In getting employees back to the workplace, companies need to determine whether onsite attendance is an essential job function

May 30, 2021

Many businesses are ready to have their employees return to the office.

To that end, many employees have put up some significant resistance, stating that the pandemic has proven that they can be fully productive while working remotely.

Social media is rife with shaming employers who are announcing they will be bringing employees back to the workplace.

For example, when an employee responded to a post on LinkedIn from a financial services firm that she would like to apply to work there, but wanted to work remotely, the firm responded that it does not offer remote roles. It said, “A big reason why we have this culture is because we get to work under one roof together. We work at the speed of trust, and trust is built and nurtured so much faster in-person.”

That post prompted several negative responses, including one that rejected the employer’s sentiment, stating that working remotely is “incredible, allows people to have their lives back, increases productivity, etc.” He added, “I bet if you polled your employees, they’d prefer to work from home or have flex hours.”

Ultimately, the employer gets to define when and where employees work.

Businesses should first assess what has worked well while employees worked virtually and what has been lost with remote work.

Many employers have indicated that the workplace culture has been eroded during this past year. While work is getting done, they believe a workplace is more than production and that workplace culture is built on relationships, collaboration, and spontaneous mentorship which employers have felt was lost when employees were remote.

Companies who want to return employees to the workplace either full time or through some hybrid model of remote work should give employees at least four weeks to prepare.

Prior to doing so, employers should determine whether onsite attendance is an essential job function for each job, and if so, the reasons why the job cannot be fully performed remotely.

Onsite attendance is likely an essential job function for a person, for instance, who works in manufacturing or is a teacher whose students are in the classroom.

For other jobs, such as technical writer, onsite attendance may not be an essential job function, unless onsite collaboration is necessary or for other reasons.

It is up to the employer to determine essential job functions and job descriptions should be updated accordingly.

It is important to establish whether onsite attendance is an essential function because some employees may not be able to return onsite due to a disability, in which case the employer will need to discuss and determine if reasonable accommodations can be made.

Since companies never have to remove an essential job function, if onsite attendance is an essential function and the employee cannot return to the workplace because of a documented disability, the employee may have to be reassigned to a job where onsite attendance is not an essential job function or, in the worst case, be terminated.

This will be determined after the employer engages in a good-faith discussion with the employee to determine the basis for why the person cannot return to the workplace and what accommodations can be made accordingly.

Where onsite attendance is more of a preference, the company can still condition continued employment for on onsite attendance.

However, businesses that make the decision to return employees to the workplace need to evaluate the risk that some workers may be unhappy or resign because they prefer to find a remote work opportunity.

Companies also might find it difficult to backfill workers because other employers are offering remote work.

In time, this problem will likely work itself out with a portion of the workforce that will work permanently from a virtual workplace and those who prefer or are willing to work onsite.

If onsite work is not an essential job function, an employer may have to provide remote work as a reasonable accommodation to an employee with disability.

Thus, it is very important to establish if onsite attendance is an essential job function occasionally or always before announcing that employees will return to the workplace.

Employees also have been promoting online the concept of a flexible workplace where they choose when and where to work, giving them time during the day to pick up their children from school, walk their dogs and attend to other personal matters.

This concept promotes a level of flexibility that was already in the works before the pandemic with Gen Z entering the workplace. Employers should consider how they can promote flexibility while still accomplishing their organizational goals.

Some companies have shared with me some unique reasons why employees have stated they will not return to the workplace. Unless there is a documented disability, employers can set the time and location for when and where their employees work, and can condition continued employment on meeting those expectations so long as they continue to provide a safe working environment.