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Must you go back to the office?

MAIN IMAGE: Denese Zaslansky, CEO of Firzt Realty Company; Sinenhlanhla Khoza, Senior Associate, Dispute Resolution at Phatshoane Henney Attorneys

Working from home, for better or worse was the best (and for lengthy periods) the only legal option during the Covid-19 pandemic. Thousands of people spent money adapting their homes to their work requirements, and learning how to Zoom and, life carried on. Since the easing of the national state of emergency, many industries have urged staff to return to the office.

“Our administration, marketing and canvassers all returned to work at our offices immediately post Covid. We found during Covid that despite our staff working efficiently it was disruptive for management and property practitioners alike. We missed the instant response which can only be obtained when walking into someone’s office and posing a question or looking into a file,” shares Denese Zaslansky, CEO of Firzt Realty Company.

But is it that simple?

Many people have gotten used to working from home and find it more comfortable than going into the office now that their homes are set up for work-from-home. Several are also still concerned about Covid-19 (especially those with vulnerable family members), while others appreciate the savings in terms of travel costs. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is eager to return to the office. Where does this leave employers?

A recent survey conducted by BrandMapp shows that on average 44% of respondents indicated that they have returned to the office on a full-time basis. Interestingly slightly more than a third of South Africa’s middle class is following a hybrid approach, while 46% of high earners (those earning more than R40,000 per month) are doing the same.

This trend is also reflected in commercial letting – according to SAPOA (the South African Property Owners Association), office vacancy rates are high, at least in part due to the number of companies now offering flexi work options as a value-added benefit.

There is your employment contract to consider

Sinenhlanhla Khoza, Senior Associate, Dispute Resolution at Phatshoane Henney Attorneys, explains that, “Where employees were asked to work from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and such remote work was not part of the agreed conditions of service either pre- or post-Covid 19, then an employee cannot refuse to return to the office when requested to do so by the employer, even if they are in a position to work effectively from home.

Zaslansky says they’ve embraced the desire for flexi-work from many of their property practitioners who have chosen to remain working from home post Covid, “We hold zoom meetings and training sessions to keep everyone updated and are in constant communication. Do we as management favour this?  No, there is nothing like the vibe and enthusiasm that is created by being surrounded by fellow practitioners who constantly share experiences be they good or bad”.

Khoza shares that “An employee does not have an absolute right to refuse to return to the office, particularly if there is no unreasonable risk of infection or other threatening situation which could justify a failure to return. Any employee that then in such an instance fails or refuses to return to the office despite being instructed to do so by an employer will be acting unreasonably and may face charges of unauthorized leave, abscondment or even gross insubordination, which could lead to disciplinary sanctions, including dismissal”.

While employees do not have the absolute right to refuse to return to the office, employers are wise to consider how the working landscape has changed. Zaslansky mentions that Firzt is currently motivating various practitioners to once again make their offices their base, while at the same time respecting those who continue to excel at what they do while working from home, “There is a saying ‘don’t change a winning formula’ and we are certainly respecting that”.

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