Part two of our 'Flying against the headwinds' series looks at changes in working arrangements during a time of crisis.
1. Can employers require their staff to work in alternative work premises or remain at home?
The conditions and procedures for the shutdown or closure of the workplace are often provided in local labour regulations. On top of the legal procedures, employers often experience the tension between two driving forces: outbreaks of diseases, social unrests, and natural disasters posed-challenges to business operations at a time when businesses are experiencing their biggest challenges to productivity and profitability.
2. Does an employer have contractual responsibilities if staff are required to work in alternative premises or remain at home?
Despite the difficulties faced by employers, they remain bound by their contractual commitments which may include responsibility to pay wages to the employees.
3. What if an employee cannot perform their work outside of the employer's business premises?
In the unfortunate event where employees are unable to perform work outside of the employers' business premises (e.g. for the service industry), requiring employees to remain at home may in turn affect their income, especially for employees who are paid at piece rate or hourly rate. In common law jurisdictions, this will likely give rise to allegations of breach of the duty to provide work and the duty of trust and confidence. We encourage employers to maintain an open dialogue with their employees. By achieving a consensus amicably, employers can prevent potential labour disputes and minimise the impact on morale among the staff.
4. Can an employee refuse to attend the workplace because of concerns about his or her personal health and safety?
An employment contract may specify the place of work for an employee. On top of the contractual obligation to attend the workplace, employees in most jurisdictions have a duty to comply with their employers' reasonable orders. Failure to attend the workplace may therefore amount to a breach of contract. Prior to requiring their employees to return to the office, employers should also make sure they have taken reasonably practicable measures to ensure the health and safety of their employees.
5. How can employers help to allay fears employees may have around the safety of attending their workplace?
In making a decision on whether or not to require employees to attend the workplace, employers should bear in mind that employees may have a different perception on the risks to their health and safety. The difference in perception often stems from the information asymmetry between employers and employees. The spread of misinformation and the decentralised sources of information have created ever widening discrepancies in the ways people perceive global crises. It is paramount to ensure effective communication between the employers and the employees, and to have a clear guideline on which sources of information should be adopted when making major decisions like permitting employees to work from home.