There are many reports these days about office workers who have been able to work remotely — and safely — throughout the coronavirus pandemic and how the office environment might be forever changed, if not ultimately eliminated, as a result.
Some companies have decided already to keep hybrid work models in place that will allow employees to work from home part of the time — perhaps until those companies see their brick-and-mortar leases expire and they can move to a fulltime remote work arrangement. Indeed, it’s ultimately about the bottom line, and if company owners can save money on rent, they will do so — they would be stupid not to.
There is also speculation that companies that do force office workers to return may find themselves with staff shortages as up to 30 percent of office workers say they will quit rather than return fulltime, according to a report I read behind a newspaper paywall recently. But that won’t deter companies determined to get bodies in office chairs, because nobody is irreplaceable. Some office workers will be given ultimatums: return or you’re fired and we’ll find someone else to take your place.
What I am not reading about in any of the reports so far is the legal liability of companies that force employees back to offices. They will have to ensure an environment that is free of the coronavirus. If they insist employees must wear masks at their desks and maintain social distancing, they are admitting there is still a chance of catching COVID-19 in the office. If that’s the case, why put people at risk? And if employees are forced to return to the office and as a result catch the coronavirus, I have no doubt that some sickened workers or their survivors will sue their employers for putting them at unnecessary risk.
But what if everyone is fully vaccinated, you might be thinking.
Well, it is beginning to be clear now that vaccines don’t preclude the spread of the coronavirus, according to a a couple of reports I read yesterday, one in the N.Y. Times and the other in the Globe and Mail. In Canada, they have found more than 2,000 people have contracted COVID-19 after being vaccinated once or twice, and some have died. The N.Y. Times report said we will have to learn to live with the risk for a few years to come, and that herd immunity is unlikely to develop. And, worse, the variants are a wild card.
So, the office may remain a risky environment for years.
I expect companies will get legal advice on this. No doubt, they will try to pass the buck to governments that greenlighted the return to the workplace, and to the owners of the office towers. So those governments and owners may be named in lawsuits, too. But the responsibility may ultimately lie with the managers who force their employees back.
I also expect unions for office workers will have a say in all of this. But for those office workers without unions, the workers will be on their own: do they risk it, or do they quit?
To be clear, I’m talking about office workers who have been working remotely all this time. There are other workers who have had to be in their workplaces throughout the pandemic. And Quebec has found that the main spread of COVID-19 has been in those workpaces. It would not surprise me if there are lawsuits launched against some of those employers afterward: did they do their best to protect their employees, or did they put those employees at risk?
Personally, if I owned a business with offices, I would continue having my employees work remotely through 2022 at least. I would view it as a moral responsibility. I couldn’t live with myself if I thought I was putting anyone at risk unnecessarily. In fact, I don’t think I would work for a company that risked people’s lives when there was no real need to.
And I have a feeling that many of the 30 percent of office workers who balk at returning will feel the same way.