Is this the end of remote work?

16 February 2024 Consulting.ca 2 min. read
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More companies are hustling their employees back into the office, but employers might face retention, morale, and legal issues in the process, according to the experts at HR consultancy Peninsula Canada.

Leading firms such as Meta, Google, and IBM in the previously remote-friendly tech industry have been bringing their employees back into the office, at least on a hybrid basis.

Companies point to improved communication, increased productivity, collaboration, and a stronger culture as reasons for having employees in-office. Another less-mentioned element is the pressure of commercial property owners and real estate firms aiming to keep the value of their various investments inflated. Bundled up with that are cities angling to keep their downtowns and corporate parks bustling for tax inflows as well as the various businesses reliant on the weekday traffic of corporate salarymen.

Workers on the prod-end of the cattle herding are less keen. Many remote staff believe working from home has given them better work-life balance and better quality of life, and may be less-than-willing to go gentle into the office block night.

“Since the pandemic, remote staff have become comfortable working from home and as a result, have come to take it as a given. So, when they are asked to return to the office three days a week, there will inevitably be some push back,” said Ed Matei, legal counsel at Peninsula Canada. “There are so many different sectors that employers need to pay attention to so they can ensure that the transition isn’t just smooth legally but is done in a way that minimally affects.”

Is this the end of remote work?

Forcing reluctant employees into the office could have a major impact on morale as well as disrupt productivity, workflows, and collaboration – especially if the return-to-office is conducted in a hasty manner. Retention is another issue, as employees might say it isn’t worth it and opt for a company with remote options.

The most costly element of the transition, according to Peninsula, could be related legal challenges. Since the pandemic, many employees have come to consider remote work as a bona fide material condition of their employment. If an employer were to unilaterally change the terms of employment, an employee could declare the changes amount to a constructive dismissal, and require entitlements akin to that of a termination.

Though Peninsula says workers taking their companies to court on such terms would likely lose, the employers would still have to expend significant resources on legal proceedings.

Big firms like IBM seem to think the legal risk is a worthy tradeoff, with new requirements mandating in-office work with little room for exceptions. Large firms moving on return-to-office plans in lockstep with each other allows less room for employee defection – and is a collective action problem that is easily solved with a couple CEO conference calls. 

For most employees who feel hard-done, legal action is a distant option anyway. It’s likelier a choice of quitting or facing up to the narrowing pool of remote jobs.