News & Thinking

Returning employees to the workplace

Contributed by:

Kathryn McKinney
Partner

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Kathryn McKinney


Anne Wilson
Partner

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Anne Wilson


Lauren Dennehy
Solicitor

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Lauren Dennehy


Vaccination rates are high and we have begun to contemplate herd immunity whilst New Zealand works our way towards the conclusion of the current Omicron outbreak. Employers may now be looking to return their employees to the workplace in lieu of working from home (WFH) arrangements which have been the norm for the last few years.

The legal position is a moving feast and whether employers can require employees to return to the workplace will depend on the employee’s terms and conditions of employment and the communication that has previously occurred with employees regarding working from home arrangements. Beyond the legal issues, employers in industries facing labour shortages should be considering how they retain staff by enticing them to willingly return to the workplace rather than forcing them to do so.

Given the legality, possible employee reluctance and health and safety concerns, we have drafted various ‘tips and tricks’ to assist employers with their approach to returning staff to the workplace.

Tip 1 

The most important tip is that employers communicate with their employees about any significant change in the employee’s current working arrangements. Consultation provides employees with the opportunity to voice any of their concerns which then allows employers to adjust their approach accordingly or explain the decision to them in more detail.

Tip 2 

Consider and address barriers. Employers should take into consideration and address any new barriers in place to the employee returning to the workplace such as public transport issues as well as any fears the employee has about Covid-19.

Tip 3 

Employers should consider how they will manage the risk of COVID-19 in their workplace before requiring employees to return. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, employers are required to minimise any risk to health and safety that does or is likely to exist in their workplace. Practically, we suggest that employers use tools such as the provision of multiple hand sanitising stations, requirement of mask wearing in common areas, physical distancing and regular workplace cleaning to reduce the risk profile of their business. Higher risk workplaces may also need to consider whether it is necessary to put in place a RAT testing regime.

Tip 4 

Create or update policies to take into account the current working environment and expectations, such as:

  • Flexible working policy;
  • COVID-19 policy; and
  • Health and safety policy .

Employers should also consult with employees before they implement or change policies.

Tip 5

Recognise the impact of the pandemic on employees’ health and wellbeing in the past two years by:

  • Allowing time for employees to reintegrate into new office based working arrangements; and
  • Establishing a hybrid working arrangement (short term hybrid and flexible working arrangements are a good way to reintegrate employees and encourage them back to the workplace on a part-time basis before eventually moving to full-time).

Tip 6 

Consider your long term hybrid working arrangements strategy. In a bid to retain quality employees during ‘the great resignation’, many employers overseas have used hybrid and flexible working arrangements to attract and retain employees. Hybrid working arrangements may also be useful in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace as less people are in the workplace at the same time.

Tip 7 

Incentivise employees to return to the workplace by making it an attractive place to be.  Create opportunities for socialising and events that they couldn’t otherwise attend from home. Provide morning tea or subsidise a free coffee or two and support your local café at the same time.

If you are an employer keen to explore the possibilities of a proactive approach to returning your employees to the workplace, get in touch with Kathryn McKinney (kathryn.mckinney@ah.co.nz) or Anne Wilson (anne.wilson@ah.co.nz).