what should you do if your boss wants you to return, but you don’t want to?

Read more: What are the benefits of boomerang workers?

Careers expert Egle Holton, founder of the virtual professional growth community Career Design Circle, says there are many reasons why an employer may change their mind, such as performance and productivity concerns, communication challenges or cultural reasons.

“A common belief is that physical presence in the workplace promotes collaboration, creativity, and teamwork, which are important for a strong company culture. Data privacy and security concerns may also play a role in a company's decision to call employees back to the office,” says Holton.

“An employer’s decision to backtrack on allowing remote or hybrid work can be frustrating and challenging for employees, especially for working parents who rely on these arrangements to balance work and family responsibilities.”

If you’re asked to return to in-person work after working remotely for an extensive period, there are several steps you can take.

Ask for clarity

Teresa Esan MBE, education consultant & licensed career coach, recommends having an open and honest conversation with your supervisor or HR representative.

Read more: Why are remote workers 'body doubling' online — and can it boost productivity?

“Seek clarity on why you are being asked to return to the office,” she says. “It's important to understand the reasons behind the decision, as it may be related to a specific project or task, productivity or your own welfare.”

Negotiate

“If you have concerns about returning to the office, you can negotiate to find a compromise,” Esan says.

“During this conversation, it is important to remain calm and professional, and discuss the reasons why this arrangement is important to you in a clear and concise manner.”

Make a formal flexible working request

If you have been employed for more than 26 weeks you can make a flexible working request to reduce or change your hours, work from home, job share or compress your hours.

“The flexible work request can apply to particular days, all working days, specific weeks or for a limited time,” says Esan.

“Your employer is required to consider your request and respond to you within three months. Check your employer's policy for appealing the decision.”

Understand the terms of your employment

You will need to establish if your employment contract mentions a particular location for work and review any policies or agreements that relate to remote work.

“If you have been encouraged to work remotely for a considerable period of time it could be considered custom and practice, especially if you were not informed that working remotely was a temporary arrangement,” says Esan.

Read more: Remote work: Are ‘hush trips’ risky but worth it?

However, it's important to remember that remote work is not a universal right, and employers have the right to determine the terms and conditions of employment.

“If you are unable to negotiate a flexible schedule, you may want to consider looking into other options, such as searching for a new job that offers remote or hybrid work arrangements,” Holton says.

“Another alternative is to consider a portfolio career, where you can work on multiple projects or with different employers and diversify your income streams. This approach can provide greater flexibility and help you achieve a better work-life fit.”

Watch: Women who started their own business report an improvement in work-life balance

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