Can employers insist that all team members return to the office when it’s safe to do so? What if they refuse?

Yes. Employers ‘rule the roost’ when it comes to making those sorts of decisions, so employers can instruct employees to return to the workplace provided that it is safe to do so and there is no contract or collective agreement that dictates otherwise. If an employee was always allowed to work from home, the employer cannot change the rules and insist that they be in the office full-time. But the reverse is also true: if an employee always had to be in the workplace, they cannot insist that they will now work from home, even if they have done so effectively for the last year and a half. The main consideration should be the ‘safe to do so’ portion – employers should always follow all public health guidelines in issuing their directives. Currently, these guidelines are still recommending that employees who can work remotely continue to do so.  

If employees are still refusing to come back even though public health has declared things safe, then they are refusing to follow a direct order from their employer. Before penalizing though, it is always worth taking a closer look at the circumstances and talking to the employee to find out why. If they’re refusing for medical reasons, that may be a unique situation that requires accommodation. If they are refusing because of childcare obligations that have changed since the pandemic began, that may also be a human rights issue that is protected by a person’s family status. A conversation with the employee may shed more light on their reasoning, and then a conversation with us can help determine what next steps, discipline or otherwise, should be taken.