As the world emerges from the pandemic, employers must decide whether to continue allowing their employees to work remotely or force them to return to the office. Many believe that a move back to the office is the best way to ensure effective collaboration between workers while safeguarding the company culture.

In South Africa, however, there’s a lot more to consider. Constant load shedding has had a significant impact on the remote working model and employees working from home do not always have access to electricity, internet or other essential resources necessary to work. This can result in missed deadlines, delayed projects and decreased productivity, which can ultimately impact the business’s bottom line. So it makes sense for employers to manage load shedding from a central location – the office.

From a legal perspective, employers are well within their rights to demand that their employees return to the office – for any legal reason – but Nicol Myburgh, Head: HCM Business Unit at CRS Technologies, points out that it may not be in their best interests to do so.

“There is significantly more for employers to consider than just the letter of the law. While the sudden change in working conditions (brought about by the outbreak of Covid-19) was unprecedented, the shift to remote working was never intended to be an added benefit for employees, but rather an interim solution to an unforeseen force majeure event.

“Consequently, now that pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted, employers have every right to demand that their employees to return to the office. Employee resistance arguments such as ‘my financial circumstances have changed’, ‘I can’t afford the transport costs’, or ‘I have moved’ simply don’t hold legal water.

“The bottom line is that even though Covid-19 caused major disruptions to the working environment, employees are legally bound to the employment contracts they signed before the outbreak of the pandemic,” says Myburgh. “And if those contracts stipulate their place of work to be at the office, then it’s back to the office they have to go if asked to do so, or face dismissal.”

Be careful what you wish for

But before employers start unilaterally enforcing their legal rights, they need to seriously consider the consequences of doing so, Myburgh warns.

“Another fallout of pandemic is the Great Resignation, where many employees are choosing to resign rather than be forced to return to the office. Additionally, studies show that those who do go back will likely become unhappy, disengaged and unproductive. If this permeates throughout the organisation it could ultimately have an adverse effect on the company’s performance.”

Some employees may even go so far as to take their case to the CCMA, Myburgh adds. “Depending on their particular circumstances, if they are able to prove their ability to be fully operational while working remotely, the commission could rule in their favour.”

Instead of adopting a shotgun back-to-the-office approach, Myburgh proposes that employers weigh up all the pros and cons of returning to the office and make a decision that is best for their company and its employees.

“Ultimately, creating a balance between remote work and in-office work can lead to a more productive, engaged and satisfied workforce. This is borne out by several studies, which show that hybrid working models offer many benefits to businesses, including increased productivity, improved work-life balance, and reduced costs.

“The hybrid model can also be used to mitigate downtime during load shedding – if employees can’t charge their laptops or access the internet at home because they don’t have power, then working at the office should be non-negotiable. Load shedding cannot be used as a convenient excuse for not working.”

Whichever model employers decide to choose, to ensure a successful transition companies must create policies that outline expectations, guidelines and protocols for employees to follow, Myburgh says.

CRS specialises in creating policies that are effective and beneficial for both the company and its employees. “Whether you are considering going the in-office, remote or hybrid route, we can create a policy that clearly stipulates the protocols employees are expected to adhere to, but is still flexible enough to accommodate the company’s evolving needs,” Myburgh concludes.

Contact Nicol Myburgh on [email protected] to discuss your specific requirements.