Can Your Boss Actually Demand You Return to the Office?

Google is now mandating workers back to the office at least three days a week. The tech giant says in-office attendance records will now be considered in performance reviews—a move some staff has pushed back on.
(Illustration: iStock)

Companies are mandating workers back. Across industries, three days a week seems to be the norm—but workers are struggling to adjust back to life in an office after three years of rearranging their lives around remote work.

Joining the ranks of Twitter, Apple and RBC, Google is now mandating workers back to the office at least three days a week. The tech giant says in-office attendance records will now be considered in performance reviews, and reminders will be sent to employees with frequent absences—a move some Google staff has pushed back on. “Of course, not everyone believes in ‘magical hallway conversations,’ but there’s no question that working together in the same room makes a positive difference,” Google’s chief people officer Fiona Cicconi wrote in a company-wide email in June.

But can workplaces actually mandate that employees work in an office for a set amount of time each week? The answer to this question is yes. And no. And maybe. It isn’t black and white, and the situation is still evolving. 

Can your boss force you to return to the office?

“Many employees worked from an office pre-pandemic and were told their work-from-home assignments were only temporary,” says Marcus McCann, an employment and human rights lawyer based in Toronto. “Or they signed contracts that specifically said, ‘We can bring you back to the office at any time.’ For those workers, a mandatory return to office is probably within the employer’s rights.”

McCann says other employees might be in a different situation: If they were hired into what seemed like permanent remote jobs, or they were told by their managers that it was unlikely they’d ever return to the office, the employer could create liability for themselves by changing the conditions of work in such a significant way.

Additionally, McCann says, employers are obligated under the law to accommodate workers with disabilities or with caregiving responsibilities, allowing those employees to work from home unless it would cause undue hardship to the organization. (Given so many of us have spent a good portion of the past three years working from home, undue hardship might be difficult for an employer to now prove.)

“The understanding was that, when those Covid safety concerns ended, employees would go back to the office”

Toronto employment lawyer Howard Levitt says the answer to the question of whether or not you can be forced back to the office has recently gotten murkier still. “Up until a few months ago, the answer to whether or not your employer can mandate you back to the office was unequivocally yes,” says Levitt.

“The understanding was that, when those Covid safety concerns ended, employees would go back to the office. Now those circumstances have ended… and it is well past the window of having any legal necessity to keep people at home.”

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Levitt goes on to explain that remote workers may now be able to argue that, since they were permitted to stay home well past the point that they had originally expected to return to the office, their terms of employment have changed by default. “They have become remote employees, so that now it is a constructive dismissal to mandate people back to work,” he says. “We are at that tipping point where that argument can begin to be made.”

Why are so many workers reluctant to go back?

As a writer in a traditional office, I’d wrestle with a single sentence for an hour, distracted by ringing phones and lively water cooler gossip within earshot. Once I began working remotely, I produced quality work at triple the speed. Working remotely works best for me.

I’m not alone. A 2021 Harvard study looked at the productivity of call-centre employees at a Fortune 500 company. They found productivity increased by 7.5 per cent when workers went remote with no dips in customer satisfaction. Another study by workplace software company Prodoscore used over 100 million data points from users to conclude that worker productivity in the U.S. was up 47 per cent in 2020 from 2019, despite lockdowns and work from home mandates.

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Toronto-based Mercedes Sharpe Zayas is a lead consultant at Evenings & Weekends Consulting, an organization focused on equity and justice in the workplace. She says whether it’s gas prices and public transit fares, the environmental impacts of a daily commute or the time spent away from family, a return to the office comes at a cost to workers.

Offices are simply not built for everyone, she says. They are not built for the single parents of young children or those caring for aging parents. They are not always built for people with mobility issues, or for the introverted or the neurodiverse.  

The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents 1,400-plus Google employees, says the company’s “one size fits all” return-to-office policy ignores workers’ life circumstances. “We deserve a voice in shaping the policies that impact our lives to establish clear, transparent and fair working conditions for all of us,” the statement said.

“Having flexibility around how and where you do your work actually creates a more respectful workplace”

“Not everyone experiences the workplace in the same way,” Sharpe Zayas says. “Microaggressions and other hardships are especially felt by equity-deserving communities, whether that be in terms of gender, sexuality or race.” She cites a 2023 study out of York University that found 75 per cent of Black Canadians and 70 per cent of non-white Canadians experience racism in the workplace. 

“Those in-office interactions may not be intentional, but specific harm can take place,” Sharpe Zayas says. “Having flexibility around how and where you do your work actually creates a more respectful workplace.”

What does the future of work look like?

Despite large corporations pushing for a return to the office, Sharpe Zayas says workers hold a lot of power and can vocalize what type of work environment they want to see. “As long as workers are able to unite and push for what they need and what they want, we can actually start to set the agenda for how we interact in the workplace in the future,” she says. “I see really big possibilities when it comes to actually centering the needs and the visions of workers themselves.”

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Levitt himself is a firm believer that in-office work works best, sharing anecdata that billable hours at his firm dropped by 35 per cent in the early months of the pandemic when his colleagues were working from home. “I think employers have made a massive mistake in not ordering people back to work a long time ago,” he says.

But McCann says workplace decisions need to be done intentionally, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach for all organizations. Some employers might empower their staff to make decisions for themselves, and determine where they work best. Employers might not want to risk losing good workers (and it costs a lot of money to replace them) if they’re not on the same page about a RTO mandate.

“Employers need to think really critically about what they think they’re gaining from requiring their employees to work from an office,” McCann says. “And they have to think about what they risk losing, which might include employee retention, productivity and morale.”