I don’t want to go back to the office, what are my rights?



What to know before you set your status to ‘out of office’.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe last year, a new acronym entered our vernacular – WFH, or working from home, for the uninitiated. For all us non-essential workers who found ourselves relegated to makeshift offices involving kitchen benches for desks and trackies for workwear, working from home was a shock to the system.

For many, however, the shock was replaced by elation at the reduction in time spent getting ready for work, the money saved from not commuting and the ability to work with your pet.

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Of course, it hasn’t come without its stumbling blocks – loneliness has crept in at times, and collaborating with your co-workers isn’t as easy as it once was. But for many workers, doing their job from home has been a source of much needed flexibility that might otherwise not have been granted.

As Australia transitions out of lockdowns and back into a (somewhat) normal way of living, workers are starting to head back into the office. And while we might be reluctant to give up our newfound WFH freedom, we may not have much of a choice.

What are the rules about going back to the office?

The rules vary across Australia, because not all states and territories have been affected by COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns in recent months.

In New South Wales and Victoria, only workers who are fully vaccinated can return to the office to work, unless it is not reasonably practicable for them to work from home. In the ACT, employers are continuing to accept their employees returning to the office, regardless of their vaccination status (except if you work in an office in one of these industries).

Regardless of what state you’re in, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman, employers can direct their employees to return to the workplace, as long as it’s reasonable, and employees must comply.

For the return to the office to be considered reasonable, employers must undertake all the necessary precautions to make sure that any health and safety risks (including the serious risk of exposure to COVID-19) are mitigated.

With all of that said, businesses still have the discretion to make their own decisions about whether they want their workers to come back to the office or not. So, if your employer says that you can continue working from home, then by all means put your hoodie back on and boot up Zoom.

Can I refuse to go back to the office?

Yes, but only if the requirement by your employer to come back is unreasonable. The Fair Work Ombudsman website gives an example of an unreasonable direction – a workplace that doesn’t have enough room for staff to physically distance from one another. In an instance like this, the employee can refuse to go back to the office until their employer makes the necessary changes so that the environment is as safe and healthy as possible.

If you refuse even though the requirement to come back to work is reasonable, your employer can take disciplinary action, which could include termination. But this doesn’t have to happen, as working with your boss to come to an arrangement that suits both parties is possible.

Can I keep some flexibility in my working arrangements when I return to work?

If you’re still keen to maintain your working from home arrangement but your employer isn’t, it’s worth talking to them to see if you can add some more flexibility into your job. Employees who’ve had the same employer for at least 12 months can request flexible working arrangements, which might mean asking for three days of work at the office and two days at home, for example.

It’s important to note, however, that your employer can refuse your request (but they have to provide a reason as to why). And, if you do make flexibility arrangements, you’ll need to make sure you’re still complying with the award or enterprise agreement relevant to your work.

For everyone who’s grown fond of sleeping in, the good news is that the work landscape has been irrevocably altered by COVID-19 disruptions, and likely the popularity of working from home will persist well into the future.

For more on the future of working from home, head here.

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